The Edge: Johor-Born Entrepreneur Driven By Solar Energy

The Edge: Johor-Born Entrepreneur Driven By Solar Energy
Written by Kuek Ser Kwang Zhe 
This piece is first published in The Edge Special Magazine “Johor: Ready For The Big Leap” on 13 June 2024.

THAM Chee Aun, who was born into a middle-income family in Johor Bahru, ventured into the solar industry in 2009 by installing solar panels for households and businesses. He did not expect that 14 years later, his firm would be an investee of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with US$10 trillion under management at end-2023.

From a “one-man-show’, Ditrolic Energy today is an employer of about 100 local and foreign workers, with the business spanning six countries, including Bangladesh, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and China.

According to a CTOS report, Ditrolic grew its revenue significantly to a multi-year high of RM123.99 million in FY2022 from RM53.05 million in FY2019, while its profit after tax amounted to RM4.18 million.

The 42-year-old founder and group CEO of the company attributes part of his success to being a Johorean. Tham’s father was an electrical technician and his mother, a housewife. When he was growing up, Johor was seen as a "pit stop” for people to refuel their vehicles or take a break before continuing their journey to Singapore. It was a slow and sleepy town, unlike Kuala Lumpur. But that is not how Johoreans see it.

“We Johoreans see it as an interesting place. While most states look towards KL, Johor is different. We have exposure to Singapore, culturally and economically," says Tham.

Most states in Malaysia are influenced by what is happening in KL, but Johor is also influenced by Singapore, a global financial hub that houses the headquarters of multinational banks, financial institutions, asset managers and other businesses. As such, Johoreans have a slightly different mindset than those in other states, he says.

“We used to watch Singaporean news, and always listened to the narrative that Singapore had to be globalised — you have to move out, you have to innovate, times are tough and costs are rising. That wasn't something you only heard in Singapore, but in Johor as well.”

In fact, Tham’s first sale in the solar panel business came from Myanmar through his business partner in Singapore, even though he was trained in Malaysia.

It was around 2009 when the solar energy industry was at a very early stage locally. Tham participated in the grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) system introduced by the Malaysian government in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme. The course trained local engineers to plan, design and implement solar energy projects.

However, Tham found it hard to generate sales locally despite completing the course and acquiring the necessary certification. He eventually tapped his connections in Singapore to receive his first order from Myanmar.

Without sufficient funds to kick-start his new venture, Tham used his father's credit card to buy two solar panels from a Japanese company and brought them to his sister's flat in Singapore to start designing a system for the panels. When he had finished, his wife helped him carry the panels downstairs so he could load them on a lorry he had borrowed. He drove the panels to the port and had them shipped overseas.

“In those days, Johor was seen as a small town. It was only partly true, due to its proximity to Singapore. Of course, Johor has changed a lot. Yet, I think Johor should tap more into the connectivity with Singapore, in terms of its outlook, infrastructure and economic ties," says Tham.

With the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link (RTS Link) and the Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone underway, the connectivity between both sides of the Causeway will improve further, he says. "Perhaps, our company is a good testament to the economic ties,” he adds.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Johor businesses face their own set of challenges, including talent retention. The foreign exchange rate and weakening ringgit against the Singapore dollar over the long-term naturally attract more Malaysians to work in Singapore. Tham has to ensure that Ditrolic has a good foundation so it can operate as usual when some of its employees leave.


Asked how he managed to get BlackRock as a partner, Tham says he has been engaging with investors since 2021, when the world was emerging from the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the pandemic has taken many lives, it also made people realise the importance of sustainability and protecting the environment. The environmental, social and governance (ESG) trend in the business and financial world accelerated during this period.

Many local renewable energy companies saw their business grow by leaps and bounds in those years. Some embarked on aggressive branding and marketing campaigns, while others went on to raise funds from the public via initial public offerings. 

"The pandemic changed a lot of things. It changed the clean energy industry for the better as people become more aware of environmental issues. We had to run faster to catch up with our peers and the growth of the industry itself," says Tham. 

In the past, Ditrolic relied on retained earnings and bank loans to grow organically. But that is no longer enough. After all, there is only so much debt that the company can take on, and its business model require a lot of capital. 

One of its strategies is what Tham calls the asset business, where Ditrolic installs solar panels on rooftops for various entities without charge. The company makes money from selling the clean energy generated by those solar panels to the tenants of those buildings.

According to Tham, the price of the clean energy sold by Ditrolic to the tenants of those buildings are on a willing buyer, willing seller basis. He adds that businesses are keen to accept the company's offer as it sells the clean energy at a lower price than the electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. However, installing the solar panels up front requires capital.

