CineAsia Exhibitor of the Year: Mei Lee Koh guides Golden Screen Cinemas to the top

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Winner of CineAsia’s “Exhibitor of the Year” Award, Mei Lee Koh keeps herself extraordinarily busy and isn’t only content with being CEO of Malaysia’s largest cinema chain, Golden Screen Cinemas Sdn Bhd (GSC). She simultaneously juggles quite a few other roles, currently also being head of corporate affairs at Malaysian stock exchange-listed PPB Group Bhd (PPB) and serving on the boards of all of the conglomerate’s leisure and IT businesses. Additionally, she’s been a committee member of the Malaysian Association of Film Exhibitors since 2002.

Multiple Roles

A graduate of the University of Montevallo in Alabama, USA, Koh initially joined PPB, which also owns GSC, in 1990 as head of the treasury department. Subsequently, she set up and developed PPB’s corporate affairs department, overseeing investor relations as well as the group’s corporate branding. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Koh finally got engaged with GSC as a board member and, in 2002, was appointed the chain’s CEO. At the same time, she still remains heavily involved with the mother company, implementing PPB’s risk-management framework between 2002 and 2006, holding the position of chief risk officer. At present, she is responsible for the group’s sustainability initiatives and programs, including those of GSC.

Leadership Qualities

Koh oversees the cinema chain’s entire business operations “with strong support from my management team,” as she insists, putting a clear emphasis on teamwork. But Koh also is aware that every successful team must have a leader who is capable of mapping out the path the business is to take. “As leaders, we must have integrity and the courage to make things right.”

Under her helm, GSC has expanded from 70 to currently 306 screens in 33 locations across Malaysia, boosting the combined seating capacity to more than 51,000. Besides that, GSC has seen the transition from standalone cinemas to multiplexes and subsequently diversified into three distinctive cinema brands, each of them targeting a different audience demographic under the GSC banner. (For more on that, please read our profile on GSC’s general manager, Irving Chee.)

Koh says that GSC’s achievements would not have been possible without the combined effort from everyone in the company. As a leader, she holds teamwork and professionalism in high regards when it comes to running a fast-paced consumer business such as a cinema chain. “The synergy within GSC comforts me very much, as I know each and every team is working hard together to make things happen. It is heartwarming and encouraging at the same time, especially when we have been through so much to fortify our strong position in the market,“ Koh concludes.

Bringing the World to Malaysia

A self-confessed “big fan of international and foreign films,” Koh had a pivotal role in bringing world cinema to Malaysian shores through the introduction of foreign-film festivals such as the French, Japanese and European Union film festivals, as well as the “GSC International Screens” initiative within the theatre chain. “For me, a sense of achievement must resonate with something we enjoy doing—and do it well. With this [in mind], I am particularly proud of the international film festivals that we have been organizing and where we bring in notable or award-winning works from countries like Japan and France for the niche audiences. These [films] add on to our customers’ viewing options, exposing them to movie genres that are not common in Malaysia.” Koh also stresses that “it is encouraging that more Malaysians are now starting to enjoy these genres of movies.”

Foray into Film Production

With such zest already evident in its film exhibition business, it is perhaps not all too surprising that GSC also forayed into the actual movie production arena. Last year, the company co-produced soccer-themed OlaBola!, one of the commercially most successful local movies of all time. Koh says that the driving factor behind that involvement was that GSC has always been interested in exploring new and exciting partnerships. “As a local cinema operator, it is important that we grow together with the industry. Malaysia’s film industry is booming, with more titles coming out every year. And OlaBola! was a movie inspired by [the successes of] the country’s national soccer team in the 1980s, thus a truly Malaysian movie that united the culturally diversified country.” She adds that after the movie was released, she and her team received numerous messages from Malaysians from all walks of life who said they were “laughing and crying together” throughout the screening. “That alone was already worth our involvement in the production.”

Venturing into Southeast Asian Markets

But Koh doesn’t merely restrict herself to bringing the world to Malaysia. She sees the importance of diversifying the locations of Malaysia’s largest cinema chain. With that in mind, in 2013 GSC expanded into the Vietnamese market with three locations in partnership with Galaxy Studio. Three years later, the chain has 43 screens in seven locations under its belt.

