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Stepping out from the comfort zone

18 February, 2008

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times. That was how Chris S. Thiagarajah described his job when he first started his business, SkyBus Ventures Sdn Bhd.

Unlike most people his age (in his mid-30s then), Chris was not afraid to give up his position as the head of marketing of Boh Plantations Sdn Bhd in 2002 to venture into something new and unknown.

The founder and chief executive officer of SkyBus said: "I thought it was about time I left Boh Plantations and ventured out on my own. I did not want to try my hand in this (running a business) when I am older.

"And if I didn't do this then, I would never do it. Since life is short, I decided to give it a go so that I would have no regrets," he told StarBiz in an interview.

SkyBus is a licensed coach service provider. It provides a point-to-point service from low-cost carrier terminal (LCCT) to KL Sentral, and vice versa.

Chris, who has two children (Natasha and Andrew), said SkyBus was like his third child. He said it was not easy or effortless to give birth to the third baby.

He is a businessman very much at the top of his game. He studied economics and finance, an education that prepared him for his business venture.

"The opportunity came along with the plan to build the LCCT in 2006. I saw the prospect and decided to give it a try. SkyBus was officially launched on March 26, 2006." he said, adding that he appreciated his bankers, RHB Bank and Public Bank, which had provided him with the financial support.

Starting out with RM750,000 in capital, SkyBus initially operated on leased coaches. Today, the company boasts a fleet of 20 new 40-seater air-conditioned coaches.

"We could have made it a 44-seater coach if we wanted to be more economical, but we decided to give our passengers ample leg room," Chris said.

SkyBus reported an average load factor of 55% a day on its buses two years ago. Currently, the figure averages between 70% and 75%. During the peak seasons, it records about 90% to 95%.

However, Chris said the business was not as rosy as one might think. He said the company had encountered some challenges over the past two years.

"It was a challenge to run a RM9 bus service with the escalating petrol prices. The Government announced a 30 sen hike in fuel price when we started our operation in 2006.

"Although we have managed to make some profit, the margins were very thin; therefore, we have to tread with care," he said.

Chris said Skybus was growing steadily. Despite having been launched just two years ago, SkyBus has been a hit with travellers due to its affordable fare and quality services.

He said demand for its service was also picking up and SkyBus had carried almost two million passengers since its introduction.

"We have also set up a company, SkyVan Sdn Bhd, to provide transport for travellers to all hotels in the Klang Valley. SkyVan also offers chartering service for excursions," Chris said.

SkyBus would also sell advertising space on the coaches (AirAsia Bhd has already taken up some space), allow other consumer brands to distribute product samples to passengers, and have multi-media advertising on board. Apart from AirAsia, SkyBus is also collaborating with DiGi.Com Bhd.

"We hope to grow our ancillary income to 35% from 20% currently," he said.

Commenting on the competition, he said it kept him on his toes. The company, he said, would constantly be improving its services and fulfil customer expectations.

"I love challenges in business but I hope there will be a level playing field, as it can be tiring competing on an uneven field," Chris said.

"We do not have a large budget to advertise our services at the moment. We have built our customer base by word of mouth from our existing customers," he added.

The company also peddles tickets aboard AirAsia flights and will soon sell them on its website as well.

"It is not as easy as many people think. I spent most of my time working when I first started. I did not have much free time then," he said, adding that he was thankful that he had a very understanding family.

He has always been passionate about what he does. His interest in running a successful business led him to constantly improving things – to look at a problem and tackle it in a different way.

Chris said he got a "real kick" when his children said they saw his buses on the road.

"At the end of the day, what makes all these (feats) meaningful is when I receive e-mail or testimony from strangers who say they are satisfied with the service SkyBus provided," he said.

This article is a verbatim copy of the original article from The Star.

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