Eric Liew: American Dreamer
Article by Mary Napoli | Photographs by Martin G Meyers
Eric Liew has just returned from a 15 day trip through Asia accompanied by his wife, Linda. The couple of nearly thirty years are no worse for the wear and wasted no time jumping back into business mode. In fact, the line between business and pleasure is often blurry for the Liews. That is partially because the couple have spent the last 20+ years building their business, AOSS Medical Supply, together and partially because they truly enjoy their profession.
Liew is the President and CEO of AOSS (Alpha Omega Services and Supply) Medical Supply, the company he began working with during college. The largest privately-owned medical supply company in the state of Louisiana, AOSS’s corporate office has been based in Monroe since its inception in 1988. The company is not Liew’s only business venture, but it is the heart of his professional empire.
Liew is not only one of Monroe’s greatest success stories, he is also a dedicated father and husband. He has been married to Linda Pruett of Richland, Mississippi for almost three decades, with whom they have three amazingly talented children, Nick, Erica and Savannah. All three of the children were raised in Monroe, Eric and Linda’s adopted hometown. They have since begun impressive, successful careers of their own and have without a doubt inherited their parents’ strong sense of determination. Both Eric and Linda come from somewhat humble beginnings, but Eric Liew’s life changed drastically with the decision to attend college in the States.
From Malaysia to Monroe
Liew is of Chinese descent, but he was born in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. As the sixth of seven children, he observed his father working from dawn to dusk to support their large family. Liew’s parents encouraged their children to find success and believed education was the key. Regardless of their working class status in Malaysia, achieving the best education possible was no easy task. Because of the family’s Chinese roots, it would be impossible for Liew to receive the opportunities he was naturally equipped for.
“In Malaysia, we are basically considered second class citizens, because I am second generation Chinese. My grandfather was from China, and he went searching for happiness. He went to Singapore, which at that time was part of Malaysia. He didn’t find what he was looking for there, so he went north to Kuala Lumpur. He started a construction business there.” Eventually, Liew’s grandmother and their children joined his grandfather in the Malaysian capital. “My father was born there, first generation Malaysian.”
Although Liew’s parents were able to provide a comfortable life for their family, they experienced discrimination because of their heritage. This unfortunate set of circumstances led Liew to consider furthering his education outside of Asia.
“Growing up, we were raised in the Buddist religion, but Malaysia is a Muslim country. Even though I was born and grew up in Malaysia, I was not considered a true Malaysian. I was a Chinese-Malaysian, and therefore a second class citizen,” explains Liew. “Because of this, I am not eligible for the first class universities. I am not eligible for a scholarship, or any top official positions. I am always going to be second class. So this country fits exactly with what I want: the American Dream. I can be anybody I want to be in this country.”
Monroe, Louisiana may seem like an odd choice for a young man for Malaysia to choose as his new home, but for Liew, it was the right choice. As one of seven children, he had limited funding on which to receive his education, so Liew had to be savvy on how to get the most for his money.
“Most of my classmates (in Malaysia) went to Australia, New Zealand or England, but I thought, you know what? I want to do something different. I want to come to America,” he recalls. Seeking a warm climate, his budget led him to consider schools in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. Once he found out that Monroe was considered a “Sportsman’s Paradise,” his love of fishing and the outdoors helped him to make the decision clear.
“It was the cheapest college I could find, besides Arkansas and Alabama. I was on a budget. I would have loved to go to UCLA or a bigger school, but my budget didn’t allow me to do so. I was on a very limited budget. So NLU fit right into my budget.”
Thirty years later, Liew remains in Monroe. He and Linda met while both students at ULM, then NLU. She chose him as a study partner in their economics class, after noticing he was an outstanding student. They began dating, and the rest, as they say, is history. The couple have developed strong ties within the community and think of it as home.
“We love Monroe. It’s a great place to raise a family. We have a lot of options here. We have businesses in Salt Lake City, in San Diego and Hawaii. We could live in any of those places, but this is home for Linda and me. We met here in college, and after college we started AOSS in 1988. We have been together 29 years. This is where we will stay.”
