In a humble apartment in 2004, an idea was hatched. Four friends decided to form a multimedia company, combining their know-how of multimedia skills, programming and business development to meet the design and communication needs of clients. They named themselves Forefront Studio, a wordplay on the founding foursome and their ambition to lead the field, and set about acquiring contracts.
Two of them remain at the company today — chairman Darien Mah and CEO Jeff Chang. In the 16 years since, the business has expanded into a full-fledged creative and marketing agency, winning awards and accolades aplenty for its avant-garde work and cutting-edge solutions. The change in title — Forefront International — reflects the company’s development with projects around the region and across continents.
“This was no fairy tale, we had no grand visions when we started,” says Chang.
“Actually, we were very lucky,” shares Mah. “Our earliest clients included BMW and the Royal Mint of Malaysia, which propelled us forward. We took on a property developer as a client and that really pushed us to where we are today, with a significant amount of our work related to that field. We handle almost all solutions a developer would need, from 3D visualisation of design to branding, social media management, video production, content strategy and digital performance marketing.”
While the Forefront name might not ring bells among the general public, it might have come across the company’s work without knowing it. It led the charge in Spritzer’s Switch It Up campaign when the bottled water brand introduced its sparkling water, and worked with Baskin Robbins and Prudential on similar endeavours.
As for its property focus, its prestigious clientele comprise big names such as EcoWorld, Gamuda, China Fortune Land Development, Sime Darby, CapitaLand and OSK Property, while projects across borders include the lifestyle residential development Feliz en Vista in Vietnam and the Battersea Power Station in the UK. Closer to home, Forefront International has its own portfolio of property products through subsidiary brands such as licensed real estate agency Foreward Realty; real estate marketing and advisory platform Reignite; and its food and beverage (F&B) arm, FourbyFore.
In fact, this interview takes place in one of the company’s own venues. Modern Chinese fusion restaurant Forebidden is located a stone’s throw from its offices at Dana 1 Commercial Centre, Ara Damansara, which also houses Foremula, its first foray into the F&B business. The latter is a friendly café that makes a mean cup of coffee, but it is the non-halal Forebidden that attracts the lunch crowd with imaginative dishes such as Mandarin Duck, roasted in Chinese herbs and mandarin juice with sweet potatoes on the side, pasta inspired by Laksa Johor and a zesty, refreshing Siew Yoke Salad. The interiors are particularly pleasing, a mix of exposed brick, high arched windows, dark green walls and gilded accents with a whimsical mural painted on the side of its façade.
“This is one of our interior design (ID) projects. In addition to Foremula, we also run the luxe Therefore Café at Symphony Tower in Section 13, Petaling Jaya, with a fourth addition to our portfolio in the works,” says Mah. “All our projects within this neighbourhood in Ara Damansara carry ‘fore’ as a prefix while those outside it wear it as a suffix. But in the interest of cohesive branding and scalability, I think we’re going to standardise it soon.”
Chang says: “The names were different because the concepts behind each were so wildly different. We developed individual identities for them because customers today don’t want franchises and generic experiences.
“But that leads to the problem of profitability, as there’s no centralised kitchen or management. The business model is challenging, but we’re looking to offset that by expanding our offerings. We’re dabbling in cloud kitchens, which will be tied to a delivery business within the Klang Valley, serving all the best dishes from our various establishments.
“Going into F&B in 2017 was an unexpected move but, like the other subsidiaries in our business, it came about organically by discovering gaps in the market and designing solutions to fill those voids.”
From its multimedia roots, Forefront developed its property focus in 2007, F&B interests in 2017, its realty arm in 2018, and ID Design and Build capabilities in 2019.
“Rather than merely providing clients with design directions through services such as 3D visualisation and renderings, we now build those spaces too,” says Mah. “Our first project in that regard, Sime Darby’s SJCC Sales Gallery, is nearing completion. Clients enjoy working with us because, in whatever we do, we try to set the standard.”
