Drive around most parts of the city and you will likely come across a 99 Speedmart around the corner. The convenience store brand is known for its affordable prices with a wide variety of options to meet your grocery needs.
Whether it's the best mini-mart is subjective, but for many it's a reliable staple grocery store that neighborhoods can rely on. Hence, it is not surprising that it has gained enough popularity to open more than 1,500 stores in Malaysia. In 2020, it was reported that the brand also opened three stores across the dam.
The man behind his success is Lee Thiam Wah, who founded the supermarket 32 years ago.
No legs, no problem
Lee was born with poliomyelitis – a disease affecting his central nervous system – and was wheelchair bound for life by the age of 8 months.
With 10 siblings in a low-income household, his father worked as a construction worker and his mother as a street vendor around the clock, feeding them so they ran out of time to look after Lee.
Due to his disability, he had to drop out of school after completing primary education as secondary schools were too far from home to travel. “Affected by this disease, I envied my siblings when I saw them lead normal lives. They went to school, played sports and hung out with friends while all I could do was sit up, ”he announced to The Star in 2017.
Lee was close to his grandmother, who cared for him and encouraged the then teenager to find his own way. She told Lee that he was only physically challenged and not mentally disabled; He was smart and she said he could still use his hands to do a lot more.
Lee's first store / Photo credit: 99 Speedmart
Her words caught Lee's eye, who realized that no one in his family had previously followed anything in the business world. This inspired him to make some money selling snacks on his porch.
In order to save what he had earned from these sales, he opened his first store called Pasar Raya Hiap Hoe in 1987 at the age of 23 with a capital of 17,000 RM. This marked the start of his retail training course, where he learned what customers would buy and reached out to suppliers to find out more about their prices.
All of this would come in handy later when he runs his mini-mart empire.
If not 100, then 99
Five years later, Lee sold his miscellaneous business ($ 88,000 to Forbes, RM 38,000 to Enterprise Asia, RM 30,000 to The Edge) and opened a mini-mart called Pasar Mini 99 in Klang Utama. He wanted the challenge of a bigger business so decided to build a chain of mini marts.
"If you don't have the scales, you can't compete with Chinese medicine halls on pricing, and you can't compete with hypermarkets in terms of reach," he said. By 1998 he would expand to 8 more branches around Klang, and in 2000 the entrepreneur renamed the business 99 Speedmart.
The name is also a symbol for Lee: "We chose the number 99 because it implies that, although we are not perfect, we want to offer our customers the best services and products at a competitive price," he told The Star .
Also in a true Asian way, Lee's near-perfect 99 score is a reminder that there is always room for improvement.
The products sold in the store / Picture credits: 99 Speedmart
99 Speedmart keeps its prices low by selling products in smaller sizes. With the experience of running his business, Lee knew exactly which fast-moving goods had high turnover rates and would stock up on them.
However, in the early days of the brand, margins were sacrificed on certain products in order to sell them at the lowest possible price. However, it helped build the brand's reputation as Lee painstakingly monitored the business. The businessman also got on good terms with suppliers, avoiding dragging out payments, which larger grocers were supposedly notorious for.
With Lee, vendors were able to collect their payments for a previous order within 30 minutes of dropping off new product inventory in stores. The suppliers valued Lee's good reputation in the trade.
Under his leadership, 99 Speedmart expanded rapidly and by 2008 had 100 branches. In 2011 they achieved sales of RM 1 billion with 300 branches. With the growth of 500 branches in 2013 and 600 in 2014, one could say that two branches open every week.
By 2017, Lee celebrated its 1000th store in Shah Alam Section 13, Selangor. Although the exact number of 99 Speedmart stores is not clear today, there are at least 1,500 in Malaysia and 3 that opened in Singapore in 2019.
No signs of slowing down
The sign we all know / Image credit: 99 Speedmart
Although there was no ecommerce website, 99 Speedmart was still one of the top physical grocery shopping options at the MCO 2020. The low budget grocer thrived as 39% of Malaysian consumers (interviewed in a Vase.ai survey) bought their groceries at 99 Speedmart.
The other 40% and 21% would get their groceries from corner shops or Tesco.
According to The Edge, Lee had no plans to go to the hypermarket or supermarkets in 2014. To stay competitive, he plans to stick to what he knows by growing his mini markets.
- You can find out more about the 99 Speedmart here.
- You can read about other Malaysian startups here.
Selected image source: Facebook / Wikipedia