There are a number of things that stood out during Options’ recent interview with Mamee-Double Decker group executive director Pierre Pang. First was the amount of food everywhere, right from the subsidised café for the staff that is still serving lunch well past noon to the abundance of snacks in the many colourfully-themed meeting rooms. “My family is all about feeding others,” Pang grins good-naturedly. Second were the framed news clippings relating to the company’s 2011 partnership with Manchester United, which is a big deal for a Melaka-born company considering the stature of the English football team and the power of its global branding. Third was Pang himself and the vision of his father, group CEO Tan Sri Pang Tee Chew. “My father gave me a long runway to make mistakes” was a quote that particularly stood out, revealing the senior Pang’s legendary vision and sense of innovation.
Charming and articulate, the younger Pang is the face of Mamee-Double Decker for the future with his ideas for the company in the coming years, including repositioning it as a snack platform instead of a mere manufacturer. His youthful vigour is also, in part, behind the company’s new partnership with Cha Eun-Woo, who has been named ambassador of Mamee-Double Decker’s chip brand Mister Potato for a new marketing offensive to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The campaign will see the star’s likeness featured on Mister Potato’s packaging for its crisps and chips, point-of-sales material and trade displays in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. There will also be limited-edition merchandise that can be redeemed in stores and through activities, as well as exclusive signed items.
Cha, a member of Korean boy band Astro, has a strong and passionate fan base across key markets in Southeast Asia. The partnership of Mister Potato and the artist aims to inspire young snack food consumers to pursue their dreams and aspirations via the connections of the artist through Korean music and entertainment.
But the campaign will last only six months because, come November, a new one will kick off in conjunction with the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Try as we may, we cannot get any details out of Pang over this — all he would say is that while pen has yet to touch paper, they are in very advanced stages of negotiations. How exciting!
The Mister Potato brand was the brainchild of the senior Pang, whose initial idea back in the early 1990s was to break into the chip market — at the time, the company was focused on instant noodles — by acquiring a potato chip company that was up for sale. At the time, he faced a good amount of resistance from the company’s shareholders, who were still scarred from the challenges of pioneering the instant noodle segment. Furthermore, Asians are primarily rice, and not potato, eaters. So, this business idea would not work, they argued. Yet, Tee Chew persevered, and Mamee-Double Decker ended up launching its own potato chip brand, Mister Potato, in 1992.
“He’s a visionary,” Pang says proudly of his father, whom he respectfully refers to as Tan Sri or CEO during the interview with Options. “In hindsight, that was the single most important decision in our history, as the brand contributes more than 70% of our revenue and is exported to 18 markets. Mister Potato is tremendously important to us and is the unsung hero of our group. Although the blue monster is what most people associate with Mamee, Mister Potato drives the company’s bottom line.”
A Newcastle fan who shifted his allegiance after the Manchester United partnership, articulate and erudite Pang has a lot to say about the deal that put Mister Potato on the map. After all, it was a defining moment for Mamee-Double Decker as it went from being a Melaka-born snack manufacturer to a global brand. “Coming out of our shell in Melaka and truly believing we were bigger than what we were … that really gave us confidence,” Pang says. “In many ways, selecting Manchester United was very random. I was tasked with the export markets at the time and, with 80 markets in total, each one didn’t have a very big spend. What could we invest in that would have a global impact and uplift the brand? AirAsia had just started flying to Manchester, too, so it just worked out for many reasons.”
A decade ago, under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United were at the top of their game and, when Mamee-Double Decker got in touch, the team’s US owners pulled out all the stops and showed the company what their brand of hospitality was like, which included seats at Old Trafford’s founder’s suite. “Their professionalism blew me away. They knew how to make you feel good as a partner. Sure, there are commercial advantages to doing that, but we learnt so much from that experience. So, yes, we achieved our objective of partnering with a global brand and uplifting the Mister Potato name, but we also gained the understanding that, while we were No 1 in Malaysia at that point, we could be bigger.”
