PETALING JAYA: KEITH Thong had never dreamt of working in a bookstore, let alone running it.
He took on the responsibility after being persuaded by his late father and later became the proud owner and managing director of the decades-old University Book Store Malaysia (UBSM).
His father, Thong Hon Keong, acquired the business from four Singaporean brothers.
The first flagship outlet, on the top floor of the OCBC building at the Jalan Tun Perak and Jalan Melayu junction (near Masjid Jamek), was opened in 1958.
Today, UBSM continues to stand the test of time, keeping up with trends, and adapting to technology and people’s changing reading preference.
After more than 20 years of running the bookstore, the father of two said he finally found his true calling, although at times he wondered what would have happened if he had gone into banking and financing instead.
For this interview, Thong was accompanied by his wife, Stephanie Chooi, and Cambridge Assessment International Education country director (Malaysia and Brunei) Ng Kim Huat at the bookstore in Jaya Shopping Centre here.
A HUMBLE BEGINNING
The bookstore was established by four Singaporean brothers, who were avid readers of economic and political science books.
“I don’t know much about the bookstore’s previous owners except for their surname, Un.
“The brothers thought it would be a great idea to start an academic bookstore since they
had been ordering books from Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Longman.
“They anticipated demand for books from local universities like Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.”
Thong said his father was hired as the bookstore manager “to add a local touch to the market”.
With the growing demand for imported books, the business flourished. More branches were opened in Petaling Jaya, Ipoh, Penang and Singapore.
He said UBSM was a leader in the business of imported books, with more than 50 employees nationwide.
With the implementation of the New Economic Policy in 1970, he said UBSM had to diversify into the private sector by focusing on preschools, private schools and corporate libraries (research and development units) as it could no longer supply imported books to public universities.
“It was difficult as our branches had to close, leaving us with only one store in Petaling Jaya (New Town).”
He said the growth of private colleges like Prime College, Taylors’ College and Sunway College in the late 1970s helped sustain the business.
The success of private colleges was spurred and supported by the growth of feeder international schools, such as Alice Smith, Garden and Sayfol.
This gave a new lease of life to the bookstore.
PASSING THE TORCH
Thong said: “My dad told me to put my trust in God and my pastor advised me to keep my vertical relationship right so that things will fall into place.”
In 1993, the bookstore’s founders, who were in their 90s, made an offer to his father to buy its Malaysian branch, with a similar offer made to another partner for the Singapore outlet.
“My father did not hesitate to accept the offer. He spent most of his life at the bookstore, where he met my mother when she joined the company.”
Thong, the second of two brothers, said his father convinced him to help him run the business after graduating with a degree in banking, trade and industry.
“I joined him full time after graduating in the early 1990s. It was my dream to own a business in the education industry.”
He said he worked his way up. During his school days, he served as a delivery boy, accounts clerk, shop assistant and salesperson.
“We made a great team. Back then, to survive, we also sold ‘ABC’ and drinks by the roadside.”
Thong said he was a shy boy despite being a student leader at the Methodist Boys’ School in Kuala Lumpur.
He learnt about marketing from a school friend, Christopher, who worked for a publisher.
HARDWORK AND PERSEVERANCE
“Christopher accompanied me when I met a representative from our first institute of higher learning, a Mara college in Taman Shamelin.
“We talked to the head of the Chemistry Department, Puan Sabrina, to promote our books. She told us that they were looking for A-Level books, which were difficult to source for.
“I know every A-Level book prescribed by the Cambridge Examination Board. So I told her about them.”
Sabrina was so impressed that she asked him to meet the institution’s chief librarian, whom she had spent two weeks in London to secure the books, but with no success.
“They bought the required books from our bookstore in just a day.
“After that, the business grew. To ensure that I did not miss anything, I attended to every request and stayed inside the warehouse
as much as I could so that I
could have access to stock information when my customers wanted it.”
He said his customers loved him for his hardwork and dedication.
“Due to my book recommendations, I was told that students obtained better results and lecturers became popular, often head-hunted by private colleges.”
He said he used to carry boxes of heavy books up the stairs at the old Mara building.
“By the end of the day, I would be drenched in sweat, with my hair all messed up and pants dusty. When I delivered books to classes, some lecturers who knew me told the students about me. I was so happy.”
A NEW BREATH OF LIFE
When his father died of renal failure in 1999, Thong said he had a hard time coping with it.
“My father’s death affected me. However, at the same time, I also found the love of my life,” he said, referring to his wife.
“She is an incredibly smart lady with a background in accounting and banking. Back then, she worked long hours and we had little time for each other.”
In 2001, Chooi joined his
company for one-third of her original salary.
“She gave up the luxuries of a successful corporate life to start a family.”
The couple implemented new business models to boost profits.
“We found that the private sector helped boost our growth. So we took the initiative to learn more about the industry by taking part in international book fairs, engaging coaches to guide us into new businesses and developing new skills.”
When the couple had their first child in 2002, Thong said his mother advised them to invest in the children’s education.
“Her blessing fuelled our passion for books and products in this segment, particularly in the private international school education.
“We focus on the United Kingdom Cambridge Assessment and International Exams to help prepare students for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and A-Level exams.”
KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES
Many of the digital products in education today were mapped into the curriculum, Thong said.
“For example, the Britannica School Online Database is mapped into the UK school curriculum for students.
“We also publish reading programmes, such as ILR magazines, and educational newspapers, such as Newsbites, according to the targeted UK curriculum.”
With the growth of the technology in the industry, he said challenges came in the form of high-tech piracy.
“Pirate photocopy shops have more adapted content than individual publishers. Enforcement is lacking in this area despite the number of complaints made.
“With the challenging economy, colleges became less stringent in copyright protection for textbooks. We closed about eight campus bookstores due to this piracy menace and colleges’ indifference in this issue.”
He said to help students and teachers cope with the rising book prices, UBSM came up with several measures, such as selling textbooks at wholesale prices, customised publishing and personalised branding.
“We have to do much more than before to survive. We have to look into what really matters to our customers and try to meet those needs.
“For example, when we found that our schools need to know more about digital products for education, we partnered with the Education Ministry’s Private Education Department to organise a Digital Odyssey event where we brought in speakers from all over the world to share their knowledge with 300 educators.”
Thong said he wanted to continue serving the country in the education sector.
“We will start our Virtual Academy in partnership with the Nisai Education Group (UK) to offer IGCSE English and Maths online tuition classes next month.
“We will launch our educational newspaper in January and several customised publications for Preschool 21st Century skills and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and form partnerships with universities to offer creative online English programmes for corporate and government departments.”