[Isshōkenmei] On the street corner… (7)

By Lee San

The principle that I have been upholding these years is not to get embroiled in any conflict, trying instead to settle any dispute amicably.

And since Sanni needed the travel agency so much more than I, I was glad to let him have it. I only hoped that he would understand how hard we young people had earned and saved the money, and would kindly return us all that we had invested.

Unfortunately he insisted that all the remittances had come from Vasan and refused to pay us back.

The weird thing was, he started to spread the rumor that I ran away with the money to Malaysia. I found myself unable to refute his allegation or defend myself. All I could do was to stay away from him as much as I could.

It was like a wake-up call for me. The dispute between Sanni and me was not because of myself, and would therefore not become a stumbling block but would rather serve to constantly alert me in future. Put it this way, paying a fee to pick up some valuable lessons in starting my own career is not a total waste at all. Bear in mind that there are always risks lurking all over us, waiting to hit when we least suspect it. The experiences that we have accumulated are the best cure to fend off such dangers.

That was actually what I thought then.

As Apple Vacations steps into its 24th year, we have seen a crisis striking almost every five years: regional financial crisis, SARS, MERS, September 11 attacks, the 2011 earthquake in Japan, and the current coronavirus pandemic. Although the crisis gets tougher each time, we have somehow overcome it.

The initial RM120,000 capital was sourced through crowd-funding, and I had to answer to the tour guide buddies in Japan. After much consideration, I decided to hire a lawyer to clear my name. I knew it was going to be costly and time-consuming, but I couldn’t think of a better alternative. As a matter of fact, the entire case took more than five years to arrive at a mutually acceptable settlement.

My first venture into business ended up in a flop barely nine months later. How was I supposed to start again next? My father-in-law helped come up with RM10,000, suggesting that I rent a single-storey terraced house in Cheras at RM450 a month to get myself settled down.

He told me: Get yourself settled down first before making your next business move. What a wise and experienced man he was. But sadly, when I finally got to move into a villa after some years, we lost him to stroke. But, the blue chip that he had invested in — me — began to reward.

Before I go on, allow me to explain what I actually did during my nine-month unpaid stint at Sanni’s travel company.

With ANA’s marketing & sales manager for Malaysia Bernard Woo.

In July 1995, All Nippon Airways resumed KL-Tokyo service, which to me was a rare opportunity. I went to see ANA’s marketing & sales manager for Malaysia Bernard Woo, a humble and easy-going gentleman from Penang. I proposed myself to him, and showed him the Japan tour itineraries I had painstakingly designed to highlight the best themed attractions of the country in every season.

Bernard himself was very familiar with Japan, and he had his unique vision in travel planning. He agreed that I should use Sanni’s company as a shield (gentle reminder: I was then working for Sanni without pay), to start what the industry called B2B sales. Bernard was impressed by my professionalism and enthusiasm, while I respected him for selflessly taking care of industrial newbies like me. He always brought me along when meeting seniors in the outbound travel business.

As if that’s not enough, he even persuaded his general manager Ota-san to start the “ANA Holidays” strategic alliance branding as a wholesale Japan tour specialist. Sure enough I was fully authorized to handle the Japan ground arrangement part. Thanks to ANA, the two of us became new generation darlings in the Japan outbound tour business, paving the way for me to excel in this business in the years to come. Nevertheless, Sanni seemed to have other plans in his head.

When something eventually went wrong with my joint business with Sanni. Bernard promised me he would give me his full support if I were to set up my own travel agency.

And he did!

A 1995 advertisement.

Bernard, my friend-mentor-partner, always showed up whenever I needed help. May 2012, he retired from ANA, and the following month, he became the MD of Apple Aviation, an Apple Vacations subsidiary, responsible for the GSA for Kuwait Airways and Royal Brunei & other carriers. Because of him, Apple formally ventured into the airline logistics business.

In January 2017, we planned to float the company on the Ace Market two years later and made preparations for that. Bernard was later back at the Apple HQ to be COO until he officially retired in 2019.

Up till this point I must express my most heartfelt gratitude to Bernard Woo for his undivided support for me, for Kohsan, and for Apple Vacations over the past 24 years.

He was that extremely precious mentor I chanced upon on the street corner…

More in the Isshōkenmei series

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)


Lee San
Apple Vacations


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