It did become bigger: The day news broke of the deal, Mamee-Double Decker got calls from the likes of CNN and Bloomberg — and Pang never forgot what he learnt about the power of good partnerships. In fact, he put that understanding to work by investing in US-based start-up The Good Crisp Company to expand its reach into the better-for-you snacking segment. This move allowed Mamee-Double Decker not only to leverage The Good Crisp Company’s expertise in the better-for-you segment in Malaysia, but also to break into the US market.
From an instant noodle manufacturer from Melaka to making snacks for the US market, Mamee-Double Decker has come a long way indeed. The company was founded in 1971 when group executive chairman, the now-retired Datuk Pang Chin Hin, started to produce dried noodles and vermicelli, together with his eldest son. This small business, then known as Pacific Food Products and located in Ayer Keroh, Melaka, eventually developed into one of the largest food and beverage manufacturers in the country. With plants across Malaysia — including in Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan — and now also in Indonesia and Myanmar, the company currently employs more than 2,000 staff, including the founder’s children and grandchildren.
“We started out as an instant noodle company, which was a challenging start in the early 1970s because it was a luxury food item. I say this because, at that time, you could get a bowl of fresh noodles at a roadside stall for a few cents,” Pang says. Clearly, this was a story he has heard often enough and is able to tell in his sleep. “This later led to the Mamee Monster snack. As the story goes, my dad was driving through the estates in Alor Gajah when he noticed kids eating the raw instant noodles, which they could technically do, as the noodles were already pre-cooked. Since the company wasn’t yet doing well, he thought it might as well create a new opportunity with the existing technology that was at hand and pre-season the noodles before selling it. That was our foray into the snack business, and that really made us.”
Pang then alludes to a secret sauce that is key to the company’s success, and one whose ingredients have evolved over the years too. He leans forward in his chair, puts his pen down and takes a deep breath. “For its first 40 years, Mamee-Double Decker has relied on a winning formula: QV, which is ‘quality’ and ‘value’. We provide a great-quality product that brings value to the masses. When we launched Mister Potato 30 years ago, all the competitors were being brought in from the US and, hence, at a high price point. Retailers were looking for something more reasonably priced so they could grow the segment, and Mister Potato could do this. But after 40 years — this is about 10 years ago, just prior to the Manchester United deal — growth started to stagnate, even though we were producing better-quality products of greater value.
“What we realised was that we were now serving a different consumer base. We were serving millennials, who are a totally different breed of consumer from previous generations. We realised that while they value quality, it wasn’t enough — a brand needed to resonate with them. What used to be successful companies were the ones that controlled commodities, like Chevron — but not anymore, as modern companies that are successful, such as Apple and Tesla, sell more than a product. Why do I pay for Starbucks when I can get my caffeine hit from the kopitiam for five times cheaper? Modern consumers want emotional value, not just the taste of the product.
“So, our sauce recipe evolved to include a new ingredient: E, for excitement. That journey began with partnerships like those with Manchester United and, now, Cha. Why Cha over another sports team is because K-pop is huge right now and consumers these days consume a lot of Korean pop culture. When you go into the data, Cha’s social media activity is much higher than many other personalities and, most importantly, his values match ours very closely. We love the idea of exciting our consumers beyond the physical sensation of enjoying our potato chips.”
If Manchester United was about establishing a global reach, Cha is about building an emotional connection with consumers — insights that Pang also gained during his time running his own digital communications firm, EightEdge, after a spell with advertising stalwarts Ogilvy. Then, when “national service” came a-calling — his way of describing the request from his father to help with the family business — Pang dutifully joined Mamee-Double Decker and absorbed his team from EightEdge into the company’s digital marketing department, and his company was subsequently acquired by an advertising firm. There was never any doubt that he would eventually make this move, even if it happened earlier than he expected, and there is no animosity between him and his former colleagues either.
While Pang was passionate about the company and is grateful for the life it has made possible for him, he also appreciates that Mamee-Double Decker, on his father’s direction, was a family business that operated on principles of fairness and meritocracy: If you were not passionate and committed, you did not join the company; and if you were not good at your job, you would simply step back from the role.
