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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.