While Ameer Ali Mydin ranks as one of Malaysia’s most prominent businesspeople, having built MYDIN into one of the country’s leading wholesale and retail chains, his main focus is on doing business "the right way".
He believes dependence on AI is not the right way to do business – especially for a retailer like MYDIN.
"I think the future of business must always be operated by people with souls," Mydin says. "I think this is a very important point for the future of business, that we don’t become AIs."
Mydin serves as Managing Director of MYDIN, which owns the MYDIN stores and operates shopping malls. Under the MYDIN brand, the company successfully runs hypermarkets – along with some smaller stores – selling everything from groceries to apparel to household items.
Humans are actually emotion-driven entities, not robots.
A wise warning
Mydin is outspoken and endlessly enthusiastic about his beliefs, despite how unconventional some of them may seem in the modern business world as it becomes increasingly based on technology.
"ChatGPT has no soul. It comes up with so many nice paragraphs of stories here and there, but when you read through it, something is missing: the soul is not there," he says.
"And if you expect ChatGPT to run your business, this is going to be the end of the world."
His opinions on AI point to deeper convictions on doing business the right way: with soul and connecting with the customer. "Humans are actually emotion-driven entities, not robots," Mydin says.
"When you walk in somewhere, you have to acknowledge the people with a smile, a tap, a handshake, a hug – the connection that goes from one person to another person. I think that personal touch is so important," he continues.
"Businesses have to have that kind of touch so that they do not become simply a money transfer from one person to another, but instead build an emotional attachment with the customer."
We compete on everyday low prices, but I think it’s going to be service, what kind of experience [customers] can get, and what you give back to society.
Mydin sees that connection playing out on a daily basis in MYDIN stores.
"A bricks-and-mortar business is one where you can have emotions. Buying is supposed to be pleasurable, it’s supposed to satisfy a certain emotional need of a human being," he says.
"I strongly believe that businesses that survive in the long term will always have to have this element."
Long before the development of ChatGPT, MYDIN always strived to maximize the customer experience – to be a business with soul. "You can compete only to a certain extent. A chocolate drink is going to be the same price almost everywhere. You have a promotion today, they have a promotion tomorrow. It doesn’t work," Mydin said in a radio interview.
"We compete on everyday low prices, but I think it’s going to be service, what kind of experience [customers] can get, and what you give back to society."
The first MYDIN store opened in 1957, when company Founder Mydin Mohamed Ghulam Hussein – Mydin’s father – opened a small, wooden shop in the small town of Kota Bharu in north-eastern Malaysia. "He started very small, selling on the streets," Mydin says.
The MYDIN Founder slowly started expanding the business by opening more outlets, attracting customers with the tagline: "Why pay more? Buy at wholesale prices!" and delivering quality products with tiptop service.
But the business dates back even further to his grandfather, who immigrated to Penang from India. His grandfather became successful in business, but the establishment was wiped out in World War II.
Mydin’s own career path saw him study in the United States and then start working with a bank upon returning to Malaysia. He entered the retail business after eight years in banking, opening a small shop in the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur, which gave slightly more visibility to the MYDIN name than Kota Bharu.
"I think the rest is history," he says. "Now we have about 62 outlets all over Malaysia."
Mydin still has plans for expansion by opening smaller stores in 2023 and 2024, ending a period of limited growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic proved somewhat challenging for Mydin, despite being a veteran of past economic and national crises.
"I think many of us always thought that we had a Midas touch, but what recent years have taught us is that no one has the so-called Midas touch anymore," he says.
"I’m old enough to have gone through crises in 1979, 1988, 2008," he continues. "I think everybody will agree that the pandemic has been the worst for almost everybody.
What recent years has taught us is that no one has the so-called Midas touch anymore.
"Normally we take crisis as an opportunity. And MYDIN has always made more money during a crisis because, being family owned, being more agile, we are able to adjust quickly – but the pandemic was a difficult time."
Despite the difficulties, however, MYDIN avoided layoffs. The company instead arranged a scheme with employees receiving half their regular pay, according to Mydin.
"We didn’t hire, but we never fired. It’s hard to fire somebody because they’re part of your family; some people have worked for us for 10, 20, 30 years," Mydin says. "During bad times, how can you fire your people? How can you have the heart to do it? We never fired anybody."
The fallout from the pandemic and its lockdowns has produced pain for many businesses. Mydin points to business basics such as banking as a clear example of this.
"The bankers are going to be more careful now," he says. "But if you want to grow, obviously you need support from financial institutions."
And Mydin is not fond of the alternatives. "You can always go to venture capitalists, you can go for funding, but this is often very short term and not as conducive to running a successful business," he says.
"Despite many proposals, I haven’t sold off certain parts of MYDIN to venture capitalists, and there is a reason for that," he says, comparing the proposals to a short-term marriage with no commitment.
"To put it crudely, they are saying, ‘Hey, I want to come, I want to stay with you for three to five years and when I’ve had enough of you and I think I made good money out of you, I can sell you off.’"
During the pandemic, Mydin gained a fresh appreciation for some of his suppliers – mostly the smaller ones.
"Bankers are not your friends, obviously. Suppliers, the big suppliers, are not your friends. The bigger they are, the less friendly they are because they’re massive corporate entities and they only look at the numbers," he says.
"Your friends are actually the small suppliers that have been with you for 20, 30 years. They were also suffering. So it becomes more like: ‘let’s suffer together’."
Non-payment was common during the pandemic – out of hardship as companies often lacked the cashflow to pay. The situation became stressful for the company’s finance department, which was fielding angry phone calls from people demanding payment.
I think the most crucial thing in life is having the right partner to face it with.
Mydin insisted on taking the calls directly and would tell the suppliers: "Sorry, times are bad but it’s due next week," or "I have not paid you but I’ll pay you in, say, 14 days or 21 days. Is that OK?"
The results were surprising, he says. "Ninety-eight or 99 percent of the time the supplier says, ‘Sure, it’s OK. I just wanted to know that you had a plan in place.’"
And Mydin’s final advice for aspiring business people and entrepreneurs? "Marry the right person," he says, explaining that your spouse will support you – and vice versa.
"You could be a professional, you could be an entrepreneur, you could be a lawyer, a doctor, whatever," he says. "I think the most crucial thing in life is having the right partner to face it with."