According to Koh, GSC’s Vietnam operations have seen a significant box-office growth of 25 percent in 2015 and are trending upward. “Cinema entertainment is [still] under-supplied in Vietnam and we see huge growth potential in Vietnam, which has a population of three times that of Malaysia.”

And venturing into Cambodia is already on the horizon. The country has consistently recorded solid economic growth primarily due to the rapid expansion of its industry and service sectors. The Asian Development Bank reported that Cambodia’s annual growth rate averaged 7.9 percent from 2000 to 2015, one of the highest in Southeast Asia. “Likewise, we see huge growth potential in that market. Furthermore, cinema admissions per capita are particularly low in Cambodia when compared with neighboring countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. It is therefore only timely that we should bring quality entertainment to Cambodia,” Koh elaborates.

“2017 is going to be an exciting year for us. Not only will we celebrate our 30th anniversary, but we will also be penetrating the Cambodian market,” says Koh, adding that the soon-to-open nine-screen venue in Cambodia will include one “Gold Class” auditorium and one “GSC Maxx” auditorium with a Dolby Atmos surround sound system and D-BOX motion seats, treating Cambodian audiences to a truly amazing moviegoing experience.

Humbled by the Honor

Speaking about GSC having been named CineAsia’s “Exhibitor of the Year,” Koh asserts that she and her team are very humbled by the award and the recognition it brings. “I am confident that GSC’s unique facilities, such as our GSC Maxx screens, D-BOX motion seats, Dolby Atmos venues and THX-certified auditoriums offer moviegoers the best experience that they can get. Being CineAsia’s ‘Exhibitor of the Year’ will propel us to further enhance our offerings so that we can continue to deliver the best to our customers.”

But Koh’s efforts and dedication have not gone unnoticed elsewhere either. This year, she was recognized by Internet-based movie industry newswire Celluloid Junkie as one of the top 10 female CEOs in the global cinema business. However, such accolades don’t get to her head easily: During her interview with FJI, Koh consistently repeated that GSC is foremost a concerted team effort and that she sees herself as just another member of the team. But that, of course, is what only a true leader would say.

Moving Forward

Koh holds high hopes for GSC's future. She foresees continuous growth for the cinema chain's business within and beyond Malaysia. Her top priority is to continue improving the customer cinematic experience by not only leveraging technological advancements but also enhancing the customer value chain through continuous training and innovation.  "We need to keep pushing ourselves to deliver services beyond our customers' expectations in order to stay relevant in the industry," Koh sums up.

Irving Chee: GM with Heart and Soul

Currently serving as general manager of Golden Screen Cinemas, Irving Chee originally came from an accountancy background, having joined the Malaysian outfit of global accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand in 1980. It was during that employment that he attained his certification as a public accountant professional. But the silver screen soon beckoned for Chee... well, sort of. In 1985, he took up an accountant position with pioneering Malaysian film studio and cinema operator Shaw Brothers. Soon thereafter, he moved on to nascent GSC, which back then only operated a few standalone screens.

More Than a Quarter Century of Dedication

In 1992, Chee was appointed general manager and has held that position ever since. It may not always have been a walk in the park, but there were numerous exhilarating and rewarding moments, too, he asserts. “I have been with GSC for almost 30 years…and I cherish all the blood, sweat and tears poured into growing GSC into what it is today. It would not be a normal day without challenges, but we take them in our stride and make the most out of it. After all, we lead the cinema landscape in Malaysia and support the growth of the industry with our [dominating] market share and influence.” Blood, sweat, tears—these are not just empty metaphors for Irving Chee. His hard work and uncompromising dedication have made him become an indispensable part of his company.

Shaping GSC into a Top-Notch Venture

Besides being responsible for GSC’s day-to-day operations, Chee also heads the chain’s marketing team, develops and implements special projects and is tirelessly striving for innovation. He was instrumental in diversifying and refreshing the GSC brand to ensure it maintained its relevance in the market. In 1999, he kicked off the transformation of GSC from standalone cinemas to multiplexes when he inaugurated the 18-screen GSC Mid Valley Megamall in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, which back then was the largest multiplex in all of Asia. It also was at that same GSC venue where a few years later the country’s very first digital projection screens appeared, starting another revolution.

