PEH Gin Hai has built a personal brand and a measure of success that no one can deny. For years, he used his passion for swimming to teach hundreds of children and develop Malaysia’s best swimmers. These skills were what he later used to build and improve organisations under consulting firm ACMF. Who would have known that he started out as an awkward boy who spent more time on books than with friends?
No one would suspect the successful entrepreneur of having been an overweight bookworm early on. “I started reading around five. By age seven, I was reading Enid Blyton‘s Famous Five and The Secret Seven,” he muses. “In this country, a boy who reads at that age is a nerd.”
From Pudgy To Popular Swimming Sensation
It wasn’t just that he was pudgy. Gin Hai couldn’t run well either, didn’t have good ball sense, and couldn’t play sports. In fact, at school games, he was always the last person anyone chose for their team. But this would soon change.
Nine-year-old Gin Hai lived in a sleepy, seaside town of Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan. His boyhood weekends were spent on picnics by the beach, so it was fitting then, his father thought, that the family learn to swim. The family house was 500 metres away from the beach, making the decision fairly obvious.
His mother brought him to swim classes and took lessons alongside him. And because of school schedules, he had to swim with a bunch of older ladies in the night class. But while every other sport seemed a bane, he quickly realised that he took to swimming like a duck to water. It’s true that he started late in the game. But barely a few months after learning the swim strokes, he started joining competitions.
“This competitive phase was a fluke. At school, they were like, ‘So who knows how to swim?’ I raised my hand, and that was that. By 12, everything had turned around. I started to lose weight. I grew a V-shape. My shoulders broadened, my posture became erect. I gained confidence, won medals, received recognition at school. People would point me out. Even the girls started to like me.”peh gin hai
From Swimming To Coaching
During his teens, there was something in his diligence and passion that prompted his club teacher to ask him to take charge. It was something that he had to do whenever the coach was running late from work. It was a fortuitous opportunity. Gin Hai had reached a plateau as a swimmer, and wanted desperately to improve. As the new swim coach’s assistant, he wanted to invest time in reading and experimenting on new methods. These he would later use for training the others. The club also didn’t have an organised, structured swimming team. But they wanted to do better than just send out participants to competitions. They wanted to win. From then on, he committed himself to the task.
The experience turned out to be such a joy, that Gin Hai told his father he wanted to do coaching full time. His father said no, not trusting it would earn his son a decent living. So Gin Hai shelved his dreams. He went on to take up Business Administration and Mechanical Engineering at Canada’s McMaster University. There, he became a full-fledged extrovert. He spent time in hostel activities where he learned to appreciate different cultures and connecting with people.
Keeping The Dream Alive
Summer holidays back in Malaysia was spent coaching his home state team (Negeri Sembilan),which he kept up, post-graduation. Such was his commitment that he drove 300 kilometres to Port Dickson from his workplace in Johor Bahru, Johor over the weekend so he could coach swimmers and drive back to work again Sunday nights. Later, he moved to Kuala Lumpur, still coaching swimmers three times a week. It was a labour of love; none of these paid him a cent.
While tagging along with his coach, he became acquainted with the country’s cream of the crop, among them, 16-year-old Ooi Kee Tzuen, who would soon be Malaysia’s future silver medalist at the SEA Games. All the other coaches were in their 40s and 50s, so at 23, Gin Hai seemed more like a big brother rather than an uncle. “That’s how we hit it off,” he remembers. As he progressed in his engineering career, so did his career in coaching. His swimmers started winning the national competitions.
A Dream Come True
By the turn of the millennium, Gin Hai was a project manager working on piping, electrical systems, lifts and escalators in high-rise building projects, when the economy hit a slump. Suddenly, he didn’t have much work to do. Coincidentally, the National Sports Council had also started looking for a local coach for the national swim team, and because of his achievements, his name came up. Despite the pay being just barely more than half of his salary as an engineer, Gin Hai jumped at the chance. “I asked for MYR 3,000, and they said, ‘just come in and we’ll make it happen,'” he recalls. “I just really wanted to work with the national team. It was a dream come true.”
He didn’t get the pay rate that he wanted, but Gin Hai got a chance to work with the national swim team’s imported coaches from Russia and China. He acted as a translator, mentored the swimmers and dealt with authorities for travel arrangements. The foreigners barely spoke English, but they understood each other because of their swimming background.
During this stint, Gin Hai and Kee Tzuen’s paths crossed again when the latter joined the national team. He became Kee Tzuen’s mentor. “We had always been close but the mentoring experience in the national swimming team cemented our bond even further.” By the end of Gin Hai’s time with the national team, Kee Tzuen had won a medal for the country in the 2003 SEA Games in Vietnam.
Lost And Broke
At the tail end of 2004, Gin Hai was financially challenged. His expenses had grown over the years; he had bought a new apartment. When the highways emerged, he started paying the tolls. He paid for petrol on credit, and because he treated his swimmers as family, he would pay for their meals after training as well. This often happened when there wasn’t any food left at the end of the allotted meal time. But because he loved coaching so much, he remained. Eventually he asked for a pay rise and got it: a meagre five percent increase, which was barely enough to cover his costs. At that point he had to throw in the towel: “I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to look out for myself.”
Gin Hai spent the next few months sitting in his sister’s pharmacy wondering what to do. When a swim club in KL got wind of the news that the national swimming team’s coach was available, they offered him exactly the same pay in his previous job. But this time, he would only be working half the time. With more free time on his hands, he started to entertain parents who wanted him to teach their kids how to swim. He called in his former swimmers, among them, Kee Tzuen, to help him handle the growing number of kids under his care.
The Million Dollar Idea
Gin Hai’s friends observed the phenomenon and dropped the million dollar idea: “Not everyone can boast being an ex-swimming coach for the national team. Why don’t you start your own business?” He then realised that his experience would be a unique selling point that could fuel business growth.
Without hesitation, he set up a swimming academy, and in two years he needed a manager to handle the growing operations. Gin Hai honed in on Kee Tzuen, the boy he had mentored for years, and the one who proved to be the most reliable. “He always showed up, and was the most patient with kids and the ladies who were scared of the water,” Gin Hai remembers. The 23-year-old, fresh out of university, was offered a managing position. Instead of a salary, Kee Tzuen got a profit share, allowing the young swimmer an earning capacity of MYR 5,000 to MYR 6,000 a month.
At its peak, Advanced Aquatics (now known as D Swim Academy), expanded to 13 branches. It handled up to 50 schools and employing more than a hundred staff. It ran for 13 years until Gin Hai transitioned to new fields in business. Today, he uses his expertise in building human capital for ACMF, a consulting company that aims to grow small and medium businesses by building the organisation’s leaders.
A Swimming Success
Gin Hai’s remarkable journey from fat boy to big boss is a lesson on the benefits of passion and mentoring. His success came from staying true to the dream, being willing to serve others, even at times without pay. He duplicated his efforts by mentoring another individual into leadership, and used this relationship to build a profitable business.
But it was his awe at the power of transformation that kept him transfixed on the course. “I loved seeing the kids as they developed, going through the same process that I did,” Gin Hai says. “And discovering that they are able to do great things.”
In our next story, we will go on a journey with Gin Hai’s prodigy, Ooi Kee Tzuen. Despite his early career success, he struggled with his self-confidence. He talks about how he overcame his setbacks by going through life-altering coaching and leadership development programmes.