On 1 January this year Mohammad Azlan Abdullah CPA became chief executive officer (CEO) of New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad after a three-month transition period as chief operating officer (COO). He is now in charge of a business that is a national leader in publishing, facing the challenges confronting print media worldwide.
The company owns three powerful brands: the New Straits Times, the English-language institution with roots back to 1845; Berita Harian, a leader in the Bahasa Malaysia language; and Harian Metro, a tabloid and the highest-selling newspaper in the country. Between them they command a 63 per cent market share. The issue is how to maintain that dominance.
“One of the major challenges in the print industry is that in many parts of the world circulation is declining,” Azlan says. “Luckily for us, in Malaysia the [print] reading culture is still very strong, alongside the digital and internet world, but we cannot take things for granted we have had to prepare against changes in consumer behaviour.”
With this in mind, in November last year Azlan began to revamp the newspapers “not only in terms of their look and feel, but the way we deliver the news”. As well as their websites, the publications can now also be accessed by smartphones and tablets such as the iPad.
“The challenge is always monetising the online version,” Azlan says. “The key is to be more dynamic, to present the news in a multidimensional format to attract younger readers.”
Azlan started in accounting, following a degree from the University of Tasmania in Launceston with a job at Coopers & Lybrand Malaysia. “I aspired to become a fully practising CPA, but after a year at Coopers it did not feed my aspirations,” he recalls.
Instead, he became part of the privatisation process under way in Malaysia at the time, joining the key concessionaire on the North-South Expressway project, PLUS Berhad. It was an important move. “It was a true balance of corporate and operations work, because during my seven years there I was fortunate to be involved in various parts of running a corporate.”
He began in project finance “immersing myself in cash flows, day in, day out” then was transferred to corporate finance, running the budget unit after the highway became operational, then becoming head of internal audit followed by the toll department. Such breadth of experience proved vital, as “I still use that experience as a basis to lead a company”.
In 1999 he moved to property group Renong, where he ran the president’s office, before deciding to join an entrepreneurial set-up called Big Tree Outdoor in 2001. This business had made its name in outdoor advertising, including sites on major highways that were familiar from his time at PLUS.
“The owners asked me to help them grow the business to the next level,” Azlan says, and the 10 years spent there progressively increased his exposure to media. “During that period I’m proud to say I developed Big Tree from a highway outdoor advertising developer to a multi format advertising developer.”
By the time he left Renong, having become CEO in 2009, the business had a 43 per cent market share. Along the way, it was acquired by private equity interests and folded into the media conglomerate Media Prima Group in 2007.
His latest challenge “is not just about managing a newspaper”, he emphasises. “Most important is circulation and readership. The positioning must be clear, palatable and compelling enough for readers to pick up our newspapers.”
Career history 1987 2012
October 2011 present
COO and CEO, New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad
CEO, COO, director of operations, GM, Big Tree Outdoor
Registered Accountant, Malaysia Institute of Accountants
Senior manager, Renong Group Property Division
Corporate and operations roles, PLUS Berhad
Executive, Coopers & Lybrand Malaysia
Bachelor of Business (Accounting), University of Tasmania, Australia