I Am Generation T: Bryan Loo
Bryan Loo launched his first company at the age of seven. He began charging his classmates in Kuala Lumpur 50 cents to read his comic books at lunch, and quickly upscaled the business, buying a collection of cartoons for a discount price and renting them out at recess. Before his eighth birthday, he had made nearly US$300.
This was a foreshadowing of the success he seemed destined to enjoy later in life. After university, Loo realised that while tea was a hugely popular drink in Malaysia, fashionable cafes all focused on coffee. And so in 2010, aged just 24, he bought the Malaysian franchise for Cha Time, which was owned by La Kaffa—a Taiwanese bubble tea giant—and turned it into a roaring success. But when he decided to launch his own brand, Tealive, La Kaffa took him to court in a case that gripped the nation.
Loo and La Kaffa settled the case out of court, and since then his company has been going from strength to strength. He now has 325 outlets across seven markets, including the UK, Australia, China and Vietnam. And that contentious court case? He now says it helped him get where he is today. Next up is a plan to triple his number of outlets within two years: Loo aims to have a thousand outlets in 15 countries by 2021.
Here, we talk to Malaysia’s most ambitious man about love, life hacks and why sport is for sissies.
What’s a non-negotiable for you?
Passion in driving the brand forward. We are determined to turn it into a global brand and I need everyone on my team to get behind me on that. We don’t want to compromise: however many challenges there are, we will get there. I am determined to make Malaysia proud by creating an international brand—and I hope that in the future, Tealive will be one of many.
Did you have an ‘A-ha’ moment on your entrepreneurial journey?
The journey got clearer every day, but the only thing we didn’t do was stop and look back. We never imagined the court-case moment would happen, and even less that from all that stress, we would be able to develop and own a brand. I think an important moment was realising that my main focus was keeping the 1,500 people that we hired employed, and ensuring that they continued to have a home and a salary.
Who is your hero?
My father. Dad has always been the largest person in my life. People think my hero must be Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, but it’s not. He’s my greatest motivator and he never stopped us from doing what we love. He supports us and helps us to make bold decisions by encouraging us to strike out further and be accountable for our mistakes. He taught me that a lot of decisions can lead to failure, but that the most important thing is to accept that and keep making decisions anyway.
Where would you like to be in a decade?
The vision is the same, but we want to be the first publicly listed tea brand in Southeast Asia and we want to make the brand global. Also, in 10 years’ time, my daughter will be 17—I want to be like my father, who helped me so much, and be there to help her start thinking about her own career.
What’s your ultimate professional ambition?
I’d like to build the largest food and beverage company in Malaysia. We are inching there—I think we’re second at the moment. We are expected to grow by 180 outlets in a year in Malaysia, so we will hopefully be able to fully realise that vision soon.
What would you like to be remembered for?
As someone who gave hope to young Malaysians and taught them that Malaysia can be as successful as other bigger nations. I would love to one day see myself as great inspiration for young people who are chasing their dreams.
If you could have a drink with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
I’m going to sound cheesy but my wife. We’ve been together since we were 13, and we’re celebrating our twenty-year anniversary of knowing each other this year. She has been a pillar of strength in my life, and I know I’ve been so lucky to have found her so young. She was my first and only love—we got married at 23 and have three beautiful children.
Do you have any productivity hacks?
I’m not necessarily particularly productive, but I am a workaholic. Even back at school, I didn’t do amazingly in my exams, but I always worked really, really hard. I’m starting to realise that often it’s the hard workers who do better than people who are naturally talented. I’ve realised I’m definitely the tortoise and not the hare—I get there in the end.
What’s your biggest failure?
I was never a particularly bright student, and I think that maybe affected my confidence. But I’ve learned how to get around my shortfalls. I’m bad in maths, but nowadays, I surround myself with people who complement me—my sister and my wife are both really good with numbers, while I’m a big thinker and convincer. We work perfectly together.
What quote do you live by?
‘Think big, start small and scale it fast.’ I’ve been practicing that motto since day one and it becomes more and more true as my career progresses. I now know that if I ever started a new brand, I would start with a big vision, as it is so important to know exactly where you are, and once I hit a certain threshold, scale it fast.
If you had an extra hour in the day, how would you spend it?
That’s easy: spending time with my kids—I have two girls and a baby boy and they’re wonderful. My biggest worry is that while we are striving to grow this business, I am compromising time with the kids. I would like nothing more than an extra hour to do nothing but play with them.
When we are up, we have to accept that at some point, we will always fall, and vice versa. The way to get through that is by staying humble
— Bryan Loo
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
To be humble in life, because it’s all about ups and downs—for everyone. When we are up, we have to accept that at some point, we will always fall, and vice versa. The way to get through that is by staying humble.
And the worst advice..?
People kept telling me to sell the company. Even now, I constantly get this advice, as apparently I’m at the peak so now is the time to sell. I think it’s such bad advice: they don’t understand that it’s my calling and that, to me, not everything is about money.
I have no major regrets although I do worry I’ll look back at this period of huge business growth and think I didn’t spend enough time with my children
What’s something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
I haven’t played any sport for the last nine years. I sometimes feel a bit guilty but I can maintain my body shape and am able to look good despite working in the food industry without it. I think the reason is that I never eat until I’m full. I always stop when I’m about 80 percent there—it’s how I stay slim.