The showers and baths of the world are an unusual aspirational location – unless of course you’re in the soap business. Jostling for a prime position in soap dishes and bath caddies is a sport for the cosmetics industry’s biggest players, who won’t rest until we’re clean and freshly scented.
The reality of soap manufacturing is usually far less glamorous than the end result, but the state-of-the-art Johor facility of Evyap Sabun Malaysia (Evyap) might just be the exception. From the air, the sprawling oleochemical plant resembles a giant, gleaming white bar of soap.
Inside, around 350,000 metric tons of glycerin, fatty acids and high-grade soap noodles – the basis of bar soaps and other modern personal care products – are produced every year. These are then exported around the world or turned into Evyap’s own range of consumer products in other affiliated companies worldwide.
“We’re a much more agile organization today than when we first started nine years ago,” says Saw Lee Chyan, President of Evyap and its global chemicals business.
“We’re fronting the markets and the business’ needs much more readily.”
A chemical engineer by trade, Lee Chyan spent years honing his craft with multinational companies based in the Asia–Pacific. When he finally returned to Malaysia, he took up a managing director position at a local conglomerate, finally ending up at Evyap, after squeezing in a four-year stint at his own consultancy business in between.
“Evyap discussed my taking up this leadership portfolio in their chemicals business and Malaysian operations while I was still running my own business,” he recalls. “It has been quite a successful seven years for Evyap and I am very happy to be part of this journey.”
Formed in Türkiye in 1927, Evyap has grown from a small soap producer to one of Türkiye’s biggest companies.
“It’s a family owned business, very popular and well known in that region,” Lee Chyan says.
“I believe our innovations set us apart.”
When the company decided to invest in Malaysian operations, it was with palm oil in mind.
“Palm oil is the present and the future. It’s in abundance compared to traditional soap ingredients, like tallow. The availability of tallow has not grown at all in the last 20 years, unlike palm oil, which has doubled,” Lee Chyan says.
“Evyap is a fast-moving consumer goods company that wanted to integrate itself into the chemicals business through the manufacture of bar soaps, which was a very interesting opportunity to me.
“I could learn a new industry and merge my knowledge of the chemicals business with consumer goods, and use those synergies to take it to a new level. That has proven to fruitful for Evyap in this exciting journey so far.”
Lee Chyan’s first step was to identify the business’s priorities and the areas most in need of restructuring.
“We want to make products that meet market requirements, not what the plant wants to produce,” he says. “So that’s what we did – transform the company into a very market-driven organization.”
That meant a reorientation of Evyap’s people as well. “The management team had to become more business focused, more customer oriented, more performance minded.”
With all those changes in place, Lee Chyan set out to take on an industry full of players with a distinct advantage.
“Most oleochemical companies are backward integrated with palm oil plantations, which means they’re cash-rich. We, as one of the few that don’t have a plantation background, are different, so we derive our business by integrating it with our consumer goods business,” he says.
“Sustainability is also becoming more important, so we’re only buying oils from non-blacklisted producers who are committed to non-deforestation. From there we are very careful in terms of our growth, but I’m quite proud to say that in the last seven years we’ve doubled our revenue and capacity, as well as adding new businesses, like specialty chemicals.”
All this is funded via internal cash flow generation by Evyap Sabun Malaysia, he adds.
“We’re only buying oils from non-blacklisted producers who are committed to non-deforestation.”
While this makes Lee Chyan hesitant to compare Evyap to the bigger companies in the sector, it hasn’t stopped him from going after a good-sized market share.
“One of our key goals is to be one of the most prominent integrated oleochemical companies in terms of value creation, rather than size,” he says.
“We want to create value for our shareholders, for our employees and especially for our customers, who’ve invested in us by purchasing the products and services they need.”
With such growth already underway at Evyap, Lee Chyan says the company is looking to expand its footprint. “We’ll build a new factory in Indonesia in order to capture more favorable raw material prices there,” he says.
“We’ll also transform our Malaysian operations to enhance our specialty chemicals presence, and to do that we’re looking for partners to work with to meet that goal.”
Already, local chemical manufacturers such as Suhans Chemicals and Linde Malaysia are a part of Evyap’s extended team, but Lee Chyan says fragrance companies are another important part of the chain.
“As one of the world’s biggest bar soap manufacturers, we use a lot of fragrances. There are two ways we work with fragrance companies – development through market testing, and building our own specialty chemicals portfolio that they’re able to use for the formulation of their fragrances.”
This synergistic way of doing business with its partners has helped Evyap build strong and healthy relationships. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship, I’d say,” he says.
It’s also indicative of the value Lee Chyan places on relationships and people, without which Evyap would not enjoy the success it does.
“Strategic direction is the most important thing a CEO can bring besides experience.”
“Innovation is important; I believe our innovations set us apart. But to do this, you need a blend of experienced and young people in the organization,” he says.
“Young people can contribute new ideas and new ways of doing things, but experienced people are able to guide them along the right path so those ideas are shaped the right way. We have the energy to innovate and to improve, but at the same time we have the experience to back it up.”
And as the one overseeing this process, Lee Chyan says it’s his job to provide enough inspiration and guidance to keep his people motivated and thereby achieve the company’s growth story.
“Strategic direction is the most important thing any CEO or president can bring to their organization besides experience,” he says.
“Yes, people are important, and speed of execution is very important, but you have to know what the market holds in order to direct those people at that speed. We have to work safely, but to meet customer and market expectations, we have to work quickly. That’s the motto of our story so far.”