Currently, there are three distinctive cinema brands under the GSC banner, each one of them targeting a different audience demographic. The brand "GSC”—one could perhaps say the original brand—primarily focuses on audiences in urban areas with presently 15 multiplex locations (154 screens) in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur and another 12 (114 screens) in other large cities around the country. “GSC Lite,” meanwhile, embodies lighter, more modest cinema entertainment without compromising the big screen and digital sound experience. Catering to audiences in smaller towns away from the large urban centers, there currently are five “Lite” locations with a combined 31 screens. Lastly, “GSC Signature,” comprising seven screens in Kuala Lumpur, has been devised as an upmarket venue, the first-ever “boutique cinema” in Malaysia featuring Gold Class and Premiere Class auditoriums equipped with the latest technology.

But Chee doesn’t merely oversee the rebranding or upgrading of existing GSC venues. He also spearheads the opening and development of new cinema sites, the cornerstone of GSC’s continued growth. Maintaining great working relationships with all major mall operators in Malaysia, Chee has a very keen understanding of the dynamics of Malaysia’s economic development and population growth, which is crucial in the selection of sites to expand GSC’s business.

Drive for Technological Innovation

Technology has always been high on the agenda for Chee, a self-confessed technophile. True evolution, of course, never grinds to a halt—whether in Mother Nature, in the film exhibition business or just about any other industry. This is seen through GSC’s introduction of the “GSC Maxx” screens, the largest cinema screens currently available in Malaysia, D-BOX motion seats in numerous auditoriums, Dolby Atmos sound systems, THX-certified venues, as well as the ingenious auto-gate for "ticketless" cinema admission installed at all GSC locations. Many of these implementations were a “first” in Malaysia, firmly cementing GSC’s current positioning as a premier cinema option. In the late 2000s, the introduction of the proprietary EASI online ticketing system and GSC Mobile App (see our article on Heng Beng Fatt) was a further rung up higher on GSC’s evolutionary ladder. “At GSC, we consistently strive to provide total movie entertainment in the best-equipped auditoriums and with the best customer service,” Chee sums up his philosophy.

Concessions: An Integral Part of Cinema Enjoyment

Of course, that would include the concessions business as well, and Chee makes it clear that providing food and drinks to movie fans is an integral and inseparable part of the GSC experience. “The concessions business is always important. Going to the cinema isn’t only about enjoying a movie with excellent picture and sound quality in a comfortable seat. It is just as much about a scrumptious array of food and beverages that will elevate the level of enjoyment during any cinema-going experience.” Together with his concessions team, he regularly reviews the food menus “to ensure that our selection fits the Malaysian palate.” Chee also constantly looks out for potential F&B partners, inviting traders to set up outpost stalls at suitable GSC premises to offer an even wider array of concession items.

Responsibilities Beyond GSC

But one would be mistaken to assume that all of these responsibilities would bust the capacity threshold workaholic Irving Chee has cultivated and developed during his long professional career. In addition to his demanding general manager job at GSC, Chee sits on the boards of directors of several companies involved in family entertainment and IT businesses under the wings of PPB Group Bhd, the very conglomerate that also owns GSC. Furthermore, he is a committee member of the Malaysian Association of Film Exhibitors and also sits on the Compulsory Screening Committee, an official body that reviews local Malaysian movies and determines their release dates.

Simple and Clear Focus

Perhaps it is his very open and accommodating attitude that helps Chee master this plethora of duties seemingly without effort. “I enjoy talking to people and working with them to see how best we can solve problems and improve ourselves. Helping colleagues discover their potentials, seeing their commitment to their jobs, charting personal and professional growth with them in the process—these are the most fulfilling aspects of my job,” he says. To him, the best practices in the theatrical exhibition business are simple and clear-cut: One has to be people-focused, customer-focused, employee-focused, accept ownership of whatever one endeavors and display a great deal of integrity. “At GSC we hold these values, which complement each other, very close to heart. With these in mind, we constantly review what we do for our partners, our customers and our employees to ensure that they get the best from us at all times,” he explains, speaking as much for himself as for GSC’s other executive staff.

Heng Beng Fatt: Pushing Harder Every Day

A trained and certified accountant, Heng Beng Fatt worked at audit firm Ernst & Young before joining Golden Screen Cinemas in May 1992. Learning every little facet of his new company from scratch, he worked his way up from accountant to deputy general manager. In this current capacity,Heng focuses on GSC’s business development. He also also heads the corporate services division, including the finance, human resources, IT and business development units, and oversees the operations division, including cinema operations, programming, concessions, F&B and technical. A member of GSC’s executive committee, he also serves on the board of EASI Group, a subsidiary of PPB Leisure Holdings Sdn Bhd.

