When Ko Chuan Zhen, CEO and Co-Founder of Plus Solar, pursued a university education, he took a “safe” career route with a degree in engineering at Malaysia Multimedia University. However, this was far from his interest at that time. Ironically, he discovered his passion by chance, when he had to answer a question in his final year assignment on how to reduce temperature in a carpark. He had to experiment the use of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels which piqued his interest in PV solar panel engineering.
The 35-year-old entrepreneur tells Business Today his struggles to get businesses to switch to renewable energy and shares insights on the solar PV panel industry.
As Ko needed to develop his knowledge in solar PV engineering further, he pursued an internship in Taiwan. During his flight back to Malaysia after completing his internship, he glanced out of the airplane window and saw ‘naked’ rooftops. It was then the idea of equipping buildings with solar PV panels was born. This led Ko to take-up solar PV engineering as a full-time profession.
After reconnecting with a friend from school and a university mate, in 2012, 28-year-old Ko (then) formed Leaf Energy, the first solar consulting firm in Malaysia to provide consultation on how businesses can reduce their overall operational costs with solar solutions. In 2013, Ko and his fellow co-founders, Ryan Oh Zhi Kang and Poh Tyng Huei, founded Plus Solar, to reshape the way energy is generated and consumed. However, consultancy work was not all they wanted to do.
They wanted to be a total energy solutions company which provides engineering, procurement, construction & commissioning work, hence they established Plus Solar Systems Sdn Bhd a year later.
“The whole journey was not a walk in the park for us. When we started, I installed the solar panels on roofs myself rain or shine, while my friends were in corporate roles. The working environment was not very friendly and there were times when I wondered if I should be sitting comfortably behind the desk like my friends, but I realised that I enjoyed being on site, watching things happen and see how they come together.
“We started with only a desk and a computer and to save money we had RM2.50 vegetarian mixed rice for lunch, plus we didn’t draw salaries for ourselves. We faced collection issues but as long as we could roll, we kept on persevering. These stories remind us of our humble beginnings and keeps us grounded each time we are faced with challenges, Ko recollects.
The phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ aptly describes Ko’s journey, for all the hard times and lessons learned, earned him the Ernst & Young Emerging Entrepreneur Of The Year 2019 Malaysia award. This coveted award aims to recognise game changers and their contribution in purposeful entrepreneurship which reaffirms that Ko and his team are indeed striving in the right direction.
Today, Plus Solar delivers quality turnkey solar PV solutions – Engineering, Procurement, Construction and Commissioning (EPCC) for commercial, industrial and large-scale solar farm projects. Its clean energy solutions are integrated with a state-of-the-art technology approach and cost-effective financing options.
To date, Plus Solar has assisted over 700 buildings in making the switch to clean energy which include big names such as IKEA, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Sunway Sales Gallery and Secret Recipe, amongst others, with the latest being Toppen Mall in Johor. Plus Solar has also built two solar farms under the LSS2 Program, which was scheduled to be commissioned by end-2019, and is on track.
Adding on, Ko says, “In our first year, we invested RM100,000 in the company and our revenue was RM130,000, but the change of business model in the following year proved to be a good move for us as our revenue grew to RM1.46 million. We then established branches in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. In 2018, our revenue grew to a whopping RM64 million and we opened a branch in Johor.”
Plus Solar reported close to RM100 million in revenue thus far, for the first eight months of the financial year ending March 2020, and foresees its RM150 million revenue target fast becoming a reality. Ko anticipates stronger demand in 2020 compared to the last 10 years bolstered by supportive government policies, improved market awareness, easier access to financing facilities and Plus Solar’s track record which has boosted clients confidence and trust in the company.
Although Plus Solar enjoyed a thriving business, it faced continuous skills challenge.
“This is not unique to the solar sector as there is an imminent talent shortage in the country as we head towards Industry 4.0. Doing our bit in helping the nation to close this skills gap, we have set up an inhouse university to carry out skills and professional training to cultivate talents.”
Plus Uni-Verse was established to foster an innovative and healthy learning environment. This inevitably contributes to the nation’s goals as the right talent is key to fulfill the rising demands.
On the country’s renewable energy direction, Ko says “Malaysia is very fortunate that its ecosystem is fast evolving and becoming more robust with YB Puan Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTCC) doing a great job for the renewable energy sector, with goals and policies that help drive uptake of solar, as well as more players coming into the industry.
Ko added that business players like himself welcome the Budget 2020’s tax incentives, with the Green Investment Tax Allowance (GITA) and Green Income Tax Exemption (GITE) as more businesses will be encouraged to install solar PV panels onto their rooftops.
“The global Solar PV solar panel market is projected to increase to 125GW in 2020, (according to a report by Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables), we are absolutely confident that PV solar panel will continue to see a boom here in Malaysia. With so much support from the government, as well as financial institutions adopting green financing, and the presence of more players in the industry adding to the ecosystem, these are optimum ingredients for an uptake across all sectors,” says a visionary Ko.
When asked to give some advice to budding entrepreneurs, Ko revealed the three guiding Ps that have helped him in his journey – Passion, Persistence and People.
“To be an entrepreneur, one must be passionate about what they do and believe in it wholeheartedly.
“For example, solar power was a personal journey that I undertook since university and I knew its potential. Beyond that, since becoming a father – I know that what I have embarked on will become something good for my child’s future and the generations ahead,” adds Ko.
“With persistence, one must be willing to work hard. “I started the company with money set aside for my wedding which was a real gamble, as I had put in all I had. There was no turning back and I was focused on my goal and persistent to ensure that we would succeed,” he goes on
Lastly, Ko said that one must focus on people, otherwise it will be a business without a soul. “Believing in people, and being sincere to staff, vendors and partners are key elements to a successful business. People really are at the centre of every business.
“It is also about humility at the end of the day. While I may be considered successful at a young stage in life, I always have to remind myself that confidence and ego are two separate things. There is always a fine line between being confident, yet without showing ego.
“By having mutual respect for each others’ talents and opinions, we are set in the right direction and will be able to craft a future together, as a truly remarkable team,” he advises.
In the true grit and grime story of a young ambitious entrepreneur, Ko now hopes to strive further in order to play a defining role in helping Malaysia achieve her target to have 20 percent RE in the electricity generation mix by 2025. A tall order, but one which Malaysia must aim to achieve in doing her part towards a sustainable future.