A common problem faced by real estate agents, for instance, was the commission system, which saw payments frequently delayed because of paperwork and loan disbursements from banks. “It takes months for the developers to see the money, and only then can they pay their agents,” he elaborates. “We set a new industry standard by paying out commissions within seven days of a sale, made possible by working only with developers we know well who have proved their reliability and credibility. That’s how our pool of agents has multiplied from 30 to 500 and counting.”
And if one is open to looking for and recognising opportunity, prospects are everywhere, as evinced by Forefront’s meteoric rise in its multifaceted interests. Despite the setbacks suffered globally in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, its mission for 2020 marches on with the imminent launch of a property search and referral platform, tentatively scheduled for September. The proposal has raised more than RM10 million, with a second round of funding seeking RM15 million from angel investors, which would put the company’s valuation a hairline below RM100 million, according to Mah.
“The platform assists in finding you the right property for your budget, taste and lifestyle through algorithms that measure your needs in your interactions with our agents,” he explains. “This frees prospective homeowners from dealing with agents who work on commission and might push them towards products that might not necessarily suit their desires. Interactions are rewarded with points, which you can redeem for drinks or snacks at our F&B outlets. I’m a big believer in owning your own property and want my team and other young people like them to have this dream within grasp too.”
Also in the works are experiments in offering virtual tours and engagement experiences for property clients, inspired by the Movement Control Order (MCO) in March that forced industries to adopt digital methods in business marketing and acquisition.
It takes extreme agility to almost spontaneously navigate unchartered territory the way Forefront International does, leaping to embrace challenges and branching out wherever there is demand for its novel solutions. The two co-founders credit this openness and nimbleness to their knack for finding and retaining talent, as well as building strong relationships with all stakeholders that open doors and create opportunities that might not have been possible otherwise.
“We invest heavily in building our pool of talent and hiring the right people, not just for the job but also for the team,” says Chang.
“We have many straight-A students among us, but grades are of little consequence at Forefront — we don’t discriminate. Even if you hold only high school qualifications, if you have what we’re looking for, we will give you a chance,” says Mah. “To find the right people, I watch how potential employees interact, not just with their equals or colleagues, but anyone in their orbit. Attitude determines how you work with others and how much you can achieve as an individual or part of a team. We actively seek diversity in race, nationality, educational background, even which Malaysian states you’re from. We’ve had staff from Poland, Zimbabwe and Iran in our midst. You don’t want monocultures or homogeneity in business. That openness expands our talent pool considerably and gives us a multitude of perspectives in the way we do things. English is our medium of communication in the office, which is unusual in the property sector but widens our resonance with our multicultural clients.”
Cultivating lasting relationships with everyone, from former staff to suppliers, was also key in their survival during the MCO and continues to be so beyond.
“That period really showed us the strength of some of our partnerships,” continues Mah. “Suppliers like our coffee roasters were so understanding. Our February sales were so strong that we projected needing a high level of inventory in March and ordered accordingly. Then, we were given two days’ notice of the MCO. The numbers were dismal across all our businesses in March, and though they picked up well in the following months, some of our suppliers were generous and gracious in making allowances.”
In addition to reasserting the value of relationships and traits such as agility and creativity, the restrictions imposed by the MCO also emphasised the need for positive cash flow.
“A company’s profitability is absolutely dependent on this,” says Chang. “It can be damaging not to have enough on hand for important payments. We had to engage in some austerity measures to ensure we had enough runway to withstand the winds until we could fly again. So, this reminded us of the need to focus on strengthening our position. On the upside, we are fortunate to be as diversified as we are, both in terms of products and markets. The local property market is on the soft side now, for instance, but we have a handful of projects in Vietnam that carried us through the tumultuous events of this year.”
For now, the going looks good, with queues resuming outside Forebidden at peak dining hours, advertising and branding contracts pouring steadily in and property units being snapped up at decent speed.
“We never imagined we would be where we are today, but I think a lot of this is from our eagerness to say ‘yes’ to unexpected things and then striving to be the best in whatever we take on,” says Chang.
“That, and the team of over 100 great talents that work with us,” agrees Mah. “Not everything we attempt is a success, but we have done well, considering [the challenges]. It’s exciting to imagine what may happen next.”
This article first appeared on Aug 3, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.