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Helping the dead rest in peace
HOFFEN Award winner at the One Asia Awards 2015, Nirvana Asia is the largest death care service provider in Asia. Its founder and chief executive officer, Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong, says the idea of starting this "taboo" business was mooted after his unpleasant experience in arranging for a funeral service cum buying a burial plot for his father-in-law in 1985.
"My father-in-law loved me deeply. When he died, I was determined to let him rest in peace and with dignity. But when I went to a cemetery to view a burial plot, I had to pass through many graveyards. There was no walkway and I had to utter 'sorry' to the dead in all the graveyards I stepped on in that bushy unwelcoming environment."
Unique designs, creations and services have played a pivotal role in the company's business development. For instance, Nirvana had spent some RM20 million (S$6.7 million) in the setting up of its Chinese calligraphy stone gallery at the Nirvana Memorial Park Semenyih, Malaysia. Mr Kong believes that such an investment, though lavish, is absolutely necessary because of evolving consumer expectations.
"We realised that when people are buying burial plots, it is not just because of the plot. They are buying the environment and services that we provide. This is what I call the 'hardware' aspect of my business," says Mr Kong.
"As for the 'software' part, our employees have been well trained to treat the deceased with great respect just like they would their own family members. This has touched the hearts of the bereaved because they can take comfort in that their departed member is being 'looked after' with care and thoughtfulness. Our customers do remember us long after using our services," says Mr Kong. He considers this, and not the millions he has earned, his greatest achievement.
In Singapore, the land in Old Choa Chu Kang Road, where the group's columbarium, Nirvana Memorial Garden Singapore ("Nirvana Singapore") is erected, has had its lease extended from August 13, 2029 to August 13, 2098. The lease is on a parcel of land known as Lot 1225T, Mukim 12 at No 950, Old Choa Chu Kang Road, Singapore.
Asked about his future plans, Mr Kong says: "I am very ambitious. In the long term I want to be No 1 in the world in the funeral service sector. I am planning and positioning my team. Organic growth usually takes time. The quickest way to go is through M&A (merger and acquisition)."
The billionaire is confident that Nirvana Asia will scale greater heights in Asia, where the demand for bereavement care services continues to rise. The region, with an ageing population, is underserved in this service sector.
"We must enter China. The market potential there is huge. But we have to be cautious as land prices there are very high. We have to utilise the 2014 IPO money with care," says Mr Kong.
Back in Malaysia, he wants to start a college to train students keen in this field. This college will provide the human resource needs of Nirvana.
In Mr Kong's view, among the essential qualities for an entrepreneur to be successful is "having an undying passion to challenge the 'impossible' ".
"You must have a strong passion for the business. The secret to my success is my passion. I was at the memorial park site every week during the early years of the business. Even when my wife was pregnant, she would be there too. I really love my business. If you don't have the passion to start with, then I'm 100 per cent sure that your business won't be successful!" says Mr Kong.
Once a bankrupt in his early 30's, Mr Kong is unashamed about his passion for challenging the "impossible". At a time when it was a taboo to promote funeral services and when even the National Land Code had no provisions for private cemeteries, Nirvana scored a first when it became the pioneer and now the largest, death care service provider in Asia.
It took the entrepreneur five years to convince the Selangor authorities to allow him to convert private land into cemetery land. In the National Land Code then, there was no category for "cemetery use". During those days, the state allocated free land for burial purposes to Chinese guilds and the issue of conversion did not arise.
In his various submissions, Mr Kong had highlighted the economic benefits and savings for the government if they approved the conversion.
Recalling his five years of agony and waiting, Mr Kong says: "The day I heard my application was turned down after 3.5 years of hard work, my tears came rolling down non-stop. But after hearing the inspiring song My Future Is Not a Dream the same night, I was determined to charge forth. After 18 months of persistence, I finally got the conversion and operating licence."
One of the challenges that Mr Kong faced in the beginning was the need for him and his company to be well versed with the intricacies of the local cultures. "It is important for us to comply with the specific cultural rituals required by the bereaved for the funeral service. Elderly relatives of the bereaved have often made it difficult for us to perform proper rituals because they have their own opinion on how things should be done. But today, we don't face this problem anymore because of our position as the market leader," Mr Kong says.
On winning the Hoffen Award, Mr Kong says: "Hoffen means hope, and winning the Hoffen Award recognises our organisation's products and services, as well as the business philosophy of bringing hope to the community. This would help to propel the business to greater heights, as we aim to be the world leader in our field."
He adds: "Every award has its value and winning a top regional award such as the One Asia Awards is an honour as well as a recognition that our business is going in the right direction. This is a win for our clients, business partners, staff and everyone who contributed to our success."