Success did not arrive overnight for Liew. Naturally intelligent, he was a dedicated and determined student at NLU. With a degree in business, he knew the general direction he wanted to go, but did not have a specific field of enterprise in mind. During school, he and Linda took over a local paper route to help make ends meet. Using his characteristic ingenuity, he knew that with Linda in the passenger seat, they could get the papers out twice as fast by driving in the middle of the street and throwing to both sides at once. From a young age, Liew has been conscious of making every moment count where matters of business are concerned. As an entrepreneur, he is consistently forward thinking, always considering the possibilities that are within reach.
While the newlyweds finished their degrees at NLU, Liew worked at Basic TV and Appliances. On a chance meeting, he struck up a conversation with Dr. Russ Greer, a local neurosurgeon, who purchased a video camera with Liew’s guidance. Greer was impressed with Liew’s product knowledge and salesmanship. Recognizing Liew’s ingenuity and drive, Greer suggested the two get together to discuss business outside of the store. Greer introduced him to the export management company he had founded, Alpha Omega Systems and Services, AOSS. The company’s last general manager had recently been let go, and Greer was looking to replace him with someone resourceful and enterprising, and Liew was a dead ringer for the position. At the time, AOSS represented products made in Louisiana, like Banana Tractor of Metairie, to companies in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Liew began to work for Greer through AOSS, while Linda managed a Wendy’s fast food restaurant. In 1988, the couple found out they were expecting their first child. Liew traveled a great deal for AOSS, and although it was profitable, he knew that he wanted to be closer to home as his family grew. That year, Liew attended a exceptionally successful trade shows in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama with Lieutenant Governor Paul Hardy. Upon his arrival back in New Orleans, his friend Jerry Barnett, who was also the freight forwarder Liew worked with, invited him to dinner. Barnett wanted to discuss a business opportunity to discuss with his friend.
“The next day, he took me to a huge, run-down warehouse that has since been replaced by the Convention Center,” Liew remembers. Inside the warehouse, there were five 18-wheeler containers.
“Jerry opened up one of the containers, and all I could see were (the images of) hands on the outside of each box. Gloves. That is where everything started.”
Barnett had bought the containers at a closeout, but had no idea how to move the material. Knowing that Liew’s partner was a physician, Barnett wondered if Liew might be able to help him.
“I said absolutely. Let me take a shot at it. I loaded up several cases in my little Honda and took them back to Monroe.”
After returning to his 800 square foot office on Justice Street in Monroe, Liew sold the latex gloves to his first customer, Dr. John Parker, who owned the orthodontist practice across the street from his office. Liew and his wife began to research the market and learned that Eric’s home country of Malaysia was the world’s largest manufacturer of latex gloves. Liew saw the possibilities in this venture and pushed ahead. While looking for potential buyers, Eric and Linda discovered that Beverly Enterprises, which owned over 1,700 nursing homes nationwide, was headquartered in nearby Fort Smith, Arkansas. Liew made an appointment to speak with the senior buyer, and his first large-scale deal was made. He would supply all of Beverly Enterprise’s distribution centers in Sacramento, Dallas and Atlanta with latex gloves for all 1,700 nursing homes.
Liew returned home triumphant. With the deal in place, he was able to hire an employee, rent warehouse space for his product and Linda was able to quit her job at Wendy’s to manage the accounting for AOSS. It was an exciting time for the couple, and the future was bright ahead.
Business expanded once again when Monroe Plasma came calling. Knowing AOSS supplied gloves to other medical facilities, they inquired about a possible order. Liew impressed their representative, and they not only made a purchase, but invited Liew to speak with their corporate office in Atlanta. Serological, the company who owned dozens of plasma centers across the US in addition to Monroe Plasma, was quick to make a deal with Liew. The business relationship flourished, but there was one problem. The only item Liew could supply them with was latex gloves. Serological was in need of a vast amount of various medical supplies for their plasma centers, from syringes to lab coats. Rather than deal with dozens of vendors, they wanted to simplify things, and order supplies from a single vendor. Eric and Linda immediately set out to turn AOSS into a one-stop-shop for medical supplies.
“They wanted to buy everything from AOSS,” explains Eric, “from A to Z. So now, we are in the business of procurement.” Once he and Lynda had established relationships with each of the individual manufacturers, they were able to supply specialty products for Serological, and open themselves up to a new market. By the mid 1990’s, it became clear that AOSS’s volume was outgrowing the warehouses they were currently used. To accommodate its extensive inventory, the company relocated in 1996 to its current home on Central Avenue, near the Monroe Airport.
