Michelle Hah is currently Executive Director at Fire Fighter Industry based in Malaysia. She joined the company founded by her husband in 1994 when the team only had a headcount of 10 employees. Prior to taking up this role, she was in the development industry for over 18 years and was involved in setting up a new residential township for the growing middle class of Malaysians.
She recalls having a great time in the real estate industry as it gave her an opportunity to provide shelter to others as well as match families with places which they could call home. However, in 1994 when her husband invited her to join his growing business in fire safety, she felt honoured. “It is rare for a husband to invite his wife to a business, knowing the challenges that come with it. After some thinking, I gladly accepted the invitation,” she says. Having to relearn everything again, she discovered a new passion in fire safety. The thing about fire safety is that it is a business that touches and saves lives.
Passion to Michelle is found when she truly believes in something, and 25 years later, the passion for fire safety continues to burn within her.
Recognised as one of the Women Icon Malaysia in 2019, Michelle shares her journey of past 25 years in this exclusive interview with AsiaBizToday.
How has it been partnering your husband? What has kept you occupied all these years?
The business was founded by my husband in 1974. The core of the business then was trading and servicing of fire extinguishers. When I joined in 1994, I wanted to grow & expand the business and get into manufacturing our own brand of extinguishers.
Two years later in 1996, we invested and set-up our very own manufacturing plant. Being in the safety industry, I believe that the safety of our own products are of utmost importance. Hence, we focused on attaining certifications that would put our products and services to strict procedures and tests. This forced me to learn the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of every department and document it for the purpose of attaining an ISO certification. This exercise surprisingly benefitted me as that taught me the ins and out of the company. Since then, we’re the only fire fighting company with both ISO 9001 (Quality Management System) and 14001 (Environmental Management System).
What have been your experiences running this business?
From the very beginning, being in the fire safety industry has been an uphill battle – especially for a woman. The awareness of fire safety among the Malaysian public is very low, even until today, as we move towards becoming a developed country. We have run many initiatives to promote fire safety among the public, some of which include fire safety training to housing residents and even training trainers on fire safety.
Fire safety is a statutory requirement where businesses need to comply. While this ensures that the business will not falter as easily as some fad industries, this also brings a whole set of challenges. The biggest problem is that our customers have no appreciation for it – only wanting the lowest price for our products and services. I believe there is still a lot to be done in the industry and it starts with educating the public in fire safety.
Which are the important factors that keep you going?
Passion keeps me going. For me, passion is something that I have to believe in and I truly believe in fire safety as it touches the lives of others. Everyday, I am faced with challenges, and I believe that there is always a solution to a problem. Weaknesses can become strengths, and empowering people to the right positions will result in extraordinary outcomes.
Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?
In the early days, it was perceived that women were not fit to be in the fire safety industry as it was seen as a very masculine industry. But now there is a growing change in the mindset. I have been recently appointed as the president of the Malaysian Fire Protection Association. That said, there are still challenges being a woman of position as I feel that we are still seen as inferior to men and have to achieve more to prove ourselves. Luckily, I am a person who loves challenges. Hence, I see this as a challenge and want to prove to others that a woman can do it too.
Where do you usually find inspiration from?
In my free time, I break-away from reality and indulge myself in the world of Hollywood. I realize that more often than not, films and series mimic reality and it has given me a lot of inspiration in my day to day activities. The beauty of film is that the possibilities are endless – giving hope and wonder to what I can achieve. I also find great inspiration from reading books and articles to keep me abreast with the current landscape of the world.
Other than that, being in the committee of several organizations have given me the privilege to meet and listen to very knowledgeable individuals. The learnings from these people have given me a lot of inspiration in my work and craft in the company.
What’s your proudest moment so far?
Being an innate introvert, the biggest achievement for me was when I was asked to speak to a crowd of over a thousand people. When the company won the National Mark of Malaysia, which was presented by Sultan Nazrin of Perak, I gave a speech titled ‘Don’t fight the fire within you’. This might seem like a simple task to many, but I am never comfortable speaking on a stage. Hence, conquering this fear of mine has got to be my proudest moment so far.
How would you define success ?
Success can mean many things to different people. For some it is marrying the “right” person, having beautiful kids, acquiring wealth, or being popular. For others it means being recognized and appreciated for one’s talents, whether they be in music, arts, sports, or another field.
For me, success is to be able to bring out the best in everything you do. Fire safety industry does not allow ‘trials and errors’ because any default in quality can result in ‘death’. Even price cannot be at the expense of quality. Our philosophy in Fire Fighter is to make ‘ISO our way of life.’ We empower our staff to carry out their responsibilities and we value the importance of proactive and prioritizing our customers’ needs.
What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
To be an entrepreneur, it requires a lot of hard work, determination, discipline as well as the will to succeed. The fight ends when you end it, hence fight on until you make it. To all women entrepreneurs, do not hide behind the gender issue and always give your very best & show them all you’ve got!