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An Interview with Azizan Mohd Noor, the eldest ICDM Member we have thus far. He reveals why he has joined ICDM at the age of 79 and how a senior director like himself can benefit from and contribute to the director community. Azizan also shares some lessons learnt from the crisis scenarios he had to manage in the past and his thoughts on dealing with digitalisation.

 

You are officially the eldest ICDM Member at the age of 79. What draws you to join us? First and foremost, let me begin by saying that although I am 79 years old, I do not feel 79. In fact, I feel myself very much younger. I have always led a very active life and kept myself busy every day to keep my mind alert and focused.

In most westernised countries, it is not uncommon to find people in their seventies and perhaps in their early eighties still holding on to their respective directorship or chairmanship positions. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018 found that at 60, you reach your peak of potential and mature up to 80. So, if you are between 60 to 80 years old, you are living the best years of your life. God willing, I hope to surpass this threshold of 80.

As to what draws me to join ICDM, well as a matter of fact, I had also been a member of other similar organisations in the past. However, the difference is this – I find that ICDM is more committed and dedicated to enhancing the professionalism and effectiveness of corporate directors in Malaysia. In so doing, you have also put in place emphasis on ‘member care’ and ‘director activism’ which are important ingredients in addressing the needs of directors. In addition, you have an active portal for ICDM to fulfil its role as a one-stop-centre for all board and director needs which is an added bonus.

In your opinion, why is it important for existing directors or those aspiring to join the board one day to be part of a professional institution like ICDM? The importance lies in the fact that: (i) ICDM is a highly reputable organisation more so when its establishment has the blessing and support of big names such as the Securities Commission Malaysia, Bank Negara, Bursa Malaysia and the Capital Market Development Fund; (ii) Since ICDM conducts its own courses in the areas of corporate governance, there is a platform for directors to cater for their CPE requirements; (iii) Not only does becoming a member of ICDM promote opportunities for members to build relationship with other directors but also in the area of networking opportunities; (iv) As for the ICDM portal, there are opportunities for aspiring members to be recommended to sit on company boards.

 

“They (senior directors) can be role models to the younger members by demonstrating their personal integrity, honesty and transparency.”

 

How about the senior directors? How do you think they can benefit from ICDM and contribute to the director community? There are two key areas I would like to touch on.

Benefits from ICDM: (i) As I have listed under Q2 para (i) to (iv), all directors including senior directors would benefit from the facilities provided by ICDM. (ii) The following are some of the topics, which in my opinion, would benefit the senior directors. Hopefully ICDM could arrange for courses in those areas for the benefit of the senior directors.

(a) Cyber fraud is more rampant now than ever before. With their modus operandi being more sophisticated than ever before, cyber security is constantly under attack and cyber fraud prevention and detection are becoming more challenging for most businesses, in particular banks and financial institutions which are more vulnerable.

(b) Natural disasters and catastrophes, such as the effect of global warming, the tsunami tidal wave and the Covid-19 pandemic, have all impacted the economy massively. With all these setbacks affecting the economy, how do companies stay relevant and maintain business sustainability?

Contributions to the director community. Senior directors can contribute as follows: (i) Give talks and share their experiences for the benefit of the younger members; (ii) They can be in an advisory position by making themselves more accessible to the younger members such as making available their contact address, email and/or handphone numbers; (iii) They can be role models to the younger members by demonstrating their personal integrity, honesty and transparency.

You have survived several crises in your long career, such as the 1985 recession, 1997 Asian financial crisis, 2002 – 2004 SARS, 2008/2009 economic crisis, to name a few. Can you share with us some of the biggest lessons learnt as a business leader in managing those crises? I can relate them to my experiences as a practising accountant and as a housing developer, both of which I had been fully involved.

In any professional practising firm, it is important that we should define what is our optimum level of operation. Do we want to grow bigger despite the expenses of having to rent additional office space, increasing the staff force and bringing in additional managers etc. Mind you, all these expenses have to be spent first over some period of time before you can derive any substantial profit as income will always lag behind expenses. During the recessions of the past, I have witnessed some professional firms close down as they expanded too fast over a short period of time. Some of these firms however managed to stay afloat when they had no choice but to merge with other bigger firms. But this is another story altogether as the smaller firm partners would have to sacrifice their powers and authority and perhaps their freedom to those in the bigger firms.

During the period of recession, professional firms need to enforce a stringent austerity drive to control costs, such as:

  • No pay rise and no bonus, maybe just a modest cash token to please the staff
  • The staff annual dinner should not be held at posh hotels, maybe just at the office premise will do.
  • Staff annual retreat should not be held at all
  • If the going gets tougher, pay cuts might be considered necessary
  • If all else fails and there is still a cash flow problem, then they might have to resort to downsizing.

Cash flow must be managed well as banks will be reluctant to extend credit line to you as they themselves are affected by the recession and have their own cash flow problems to deal with. The partners themselves, if need be, have got to come down from their comfort zone instead of waiting for things to happen. They themselves have to join the workforce and be part of the team as managers.

 

“It has been known that well-managed companies with support from the boards survive better and what more with companies with strong corporate governance practices in place.”