A Big, Big Family

About his involvement with GSC, Heng says, “Our growth and success aside, one of the best things in my job is to see how people have stayed on and grown with us. We have a considerable number of employees who have been with us for a long time.”

As a leader, he also stresses that hisrole as deputy general manager is hinged on integrity and ownership, two qualities GSC values very much in all its executives. “Having integrity and accountability in all that we do is crucial in building the business and developing our people.” He enjoys coaching and encouraging employees to work towards the company’s goals, and for him the best reward is to see employees shine with confidence at what they do.

Developing the Work Force

The human-resources development is another area that demands Heng’s full attention. “Getting the right young talents onboard for the right jobs and retaining them is a particular challenge,” he readily admits. It is therefore crucial for Heng to devise new engagement models for GSC’s age-diversified work force so that generational differences between baby boomers and Millennials are taken into account. “We maintain a young, vibrant and fun work culture, as this is in GSC’s DNA,” he affirms, adding that GSC currently has about 2,000 staff of all job descriptions across Malaysia.

“One of our core values is the development of our talents and we take that aspect very seriously. We invest in professional courses for our employees to gain knowledge, which will eventually become their skill sets. We also provide personal coaching sessions to develop high-potential employees to take on greater responsibilities,” Heng explains. To him, having a competent workforce is synonymous with the company’s sustainability, helping it to weather any unfavorable business phases or general economic upheaval.

EASI, Hassle-Free and Queue-Less Ticketing

Over the years, GSC has launched and implemented a variety of groundbreaking operational and technical innovations that transformed Malaysia’s cinema landscape into a modern industry. Two of these innovations without doubt are the EASI ticketing system and the EASI auto-gate checkpoints, which are now integral parts of the GSC experience. The EASI ticketing solution is a sophisticated and practical system with user-friendly interface to handle ticketing and F&B sales, be it over the counters or via the GSC Mobile App. Customers buy their tickets and F&B items via the app, collect their popcorn and soda at the concessions counter and admit themselves into the cinema without having to join a potentially long queue.

“In Malaysia, GSC is the first and only cinema operator that offers moviegoers a one-stop solution for buying movie tickets and popcorn combos through our mobile app,” Heng explains. “You can skip the queue and proceed through the auto-gate by having the barcode scanned at the entrance.”

While the GSC Mobile App and auto-gate are so far only available at GSC venues in Malaysia, Heng looks forward to also introducing it when GSC opens in Cambodia next year. An ingenious and enormously convenient ticketing system, EASI has also been adopted by cinema operators in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, according to Heng. But as a fully customizable POS solution, it is also used by retailers, F&B and theme-park operators in Malaysia and Singapore.

 

Saluting Mei Lee Koh

Han Seng Lim

VP, Sales & Marketing, Southeast Asia

United International Pictures:

“Mei is both a respected industry leader and a treasured friend. Being one of few prominent women CEOs in exhibition, the cinema landscape would be drastically different without her. Her achievements speak for themselves and what's most endearing about Mei is not her great business acumen or vast knowledge but her affable personality. Always ready with a smile or a piece of good advice, Mei is a friend I'm very grateful for and whom I continue to lean to for guidance and support. Congratulations, Mei, on your well-deserved award!”

 

Sunder Kimatrai

Executive VP, Asia-Pacific

Twentieth Century Fox International:

“The late ’90s were a challenging time for the Malaysian film exhibition and distribution industry as it dealt with the devastating effects of the Asian financial crisis that wreaked havoc with exchange rates, consumer demand and the real estate industry. When coupled with the effects of piracy which dominated the marketplace, it made the jobs of those in the industry in Malaysia challenging indeed. Since then, the Malaysian cinema industry has turned around dramatically and become a success story that other countries now look to emulate. Koh Mei Lee led her organization through a time when most investors would have exited the industry—in fact, many did. Koh Mei Lee led the GSC organization and her excellent team through that difficult era to success with great professionalism, not to mention her signature style and grace. The industry achievements, market share and personal recognition she now enjoys are testament to that—and her award at CineAsia is richly deserved. Congratulations!”