Then again, Pang’s father had many case studies to learn from — while some family businesses stood the test of time, others catastrophically disintegrated; and he was very particular that Mamee-Double Decker’s success would never come at the cost of alienating his children and family members. A graduate of the school of hard knocks, Tee Chew sought any sort of tertiary education only as an adult, having missed out as a young man. Twenty years ago, he pursued a course at Harvard Business School that changed his outlook on the business, and would also direct the third generation of the family to the National University of Singapore’s Family Business & Wealth Management course — he was determined that Mamee-Double Decker would succeed.
“It’s a course on how not to screw up,” Pang laughs. “He did all this to future-proof us, and that’s where his brilliance is — combining Chinese values with Western education — and I’d say we are the products of that genius.”
Looking back at his own career with the company, he is unabashedly grateful for his father’s guidance and pays tribute to his exemplary leadership both as CEO and parent. “I made so many mistakes, I can write a book about it,” he laughs. “My dad allowed me to make a lot of mistakes even when he knew what was coming, as long as it wouldn’t bring the company down. Some lessons you really cannot learn from a book, that’s for sure.”
While the Mister Potato brand continues to grow, its future cannot rest on just the fate of this golden egg. Based on research, people snack on different things at different times of the day and Mamee’s wide range of products is what Pang believes will be key to its continued success.
“When we did consumer research, we learnt that there was a snacking repertoire — in the morning, I might want something sweet; in the afternoon, I might choose a biscuit; and later in the evening, I might crave chips. We have just invested in biscuits and crackers as a first step to the better-for-you snacking pathway in Malaysia. A business is only as relevant as its consumers’ demand, and since mothers these days are so well informed about nutrition, the better-for-you segment is something we must cater for.”
At Mamee-Double Decker’s large office in Subang Jaya, there is adequate space for focus group discussions and an impressive-looking laboratory to nurture further developments in food science. This brings us to the newest ingredient in Mamee-Double Decker’s secret sauce: P, for partnerships.
“In the future, innovations will not come from within the four walls of Mamee-Double Decker, but from our collaborations with subject experts. If we ever want to create an instant version of char koay teow, we don’t know more about this dish than the aunty making it at the Penang Street kopitiam for the last 30 years, but we would know more about converting it into an instant format and manufacturing it to scale more than she can,” he hypothesises, in case anyone is getting too interested in this new possible flavour. “We would bring her in, learn from her, have our food scientists learn and adapt it, and our marketing team will sell it all over the world. This is why we invested in The Good Crisp Company! We cannot say that we know everything about getting into better-for-you snacking or about the US market.”
This segues into Pang’s plan for Mamee-Double Decker. “We should not be a manufacturing organisation, we should be a snacking platform. Over quite so many years, we should have built a platform with excellent manufacturing and distribution capabilities and adequate raw materials — an environment that a food start-up would crave. We want to tell them: Negotiate with us and use what we have. We want to collaborate with these start-ups so we can all be constantly relevant in the eyes of consumers.”
This is all very heady stuff and far from what the company once set out to achieve and yet, Pang’s father and grandfather are 100% behind this new-fangled idea. “I’m so fortunate that they are so open and fully believe in this without force,” he says, his voice brimming with pride. “Passion is stoked, you must fuel the fire and they have done just that. We are the product of two great, forward-thinking generations. There is clarity that this is the direction forward. Twenty years ago, it might have been harder to convince them, but they have seen how Grab and Uber work … They have seen how things work these days. It’s no more the Chinaman thinking of ‘must own everything yourself!’”
The room erupts in laughter and, as it dies down, Pang’s eyebrows furrow in thought. “QEVP — this is our secret sauce today and we are very clear about what makes us successful, and what we should avoid. At the core of it, Cha is a very exciting partnership for us to execute against this secret sauce. Some companies are good at manufacturing but cannot be relevant; some can do it cheap but with poor quality. But to do all three? Good manufacturing, lean and efficient? To do QVE well is challenging, which we have done, and P is the final ingredient for now and the future. Our success is not in isolation but in partnership with all our stakeholders — and when that happens, magic happens.”
This article first appeared on Mar 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.