 

As a housing developer, we were not spared from the recessions of the past. In fact, the 1985 recession was the first recession ever experienced by us. It caught us unprepared. Most businesses had to close down then. We managed to survive the recession due to the following:

(i) We chose this business because anything to do with land is a plus factor since land always appreciate in value. (ii) This is the only business I know where buyers pay progressively even before the houses are completed. This would ensure us with the ever-needed cash flow for continuity. Other businesses will only get payment upon completion or upon credit term arrangement. (iii) Marketing for house buyers was a nightmare for us at the time as people were applying the wait-and-see attitude or that the banks had rejected their housing loan applications. What we did to seek out the eligible potential buyers was to pay extra commission to our brokers to make the right connection. (iv) Next came another nightmare for us. The problem we found was that buyers were booking the house units from different blocks. We could not build a whole block of houses when we still had unsold units in the same block. Finally, after some persuasion, we managed to convince the buyers to change their booking to a block ready to be built since they were fully booked units. (v) Next we had the problem of the balance of the land which could not be developed because of no customer booking. So, we held on to it while putting it up for sale on as-is-where-is basis. After a few years of holding on to the land, we managed to find a buyer finally though at a low sale price. (vi) Lastly, we had to meet our bankers to settle our loan with them. With the money derived from the sale of remaining land we realised there was a shortfall in our repayment amount. We had no choice but to negotiate with the bank to reduce the repayment amount. During the recession the banks were willing to entertain such a request as long as the full payment was made to the account. After all the negotiation we managed to come out of it with a small profit. But what mattered more, was that we did not owe the bank a single cent.

While on this subject, I would like to emphasise on other areas of concern and importance as a safeguard measure to address possible economic downturn in the future:

(i) The business model set up by management and the board should be made more adaptable and flexible in the light of changing circumstances. The business model may need to be revisited now and again to ensure that it is in tandem with the company’s policy and requirements. (ii) The business culture and discipline insofar as business planning including cash flow management should be the order of the day. (iii) It has been known that well-managed companies with support from the boards survive better and what more with companies with strong corporate governance practices in place.

 

“Business is an evolution.
Do not remain static otherwise your competitors will overtake you.”

 

The business landscape has changed significantly over the past 50 years, transforming the analogue world into a digital one. Covid-19 is now accelerating that transformation even further at a faster pace. What are you doing to keep abreast with those changes? And what would be your advice to others? Companies must now adopt digitalisation in conducting their businesses in order to stay relevant in the present business landscape, which has changed significantly over the past 50 years. The fact that we are now facing a pandemic due to Covid-19, which has somewhat restricted our movement to do business, gives more reason for us to adopt digitalisation as it provides more options compared to the analogue world.

With the implementation of the movement control order (MCO), people are more reluctant to visit shopping malls, offices, banks etc. and are forced to work from home. As a result, people have now begun to turn to online platforms to do their business so much so that some businesses have now digitalised their operations to leverage the new business environment. For that matter, the industry players have now turned to digitalisation to cope with the current business climate.

Businesses are now making a major push towards the adoption of digital solutions for their customers. In fact, consumers and businesses are now shifting to digital accounts for simple banking products such as personal loans, credit cards and deposits.

With digitalisation, bank customers have access to various options to do their business in an easier manner. For example, there is no need for customers to fill up various forms requiring personal data, as many of the information are automatically available and obtainable directly from validated external sources.

On a personal note, digitalisation has benefited me in that I save money by not having to buy my daily newspapers any longer. Nowadays I get them free with all the pages intact in my smart phone posted by my Whatsapp group.

In order to be able to cope with this new era in digitalisation, companies must be able to spend to train and retrain staff to adapt to the major changes. Business is an evolution. Do not remain static otherwise your competitors will overtake you.

What is your secret for keeping your mind sharp and healthy? Any good habits you would recommend? My secret for keeping my mind sharp and healthy include the following daily habits which I follow strictly:

Diet and eating habits: If you are having rice, the proportion of rice should be just one-third compared to the other food on the plate. Your main meal should include fruits which are consumed first, followed by veggie. The main meal which may contain fish or chicken are consumed about 20 to 30 minutes later. Avoid food which contains fat such as red meat, milk and milk products, cream or cream products. Avoid other carbohydrate food such as cakes, white bread etc. Go slow on oily food. Drink plenty of water. Reduce sugar intake in your drink and food.

Physical activity: Do some exercise regularly such as brisk walking, jogging or swimming.

Meditation: I do this twice daily, to keep my mind alert and mentally focused. It is also to increase my energy level.

Deep breathing exercise: I do this to lower my blood pressure, as well as to slow down or delay my ageing process or what we call reverse ageing. The normal resting heart rate is 100 beats a minute (bpm). Compare this to the fittest athlete resting heart rate which is 40 bpm. We don’t want to go that far down as we are not athletes. For us to have a healthy heart, it would be good enough if we can achieve a resting heart rate of 70 or 80 bpm.

Biological age: Though my chronological age or calendar age is 79, I was informed by my nutritionist that my biological age is only 60. This means to say that my body, mind and spirit are functioning at the biological age of 60. You might want to know what is this biological age. Well, biological age is a measure of how well or poorly your body is functioning relative to your actual calendar age. For those of you who want to know more about this topic, please consult your nutritionist and ask them to check your biological age.

Lastly, avoid cigarettes and liquor.

Azizan Mohd Noor sits on the boards of Kumpulan FIMA Berhad, FIMA Bulking Services Berhad and Yayasan Aminuddin Baki as Board of Trustee and Honorary Treasurer. His past directorship was with Malakoff Berhad, Commerce Asset Holding Berhad (now known as CIMB Group Holdings Berhad), Bumiputra Commerce Finance Berhad, and more.

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