July 10, 2015, by Academic contributor


Nottingham MBA students enjoy a global experience studying with people from all over the world and having the opportunity to participate in a number of international business study tours. Study tours include California’s Silicon Valley (with a focus on technology start-ups and equity investment), China (a week-long business and cultural tour to China taking advantage of Nottingham’s unique connections with China), Lehigh University (including visits to blue-chip companies in New York City and Washington DC, a tour of the White House and Capitol Hill, and time at the Lehigh campus in Pennsylvania).

In a series of special blogs we hear individual perspectives from current MBA students who recently took part in a Study Tour to Malaysia and Singapore.

Nirvana (by Lenore Ogilvy)

NirvanaTo us in the UK it sounds like a dance club or a band. Or maybe a great cocktail. Regardless, we’d associate it with some sort of relaxation.

I don’t imagine that the man behind Nirvana – a bereavement service in Malaysia – experiences any kind of relaxation. He’s built a stunning business, visually and commercially, and it was the most memorable case study I’ve come across during my MBA studies. Travelling half way around the world on study tour to learn about business and culture in Southeast Asia was an exciting prospect, and to see and learn about this business was an enlightening learning experience.

The concept of Blue Ocean Strategy – developing a new product or service where there is no competition, literally creating new markets – is easy to grasp as a principle. Thinking about how to actually do it is more challenging. In this case David Kong Hon Kong practiced the art of imitation by taking a practice in one culture and translating it and applying it in a completely different context, transforming it into a rich and sophisticated business model.

To us in the West, Nirvana is simply a funeral service. It offers people the opportunity to pre-plan how they want their death to be treated, covering everything from ceremonies to burial plots. As a Canadian, I don’t find this concept foreign at all. But to Chinese people, this breaches a cultural taboo.

We were told that the Chinese don’t like to talk about death. It is morbid to consider one’s passing or discuss that of a friend or relative. Apparently, cemeteries are often neglected, uninviting places, despite the fact that honouring ancestors is an important part of Chinese culture. Mr Kong observed this contradiction, considered how he could improve families’ experience of bereavement, and decided to combine the service of attractive internment facilities with pre-planning. And a new business, in an uncontested space, was born.

The Nirvana service offers burial plots and urn placements which can be pre-purchased. The price points vary from single plots to family arrangements and tombs to extend the services to as many income ranges as possible. Memorial services are also available. In addition, “ancestral” tablets and ceremonies are also available to allow families to pay continued homage. A portion of burial or cremation fees are set aside in a “trust” fund to ensure maintenance of the park well into the future. The services and price points are so sophisticated that an ancestral tablet nearest the shrine and closest to the ceiling is charged at a higher rate than one that is towards the back of the memorial centre at the bottom of a pillar.

What is remarkable about the Nirvana story isn’t so much the revenue generating services that the company has developed that extend pre-planning to incorporate cultural values, the foresight demonstrated in buying huge tracts of land to turn into beautiful memorial parks, not even the “white ladies” who preserve the “dignity” of female deceased, but how the company overcame cultural barriers and social reluctance to build a thriving business. Most revealing, the company didn’t discuss this crucial component of its success in its presentation to us. I interpret this as a combination of Chinese cultural humility, the norm of presenting harmony and success, and – because the company is so shrewd – a desire to keep a core competency under wraps.

Nirvana sells its services through a network of agents. They do not use offices or franchises. This personal approach is a brilliant solution to overcoming reluctance by using personal relationships and networks to carefully challenge cultural beliefs, as opposed to a more impersonal method of selling. Agents receive training which I surmise must focus heavily on cultural values, giving the agents carefully constructed messages and language that build on cultural practice and associating bereavement with positive outcomes: honouring family, elders and ancestors in particular.

It may seem odd, but this visit to a funeral services business was the highlight of the study tour for me. My only disappointment was that it was raining the day of our visit and we didn’t get a chance to explore the 515 acres of the Memorial Park, the largest in the world. Through the bus windows, we could see the beauty and serenity of undulating green hills, but we weren’t able to have the full experience of the grounds, which are apparently dotted with carefully positioned waterfalls, artwork and fine buildings.

Lenore Ogilvy is in her final year of the Executive MBA Corporate Social Responsibility

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