Anthony Tan: the man behind the success of the unicorn Grab

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Among the Singapore’s 50 Richest 2021, Anthony Tan is the CEO and co-founder of Grab, the dominant ride-hailing app in Southeast Asia and the region's first unicorn.

Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1982, Anthony Tan is the heir to one of the Malaysia’s wealthiest families. His father, Tan Heng Chew, is the chief executive of Tan Chong Motor Holdings Bhd, one of the biggest automotive groups in the country. His academic background includes a B.A. in Economics and Public Policy at University of Chicago honors and a prestigious M.B.A at Harvard Business School (HBS), completed in 2011. It all started from there. During an interview for the Financial Times in 2014, Tan said he was heavily influenced by entrepreneurship courses and meetings with personalities like Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, and Eric Ries. All this opened his eyes of new opportunities, with much displeasure of his family.

Tan met Tan Hooi Ling, who will become co-founder of Grab, at Harvard Business School in 2009 while they were working on their MBAs. They wrote together a business plan for a mobile app that would connect taxi seekers directly with taxi drivers closest to their location. Both of Malaysian origins, they wanted to find a solution to move into the great urban congestion. The drivers would have been supplied with smartphones so they could communicate directly with potential customers. It was an Uber-like app designed to benefit both taxi drivers, who are continually besieged and always looking for rides, and customers, to make them feel safer.

That project was a runner-up in the HBS New Venture Competition in 2011. Using the $25,000 from the winning and their personal funds, Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling launched the MyTeksi app in June 2012. By giving up his role in the family business, Anthony was able to find various upfront funding from various investors in the US and Asia, strenuously continuing to develop his project, while his relatives struggled to understand what he was doing. Tan never had regrets: “Building something from scratch from just a PowerPoint and seeing the lives we affect is a lot more rewarding”, he said.

After raising the funds to support a regional expansion, in 2016 the startup was moved to Singapore and renamed Grab. Today, in addition to ride-hailing, it includes delivery services (food, shopping, packages), online payments and financial services. It is present in 8 ASEAN countries: Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam. Grab's investors include Softbank, Didi Chuxing and Toyota. Uber acquired a stake after Grab bought out its regional operations in 2018. When the Softbank investment was announced, Tan confirmed the willingness to pursue his goal of growing so fast, continuing the “fight for market share”.

“What we’ve built sounds glamorous but if you really want to be hardcore and survive in this race, you need to be hyper paranoid and constantly thinking that the guy on your right is trying to murder you,” Tan said. Tenacious and motivated, the people who work with him say he always wants to be the “number one”. He has a deep spiritual side, and he cites Jesus Christ as one of his leadership examples. He feels his work as a “mission" to serve Southeast Asians’ daily needs. Before the pandemic, he met with many ministers in several cities in the region to support the legalization of ride-hailing.

He is married to Chloe Tong, the daughter of the founder of Phileo Allied Bank, and they are expecting their fourth child. People who know Tan say his strengths are determination and time management skills. He is known for studying business cases or taking calls while running on the treadmill. On the other hand, Tan had clear ideas from an early age: at six he said he wanted to become a businessman. HBS was where his idea was born, but getting out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, riding in taxis, talking to taxi drivers, and not being afraid to introduce technology in a reluctant environment transformed his plan into a winning business.  

In April 2021, Tan announced Grab's U.S. listing by merging the firm with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) of Altimeter Growth. The deal is expected to close by the end of this year, making the company reach a valuation of $40 billion. Perseverance paid off. With a net worth of $790 million, Tan ranks 47th in the Singapore's 50 Richest 2021 according to Forbes.

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