The first question that was asked of Heineken Malaysia’s new managing director Roland Bala immediately after his first town hall meeting with the staff was this: “Can I dress for work like you?” His chosen ensemble of jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up seemed mighty appealing to a workforce accustomed to a more formal dress code under the company’s previous stewardship, and clearly everyone was ready for a change. “It’s quite funny how that was their first question,” he recalls with a laugh. “I told them, ‘I don’t care how you dress, I am only interested in your passion and your heart’.”
When the news broke of Bala’s appointment as managing director last September, it made headlines because he was the first Malaysian to hold the job — the Dutch brewing company has in the past only ever appointed non-Malaysians to head the company’s Kuala Lumpur-based operations. Although we might never understand the logic behind that decision in the past, there is no disputing the merit of putting Bala in pole position now — the man has displayed a remarkable ability to turn around struggling operations, based on a very simple mantra of focus and simplicity. By paring things down to a minimum, Bala has been able to home in on the major issues and establish the strategies with which to solve them.
One could say that his informal dress code is the perfect example — less time and effort spent on worrying about the perfect corporate ensemble means more attention can be paid to the work at hand. A natural-born leader with an innate ability to inspire, Bala’s work ethic is nonetheless a little traditional in the way he reveres hard work and dedication, and he is eager to imbue his staff with the same attitude. “I would say that … I would be very happy if everyone can see the picture I am painting. Let’s dream big, let’s aim big. I hope there is a knock-on effect on the leadership. I hope each person can grow as a leader and impact their own teams.”
Barrels of experience
A member of the Kelabit tribe in Sarawak, Bala grew up in a small village so remote that the journey to Miri, the closest town, could take up to a week. “We attended boarding schools and would see our parents only once a year. That taught us about perseverance, self-reliance and resourcefulness very early on. My can-do attitude comes from there, lah!” he laughs. It is the start of many anecdotes that end with laughter — Bala is warm, genuine and I am charmed by his lilting, Sarawak accent.
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