So, Tham started to actively engage with investors locally and abroad. His initial thought was to secure funding from local investors, but it was not easy.

"It is not easy to raise a sizeable amount from Malaysian venture capital and private equity investors, We are not Silicon Valley after all. And local investors are generally quite conservative,’ he says.

“We spoke to all the GLICs (government-linked investment companies). Only one of them showed interest in us and was comfortable with us. However, the rest said our business wasn't part of their roadmap, while others had their own renewable energy outfit, which they wanted to focus on and grow organically."

So, Tham reached out to foreign investors from the US, European Union, Japan, South Korea, China and Southeast Asia. He finally settled on BlackRock's Climate Finance Partnership, a fund that seeks to accelerate the flow of capital into climate-related investments in emerging markets.

Tham likes BlackRock as it has very deep knowledge and expertise in the renewable energy and infrastructure business, and did not assess Ditrolic purely from a financial perspective.

“BlackRock appreciates the industry very well and understands the value drivers. When we talked to them, it was so much easier. We have the connections and we decided to work with them," he says.

Photo by Patrick Goh/The Edge

Ditrolic has a pipeline of 8.5GW of clean energy under development. With the BlackRock partnership, it aims to facilitate the realisation of 1GW worth of projects, increasing the firm's total targeted capacity to 5GW.

Just how much energy is that? At the current state, the maximum renewable energy demand in Malaysia is about 18GW to 19GW a day, according to Tham.

Internally, Ditrolic is looking to build 5GW of clean energy assets across six countries. The firm also generates revenue from engineering, procurement and construction contracts for solar projects.

Interestingly, it is beginning to provide energy storage systems that allow clients to store excess capacity generated during the day to use at night. The firm has an ongoing project in Singapore that caters to a "well-known shopping mall”, he says.

“The energy storage system is under construction and should be completed by the middle of this year. It is for a global retailer. The system has the capacity of 1MWh and can be extended to 2MWh," says Tham.

“They want to maximise their green energy consumption. Their target is to achieve almost 100%, or a very high percentage of energy self-sufficiency with renewable energy.”

That is the first Ditrolic energy storage system project. If successful, the firm can replicate this business across the countries it operates in. There is a growing demand for such a solution, he adds.


Now that Tham has travelled the world, he sometimes reflects on his entrepreneurial journey. Like many such stories, the journey was filled with ups and downs. At times, he was required to crawl past muddy and treacherous trails. But he overcame these.

He remembers how he overinvested in some solar projects overseas and almost couldn't finish them as banks were hesitant to provide Ditrolic with further funding. That would have resulted in a significant loss for the firm and him as a shareholder.

It was about 14 years ago, when Ditrolic was one of the very few Southeast Asian companies that ventured into foreign countries to build solar projects.

"We were a bit aggressive and put in too much money, too early, in some markets. We nearly couldn't pull off some projects. Some banks were not comfortable with the construction of the projects and we couldn't get the necessary funding to meet the capital demand, while we kept spending on them," says Tham.

“However, we found the solution to carry on with the projects, We ‘de-risked' the projects by building certain essential parts first. We showed them that these were okay and we pulled in further government support. They convinced bankers to continue to lend.”

It was a steep learning curve. “Everything was new and everyone was worried. Today, the renewable energy market is more mature," he says.

It was through a process of “reinventing” oneself that Tham got to where he is today. For instance, his first reinvention was from a consultant and technician to an entrepreneur.

When the business started to gain traction, competitors came in. Again, he had to reinvent himself and the company by changing the business model to continue to survive.

"We learnt our lessons and became more careful, and learnt how to diversify our businesses overseas. Then the same cycle started again, where competitors came in and we had to pivot again,” says Tham.

He quotes Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, saying that how far a person can go depends on his vision. “If one sees a town, his business is as big as a town. If he sees a city, it's as big as a city. If he sees the world, his business grows globally. There is no right or wrong in this. It really depends on the entrepreneur.”

Tham says the renewable energy business requires him to expand regionally or globally. It is the nature of the business at this point in time. The key is seeking more opportunities and diversification.

After all, there are only so many renewable energy projects that a company like Ditrolic can bid for in Malaysia. And a company won't be able to win all the projects awarded by the government.

What is his focus now that BlackRock has invested in Ditrolic? “Apart from expansion, I spend more time on building the company’s culture and governance. It’s another cycle of reinventing myself and the company. I try to simplify our business by trying to not do too many things at once," he says.

“As for my free time, I spend it with my family. I have three children. And you can imagine that I travel quite often. I spend as much time as possible with them to instil good values in them.”