This year marks Catherine Wong’s 30th anniversary at Powerwell Holdings Bhd. Elegant and good-natured, the executive director of finance and administration admits to being a tad nervous about her “first big interview”. It is hard to believe, considering her poised deportment in front of the camera — dressed in a maroon pantsuit that exudes sophistication, no less — and ability to convey the complexities surrounding her métier in the electronics and electrical industry without much effort.
Three decades is a long time. Wong points out that she was in completely different fields before joining the switchboard manufacturer and power distribution solutions provider. “In my younger years, I was actually preparing myself for a career in finance or economics, which led me to obtain an LLCI (London Chamber of Commerce and Industry) diploma,” she says. The Kuala Lumpur-born professional started out as a teller in Public Bank before joining NEC Corp Malaysia as an accounting clerk. “Within the two years that I was attached to the company, my career advanced and I ended up leaving NEC in 1992 as a senior accounts assistant.”
Wong joined Powerwell the following year as an account officer and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It was totally new for me!” she says. “I had to learn all these terms in the construction industry.” She was also tasked with obtaining relevant licences and certifications for the company. “I was the person in charge of the initial stage of Powerwell’s ISO 9001 certification application and I am still the person that ensures the whole system is maintained in accordance with the Department of Standards Malaysia.”
The group’s benchmarking and quality power control products include low-voltage switchboards and medium-voltage switchgears — equipment that distributes and directs electricity as well as controls, protects and isolates power systems — that can be tailored to the needs of various infrastructure. “We supply a lot of our switchboards to most of the buildings in Putrajaya and also the SMART Tunnel,” Wong says. The company has a global presence; the Dubai International Airport is one of its many overseas projects.
Powerwell has come a long way, having started with just 10 employees. “We were very small then,” Wong recalls. “Now, we have around 200 staff. Of course, it was not easy. I can say we are now one of the top switchboard suppliers in Malaysia.”
One of the highlights of Wong’s career occured in 2020. “After so many years of hard work, we got ourselves listed in the ACE Market. We were the first local switchboard manufacturer to be listed on Bursa Malaysia. I believe that is one recognition we want the industry to know.” But that was not always the plan. “We actually intended to list from 2023 but, when we were approached by our advisors, they said, looking at the financial reporting, our company was ready. We were ahead of time. That was the proudest thing that happened during my tenure at Powerwell.
“Another new development is that we intend to list ourselves in the main market maybe in three to five years. We want to be a one-stop solution centre. We are currently focusing on low-voltage switchboards, but want to do high-voltage as well, so contractors don’t have to look everywhere. We have new products coming in and there will be mergers and acquisitions. All this will bring us to the main market.”
Expansion is also on the cards. “We hope to go into areas like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where we are lobbying for a lot of jobs,” Wong says. “And Indonesia — we are going to expand our business there as well.” Plans for the latter include an assembly plant and, if viable, a manufacturing plant will follow.
The future looks bright to the sanguine optimist, even though the company took a hit during the pandemic. “The economy slowed down and, of course, this affected revenue,” she says of the corollary. “But we are picking up. Because of the pandemic, a lot of data centres and microchip factories are coming up. So, we are going to penetrate these two industries.” Well aware of the current discourse around sustainability, she thinks it is a good time to delve into electric-vehicle charging and solar as well. “This is how we want to sustain the company.”
As enthusiastic as she may be, Wong remembers that it was and still is a journey of perseverance. “I would like to thank my mentors, past and present, who have groomed me to be in this industry. We have a lot of staff who have been here for more than 20 years. These people have helped me and the company grow to where we are today.” Now, she takes it upon herself to bring up the younger generation within the company.
Having started from the bottom and been with most of the departments, Wong is able to relate to her employees and understand their responsibilities. She considers herself an approachable leader, often meeting with people — from the factory to management — “not for meetings, but to discuss at leisure, to check in on them and see if there are any grievances. If you don’t get to know your staff, there won’t be a sense of belonging. In Powerwell, if there is anything, we call up a meeting to have an open discussion. We give them a chance to tell us what they want. It’s a two-way communication.”
Though she often finds herself the only woman in the boardroom, it does not affect her. “I’m so used to it,” she says. “But, of course, when I first joined, it was like a culture shock. Back then, when I went to the office, other than the person [whom I was replacing], I was the only woman working in the company.”
Since then, however, things have improved drastically. Wong is glad that the government is encouraging more women to join the workforce. Her advice? “Instil knowledge within yourself and keep up-to-date with industry standards and needs. It’s also important to embrace your unique perspective and bring diversity of thought to the workplace. Don’t be afraid to take on leadership roles and advocate your ideas.”
When Wong has some time off, she can usually be found baking over the weekend. “I bake sourdough, but it takes a long time,” she laughs. “We eat bread every morning, that’s why.” It is a labour of love though, she adds.
Wong also enjoys travelling. “I’m going to Korea in March. I usually go to either Japan or Korea once a year with my friends to see sakura or makan-makan, but this trip is with my children!”
Nowadays, the 58-year-old is entertaining the thought of retirement. “After the company goes into the main board, that is the time for me to retire,” she muses. “We have succession planning in place. One thing I am certain of is that my future plan and Powerwell’s plan are very closely aligned.” She is hopeful about the time ahead, too. “I look forward to seeing how far the company will go.”
This article first appeared on Mar 6, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.