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Commentary: Anthony Tan, the ‘unabashedly ambitious’ man behind Grab

With Grab’s impending US$35 billion valuation, CEO Anthony Tan is poised to make history, say the Financial Times’ Mercedes Ruehl and Stefania Palma.

Commentary: Anthony Tan, the ‘unabashedly ambitious’ man behind Grab

Grab's CEO Anthony Tan speaks during Grab's fifth anniversary news conference in Singapore Jun 6, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE: Two years after founding his Uber-like taxi service, Anthony Tan was already unabashedly ambitious. 

“If we get this right, we can literally go into the history books,” the Harvard Business School-educated entrepreneur proclaimed in 2014.

Seven years later, the 39-year-old scion of one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families is poised to do exactly that.

His company, Grab, Southeast Asia’s most valuable start-up, is finalising the world’s biggest merger with a SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company. It would value his business at about US$35 billion and list it on Nasdaq.

READ: Commentary: Why a bumper crop of Southeast Asian tech unicorns look set to IPO this year

The eye-popping numbers give a sense that Tan is blazing a trail for the entire region, which is very much in character.

“Anthony always wants to be number one. He is the guy in Seat 1A and the first one off the plane,” says a lawyer whose firm works for Grab.

Tenacious and driven, Tan also has a spiritual side: He cited Jesus Christ as one of his leadership heroes in a 2019 interview and became a “Christ centred disciple” after meeting Andy Mills at Harvard.

The former chief executive of Thomson Financial and Grab board member guided “me as a mentor, as a big brother in my work, in my faith in God,” Tan has said.

One year since the pandemic, why do users, riders and restaurants alike still have complaints about food delivery apps? A business professor and a ride-hailing app founder weigh in on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:

 

MAN ON A MISSION

Indeed, Tan describes his job as a “mission” to serve Southeast Asians’ daily needs. Since 2012, his company has grown from a ride-hailing app into food and grocery delivery, insurance, payments, e-wallets and lending across eight countries in Southeast Asia, fuelled by a young, mobile population.

That means the company offers investors exposure to some of the world’s fastest growing economies in a fragmented and competitive market with divergent politics, currencies, regulators and consumer spending power.

A rider working for Grab wears a protective mask at a sidewalk near the business district of Jakarta on the first business day of the new year on Jan 4, 2021. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan) A driver working for the ridesharing company Grab wears a protective mask at a sidewalk near the business district, on the first business day of the New Year, in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 4, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Supporters say it took someone like Tan to navigate Southeast Asia’s interlinked world of politics and business to expand the company, which was valued at US$16 billion in its last private fundraising, into the “super app” it is today. 

Pre-COVID-19, he was often seen rubbing shoulders with the region’s heads of state at the World Economic Forum in Davos or visiting senior ministers in multiple Southeast Asian cities to make the case for legalising ride-hailing.

Born into the family behind Tan Chong Motor, one of Malaysia’s biggest auto groups, he attended the University of Chicago and Harvard to prepare for entry into the family business. But encounters with tech entrepreneurs including YouTube co-founder Steve Chen proved a powerful lure.

He and classmate Tan Hooi Ling came up with a plan to revamp the Malaysian taxi market that was named a runner up in Harvard’s annual new venture competition. They used the award, Anthony Tan’s savings and an investment from his mother to launch what was then called MyTeksi in June 2012. 

READ: Commentary: What’s behind Grab’s reported SPAC listing

READ: Commentary: Multibillion-dollar wizards – how COVID-19 is exposing what’s behind the curtain

When Jixun Foo, a Beijing-based managing partner for global venture capital firm GGV, met Tan in a Starbucks in Singapore a year later he was dubious about backing the start-up. “He’s come back from Harvard, had a job lined up in the family business and a silver spoon in his mouth. I asked him what his motivation was,” Foo says.

Tan replied that his inspiration came from his grandfather being a taxi driver and then building up his own business.

GGV backed Grab in 2014 and was followed soon after by Tiger Global, Hillhouse Capital and Japan’s SoftBank. Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s founder, is “very supportive of Anthony”, Foo says and Tan calls the Japanese billionaire another one of his leadership heroes.

READ: Commentary: Why aren't tech unicorns listing on the SGX?

LITTLE TIME FOR FUN

Based in Singapore since he moved the company’s headquarters there from Kuala Lumpur in 2017, Tan can often be seen eating “cai fan” (a cheap rice dish) at Midview City, one of Singapore’s big shopping malls.

CEO Anthony Tan at a press conference on Jul 10, 2018, announcing the new GrabFresh service.

He is married to Chloe Tong, the daughter of the founder of Phileo Allied Bank, and they are expecting their fourth child.

He has little time for fun. In 2019, Tan called Hollywood movie Invictus an “inspiring” story of Nelson Mandela’s leadership – or at least its first 38 minutes. “I didn’t finish it … I don’t have time to watch movies.”

But he doesn’t mind. “I don’t need breaks because to me [the job] is a break,” he said.

People who know Tan say tenacity and time management skills have helped him thrive. He is known to study business cases or take calls while running on a treadmill.

“I learnt how to use a laptop on a treadmill from Anthony,” said Grab president Ming Maa, who took a pay cut to join the company in 2016.

READ: Commentary: The gig economy – a surprise boost from the pandemic and in Singapore, it’s not going anywhere

His drive has fuelled one of Asia’s most prominent rivalries with Nadiem Makarim, a Harvard classmate who helped to found Indonesia’s Gojek, which also offers payments, delivery and other services.

Each started in his home country – Gojek launched in 2010 as an app for booking motorcycle rides.

But the two super apps have burnt cash as they competed for Southeast Asian dominance. Shareholders encouraged them to start merger talks last year. Discussions stalled over how much control Tan would have.

READ: Commentary: Maybe private-hire drivers and food delivery riders don’t want full-time jobs

READ: Commentary: Impact of Grab-Gojek merger on consumers and drivers unlikely to be huge

Uber also found Tan a tough competitor during a fierce battle that ended in 2018. The US group sold out to Grab and quit the region.

“Anthony is a street fighter,” says Gregory Van, a former Grab employee who now heads a Singapore-based digital wealth management platform.

Tan is likely to need those skills: Grab is coming to market just as institutional enthusiasm for SPACs is waning and short sellers are circling.

Source: Financial Times/el

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