Anthony Tan: the Malaysian business scion taking on Uber

Anthony Tan has always been unabashedly ambitious and, in taxi-hailing apps, saw his chance to get into the history books. The competition, though, may be about to hot up.

Parental relationships can be important when starting new businesses. Rarely more so than in the case of Anthony Tan – originator of the Asian “super-app” Grab, which having proved “an Uber killer” in its home markets is now readying for a $35bn-$40bn Wall Street float in the largest special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal yet seen. 

Tan’s mother was one of the first investors in Grab’s Malaysian forerunner MyTeksi – the online taxi-booking service founded by the youthful entrepreneur in 2012, says the BBC. She was also pivotal to the app’s acceptance among institutional investors. “We saw how he spent time with his mum, how he talked to her, and how much respect he gave her,” says Kee Lock Chua of Vertex Ventures. “That told us he had strong character and conviction. Besides the solid idea, that helped us make the decision to invest in the business.” Chua’s firm paid $11m for a 22% stake in Grab: by the time he exited seven years later, it was worth “more than ten times that amount” – a measure of the company’s mushrooming growth as it expanded beyond taxis into food delivery, insurance, payments and lending across eight countries to become Southeast Asia’s most valuable start-up.  

“The eye-popping numbers give a sense that Tan is blazing a trail for the entire region,” says the Financial Times. That is “very much in character”. Born into one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families, Harvard-educated Tan, now 39, has always been “unabashedly ambitious”, proclaiming just two years after founding the company that “if we get this right, we can literally go into the history books”. According to a lawyer whose firm works for Grab, “Anthony always wants to be number one”. He’s also spiritually driven, citing Jesus Christ as a business hero and describing his job as a “mission” to serve Southeast Asians’ needs. 

It could all have been very different, notes a Harvard Business School profile. As a scion of the family behind Tan Chong Motor, one of Malaysia’s biggest car distributors, Tan was expected to join the family business. But he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug while at Harvard. Challenged by a classmate, he came up with a plan to revamp the Malaysian taxi market. 

Only connect

It’s perhaps Tan’s unique mix of connections – he was “heavily influenced” by meetings with tech founders such as YouTube’s Steve Chen, and “lean start-up” gurus – that has done most to fuel Grab’s growth, says the FT. Supporters say it took someone like him “to navigate Southeast Asia’s interlinked world of politics and business”. But he’s never lost touch with street life. Now married and living in Singapore, he can often be seen eating cai fan (a cheap rice dish) in shopping malls. That familiarity with business on the ground helped in the epic battle to oust Uber. While the latter was seen as a competitive threat by local cab drivers, Grab was perceived as an ally. Thus when Tan decided to leverage Grab’s customer-base and offer financial services, it was viewed more as a helpful evolution than a power grab, says the BBC.  

That said, the risks to Grab are mounting. There’s a danger that local governments will emulate China’s crackdown on e-commerce giants getting into digital banking. More imminently, he faces the challenge of debuting on Wall Street “just as institutional enthusiasm for SPACs is waning and short-sellers are circling”, says the Financial Times. “Anthony is a street fighter,” says a former employee. He may need to be.

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