1996 proved to be a momentous year for Liew. AOSS expanded to include their third partner, Dr. Hershel Harter, a successful nephrologist. Further, the company eclipsed a major competitor in Salt Lake City, Utah and purchased all their inventory after the business folded. By 1998, AOSS West was established in Salt Lake City. AOSS flourished in the West, and its success continues. Currently, the company AOSS West services the Pacific Northwest, West Coast, Mountain Area. It seemed at every turn, opportunities opened themselves up the Liew and his growing company.
Business expanded once again in the late 1990s with Dr. Harter’s nephrology connections in Nashville, a medical hub. AOSS began to supply to multiple dialysis centers, further expanding their inventory. From there, business expanded to Honolulu, Hawaii, where Liew established yet another distribution center. In a decade of business, Liew had gone from selling cases of latex gloves by the box to acquiring multiple satellite offices, distribution centers and sales from coast to coast.
In 2006, AOSS broadened its reach once again by creating a subsidiary company, Access Biologicals. The company supports the diagnostic and life science industries with biological products and services that range from in-vitro diagnostic manufacturing, biopharmaceutical, cell culture and diagnostic research & development. The business began with one lab in Liew’s corporate office in Monroe, and one year later, it established its own corporate office in San Diego. Now, sales offices line the east coast in major cities.
Fast forward to 2016. Through contacts in the plasma industry, Liew has partnered with Southern Lifestyle Development, the creators of River Ranch, a modern residential development in Lafayette, to build a similar project in Monroe. Liew’s development will target new employees from the CenturyLink expansion and provide residential, as well as commercial properties. The plans for the community, titled Century Village, will feature all the conveniences of urban living within a neighborhood feel. Centered around a town square and park, the development will be anchored by Century Tower, the large scale office space where IBM will employ locals on the top floors. The bottom floors will house a wine bar and restaurant, among other conveniences. The custom designed residential area of the village will include over 150 apartments and over 250 single family homes of various styles and sizes. The surrounding areas of the development will contain a central daycare facility, an upscale food market, a hotel, medical clinic, bank and various restaurant, coffee and retail locations. Slated to be built near the current CenturyLink facility, it will have the feel of a village within the town of Monroe. The Liews are interested in the project because of their earnest desire to see Monroe grow and expand in ways that benefit the existing community.
“I believe in working to have a good quality of life, and we want to help increase that in Monroe. That is why I wanted to build Century Village,” explains Liew. “I want to bring opportunity and new life to Monroe and open up the way we look at the world. This is a great place to live and raise children. It’s a great place to call home.”
Focus on the Future
When Liew looks to the future, he recalls his arrival in Monroe. He was a stranger in a strange land, but the tough times would prove to be a catalyst in shaping his determined, driven personality. It was his dream to receive a business education from an American university that would provide him the knowledge to become a success, but the transition had its challenges.
“I came here knowing no one,” Liew explains, recalling his first few days in America as clearly as though it were last week. Liew’s first stop was his new home, Northeast Louisiana University, now ULM.
“When I arrived in Monroe, another Malaysian student picked me up at the airport and dropped me off at Masur Hall. I still remember that there had been a snow blizzard the night before. I had never seen snow in my life! I thought I would freeze to death! Year round, Kuala Lumpur has an average temperature of 85 to 90 degrees. Never in my life did I know about cold. The next day, I nearly froze my butt walking to the Piggly Wiggly on DeSiard,” says Liew with a laugh. Today, the building that was once the Piggly Wiggly now houses the Monroe Plasma Center, where Liew would one day do business. “I picked up milk, hot dogs, buns and other necessities, then I froze my butt walking back again to Masur Hall. Suddenly, I remembered I had no refrigerator. What could I do? Human instinct told me to bury my milk and hot dogs in the snow so they would not ruin. That day, I told myself, if I ever become successful, I want to build an international house for students who come here, so they can have a refrigerator to put their food, a place to sleep and a place to fellowship with other international students as well as American students. Years later, Lynda and I get together with Dr. Bruno (President of ULM), and we built the International Student Center. Since we built the center, international enrollment have increased tremendously.”
The Liews have a heart for contributing to the community that gave them their start. Eric and Linda Liew’s dream of building the International Student center became a reality in 2015.
