PRIMED FOR SUCCESS
Natasha Mohammad talks about her role in her family’s business, Balung Plantation, and what brings meaning to her life
by Sandra Foo
In a country as diverse as Malaysia and a city as small as Kuala Lumpur, one can, at times, feel a little lost, both literally and figuratively, as they strive to keep up with the fast pace of urban life while trying to find some solid ground on which they can stand still and grow from. But amidst all that (mostly) hushed busyness, one person seems well on her way to finding that ground.
At first sight, one would be hard-pressed to look, if not feel, as confident and self-assured as Natasha Mohammad. Sociable and vivacious, with a startlingly refreshing candor, the 28-year-old Sabah native may come off as intimidating to strangers, but is known among her nearest and dearest as a big voice with a big heart.
Born in London, raised in Sabah and now residing in Kuala Lumpur, Natasha has spent the better part of her adult life making a name for herself, dabbling in different fields with a keen business mind that puts her that much closer to the forefront of industries in which men older than her have long dominated. Case in point: Natasha helps to run her family’s plantation-based business, Balung, which was founded by her grandfather, former Sabah Chief Minister Tan Sri Datuk Seri Harris Salleh.
“Balung does so many different things, such as palm oil, wood, petroleum, and tea, and I am involved in the tea segment of the business,” Natasha explains. “I am in charge of marketing the promoting Balung teas in Malaysia, although we have been exporting the teas to China, the United Kingdom and Japan for the last six years. We produce lemongrass tea, agarwood tea, java tea and aren syrup, and right now I focus on the direct selling of these products, although I plan to hit hypermarkets, restaurants and hotels in the near future.”
With Balung being a family-owned business, it was only natural that Natasha grew up seeing the business being run all around her, and has been doing her part to help with the business ever since she was 19 years old. “I’ve always been interested in business. I’ve always tried to help wherever I could,” she says. “If there were meetings in Kuala Lumpur and nobody from the family was available to attend them, I would represent them, even though I was only 22 or 23 at the time. I don’t think age is a factor; as long as you know the ropes, you’re fine.”
Drawing from her memories of practically growing up in the business, it is clear that Natasha takes great pride in Balung and its history. “My cousins and I were living all over the world, but for as long as I can remember, every holiday was spent on the plantation,” she reminisces. “My grandfather is a very firm believer in not wasting time, so he tried to make education fun for us. We would always be on the plantation learning all the processes and how to do the work ourselves.
“I am a girl, I am 28 years old, but I know how to drive a tractor. I can drive a pickup uphill and down dale and out of the mud if I have to. I can ride a motorcycle and drive a boat. These were all things that we could have gotten other people to do for us, but my grandfather is a very hands-on person, so with him it was always ‘You have to grow, you have to learn, you have to do it yourself because you are capable of doing it!’ That’s also how we all learnt to be independent and resourceful. We understood the business and how everything in it was done, so why not do the best we can for it?”
Despite Balung’s rich history and established footing in the industry, Natasha does not hesitate to address the challenges brought on by the advancement of time and innovation of technology, especially for a job as volatile as hers. “There are so many tea brands that are already household names, and unless we fork out the millions required to appear on every billboard and primetime advertising slot, anyone in our position would find the task of marketing their brand a challenge,” she muses.
“However, social media has helped a lot,” Natasha adds. “Say what you like about it, but one of the best ways to introduce a new brand is word of mouth. There is no point in putting an advertisement out there if nobody understands what it is or why it’s there. My main aim is to make Balung a household name, so slowly but surely I know we’ll get there.”
Never one to sit back on her heels, Natasha also has a hand in other businesses, namely running her own credit recovery and production companies with a friend and partner. “At BayuMakmur Consultancy, we advise people on their credit income and how they can manage it, and our clientele currently includes telecommunications companies and banks,” she explains.
“Under BayuMakmur Productions, we produce drama series for different TV stations, as well as telemovies. We’re not looking into producing films yet, at least not for the time being. The companies both bear the name BayuMakmur because my partner is from Pahang, so Bayu represents my Sabah roots, while Makmur represents her Pahang heritage.”
Going by the success she has achieved thus far, it comes as no surprise that one of her role models is her grandfather. “My grandfather is one of the most hardworking people you will ever meet,” she states proudly. “He came from nothing and worked his way up to become the Chief Minister of Sabah, and he was the longest-serving Chief Minister Sabah has ever had. The love and compassion that he has for Sabah and her people is incomparable; even now, he spends his time thinking of ways he can better Sabah. He is also the one who taught me how to manage my time, and his favorite saying is ‘Jangan lugai-lugai’: don’t procrastinate, and just get everything done now.
“My mother is also one of my role models,” Natasha says. “She brought my brother and me up as a single parent, and anyone who knows us knows that it takes a lot to deal with us. So I really respect the patience and courage which which she raised two people as extroverted and vocal as we are!”
In stark contrast to said extroversion, Natasha retreats a little when asked about her personal style, which is curious for someone who appears equally comfortable in T-shirts and espadrilles as she does in fancy dresses. “I’m very pragmatic in the way I dress; I have no illusions about the way I look,” she says candidly. “I’m not very girly; I love wearing heels with a plain T-shirt and printed slouchy pants – and a nice bag. I believe that a good handbag and a good pair of shoes will carry any outfit. And good hair!”
With such a full portfolio, one wonders how Natasha gets any time to herself at all. “I do try to maintain a decent work-life balance. I love to play badminton, and sometimes I like to cook,” she says. “I love spending time with my friends, because it helps me unwind and calm down, especially when I get too caught up with work. My friends are very important to me; they keep me grounded and sane!
“I also love to travel; I travel whenever I can, because I come back feeling refreshed and full of new ideas, and I am able to focus better on whatever I have to do.
“I believe that there is no success without failure or criticism, because those are the two things that make you strive to be better. And I totally do not believe people when they say, ‘I have no time’. If you know what you’re doing and how to prioritize, there is always time,” she firmly states.
In spite of her success – and also perhaps because of it – Natasha feels that she can do much more with herself, and attributes her drive for personal accomplishments to the people around her. “Anyone would love to be in anyone else’s shoes, and I am very grateful to be where I am, but I had a stepping stone, while many other people my age came from nothing and still went on to do so well,” she says. “So really, people keep me motivated. Making my family proud of me keeps me motivated.”
And with that stepping stone, Natasha has built a life for herself that allows her to give back to society. Most recently, she banded her friends together to contribute to orphanages during the Ramadhan month. “Always, always give back. Always remember that whatever God gave you, He can just as easily take it away in an instant. And always be humble and appreciate what you have. If, at 28 years old, I’m already saying that I’ve reached my goal, my God, I need help!”