ISF advisor Datuk Er Kok Leong, a trained chemist, found his calling in the food business.
18 JULY 2012 (The Star) - Back in the days when the use of palm oil was not as pervasive as it is today, Datuk Er Kok Leong was preoccupied with uncovering the potential of the oil.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night if a solution or an idea popped up. If I couldn't solve the problem, it would keep playing in my head," says Er who admits to being a detail-oriented and thorough person when it comes to his work.
The corporate advisor to Intercontinental Specialty Fats Sdn Bhd (ISF) says his drive to get the best out of palm oil spanned four decades and has borne fruit for the local palm oil sector.
Er, a Singapore Nanyang Technology University (NTU) chemistry graduate, joined Lam Soon (M) Bhd in 1971 in its cooking oil and fats division, having worked in a mining company for several years prior to that.
"I like the food industry. I feel that there are more challenges because everyone needs variety and quality when it comes to food," he says.
Er believes that he ventured into the palm oil field at the right time. At that point, he was convinced that "this is the future of my career."
"If an industry and its raw materials are in the same country, I think that is a good industry," he explains.
The innovations in palm oil that followed enabled Lam Soon to move away from imported vegetable oils to sourcing raw materials locally. As chief chemist, Er was involved in various operations such as quality control, palm oil processing technology, product development and application.
"In the 70s, technical information on palm oil was not readily available so I had to do my best to think of what palm oil can be used for," he says. One example was industrial bakery margarine which at that time he had to use creaming volume and baking performance to determine if the formulation and processing condition were right.
It was this pioneering spirit that put him at the forefront of local food technology. Credited with coming up with new formulas involving palm oil, Er introduced the use of palm oil in the condense milk industry, to replace the conventional but more expensive tallow.
The new product known as "filled milk" saved the industry and the country costs from butter fat imports.
For his contributions to the local palm oil industry, Er was conferred the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) 2012 Palm Oil Industry Leadership Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony last night at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Kuala Lumpur.
"I am very happy that MPOC recognises my contribution to the downstream palm oil industry after almost 41 years," he says.
In 2007, he was awarded a medal from the Russian government for his role in strengthening Russian-Malaysian cooperation through ISF's Cocoa Butter Equivalent (CBE) business.
His other awards include the Malaysian Institute of Chemistry Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen KT Yong Award in 2011 and a distinguished alumni award from his alma mater NTU in 2009.
Er stresses that the key to accomplishment in any field is a consistent attitude and passion.
"I like my job very much and have been very passionate about it, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to talk about palm oil every day for so many years," he says.
After 14 years with Lam Soon, Er was seconded to ISF in 1985 as general manager. Er was already in charge of the ISF special project in 1980.
ISF's work and research in palm oil made it the first Malaysian company to produce POP fat and SOS fat for cocoa butter equivalent.
In terms of engaging in business from abroad, Er believes that his extensive knowledge and experience with palm oil and other vegetable oils not only convinced foreign partners but helped tremendously in managing the company's operations.
"(You) must be equipped with scientific knowledge especially in oils and fats, which helps you to make the right decisions," he says.
As technical manager and then managing director at ISF until 2005, he says he is "known all over the industry for setting up ISF. People say that my name and the ISF brand are equals."
The 71-year-old is ready to take life easier now. "I would like to have something easy to pass the time, not in a related field," he says.
Er cites Europe as a destination he would like to visit as his previous trips had been for work and he was "always in the office."
While Er now takes a step back for others to run the show, he hopes that ISF will continue to progress with the solid foundation he has laid down in terms of its product range and technology.