The center, which includes a large kitchen, meeting and study rooms, short-term lodging, laundry facilities and socializing space, was a much needed addition to the campus. Liew is quick to assert that although the idea came from his arrival experience years ago, Linda was instrumental in the project, particularly in designing the interior of the structure.
“Linda worked very hard to make the inside of the building first-class for the students. She picked out all the paint, artwork, furnishings, everything.”
This project has been dear to the Liew’s, not only because it is their alma mater, but because it gives them the chance to continue to develop relationships with the international community at ULM.
“It is all about education. We continue to speak with Dr. Bruno on ways we can help the University. When people are educated, there is no time to demonstrate in the streets, or burn down buildings, or throw rocks at the police who protect us. With education, there are people with jobs and positivity. There is less crime and problems. It all boils down to education. Knowledge is worth as much as gold,” Liew explains with earnest affection.
“Linda and I believe in giving back, and we will continue to give back. The next project we would like to do is to create a scholarship for international students who dream of going to college, but can not afford to go. We want to help them to make that dream a reality.”
Family at the Center
From the day he landed in Monroe, Eric Liew has approached life with a determination and enthusiasm that is rarely seen. AOSS has grown exponentially, but his family remains the most important thing to him. When asked how he has managed a business that has expanded to encompass so many divisions and locations and continued to have a life and family, Liew answered immediately.
“Easy. Behind every successful man is a very successful woman, and that’s one right there,” he said, casting his gaze upon Linda. “Don’t give me all the credit. This is about her, too. We keep each other balanced. I move very fast, but she slows me down and shows me how to balance work and family in the best way. We are also very blessed to have good employees who want to grow with us in Monroe.”
Both Eric and Linda Liew inherited their solid work ethic from their families, who are extremely proud of the couple’s accomplishments. As a child in Malaysia, Eric recalled his father rising with the sun and working until after sunset to support his 6 brothers and sisters.
“I learned by watching my father that work is not a choice. We must work hard to have success. There are no shortcuts in life,” he points out. He was determined to live a different life than what he saw in Malaysia.
“There is no such thing as the American Dream in Malaysia. Here, in America, I can be anyone I want to be. I wanted to be a businessman and be successful, so I came to this country to make it happen. The American Dream does not happen overnight. It takes hard work and time to make it happen.”
Linda, like Eric, grew up in a family where hard work was a necessity. She was raised in Richland, Mississippi to a family with roots in farming. Her mother was one of twelve children and supported her own family by working tirelessly as a waitress. On Linda’s father’s side, farming was the family business. Linda clearly remembers watching her grandparents perform backbreaking work in the fields to provide a life for their family. In Linda’s family, the women worked alongside the men and equally as hard.
“I remember watching my grandmother on my dad’s side. She did what it took to get the job done, no matter how hard it was. I remember that when the mule died, she was the mule. She pulled the plow through the fields when there was no animal to do the work…and she was proud that they had the tallest cotton in the state of Mississippi.”
Wisdom through Experience
Beginning with an economics course at NLU, Eric and Linda Liew have grown personally and professionally. They have achieved incredible success indomitable determination, persistence and faith. Liew also believes that a person’s outlook influences them greatly.
“Everything in life is connected,” he says with conviction. “If you surround yourself with successful people, you will be successful. That is what happened to Linda and me. We surrounded ourselves with successful business people, and we became successful.”
Liew is quick to recognize Linda as his partner in all aspects of life. She not only supports him in their businesses, but also provides the home life that means everything to the couple and their children.
“Eric is a go-getter, and he is hard to keep up with sometimes, but he loves to make people feel good, and he loves to make them laugh. People trust him, because they know he can. It comes from the way you are raised. We were raised to show respect and to be accountable, and we taught our children the same values,” says Linda.
There is no doubt that the future holds amazing things for Monroe, courtesy of Eric and Linda Liew. Their dedication to our community is tireless and magnanimous.
“If someone tells you that a person can’t be successful in a small town, ask Linda and me. I’m a little guy from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who married a country girl from Richland, Mississippi. We went from being students at a university to having businesses in medical supply, plasma centers, biological manufacturing, and now development…all in the small town of Monroe. If people say there is no opportunity in Monroe, I prove every one of them wrong.”