The top company this year, Maxis, is part of a stable of companies controlled by the low-profile Mr. Krishnan, who graduated with an M.B.A. from Harvard in 1964. He also controls pay-TV operator Astro All Asia Network PLC — which ranked 14th in the survey — as well as satellite and communications company Measat Global Bhd., which owns three satellites and has plans to launch a third. He also has interests in entertainment, oil, power, shipping, property and gaming.
Not content with dominating Malaysia's fast-growing mobile market, Maxis has begun to transform itself into a regional telecom company. Maxis bought a 51% stake in Indonesian cellular company Natrindo Telepon Seluler PT for $100 million in 2005, and in January teamed up with an Indian partner to take over Aircel Ltd., a dominant carrier in South India, for $1.08 billion. Maxis own a 74% stake. It is now bidding for a mobile operator's license in Sri Lanka.
Maxis CEO Jamaludin Ibrahim said the company intends for its international subsidiaries to "contribute substantially" to group revenue by 2010. "We see regional expansion as a major source of long-term value creation for our shareholders," Mr. Jamaludin said.
Still, regional expansion has proved a sometimes-rocky road. The company's Indonesian venture is taking longer than expected to break even. Plans to relaunch the Indonesian unit's phone service have been postponed from the middle of 2006 to the end of the year.
"Regulatory matters such as licensing — including 3G spectrum in Indonesia — are ongoing issues. In addition, network rollout in Indonesia, like in Malaysia, is also challenging, given the lengthy approval process," Mr. Jamaludin said. "While these challenges have caused some delay, our long-term plan remains on track."
Growth is slowing
The growth rate of Malaysia's mobile market, meanwhile, is starting to slow and tough competition has pushed down margins. That, along with the company's Indonesian woes, is one reason why Maxis came in 11th in the category of financial soundness. By contrast, it ranked first in having high-quality products, second in innovativeness in responding to customers, and fourth in both reputation and management vision.
The company's regional investments will payoff eventually, analysts say, and provide a wider springboard for growth.
One of the companies nipping at Maxis' heels in the domestic Malaysian market is DiGi.Com, which has surged up the rankings over the last few years to grab the third spot overall and the first spot for innovativeness in responding to customers.
DiGi.Com, the country's third-largest mobile-phone company in terms of subscribers, is seen as the hip, young upstart. It caters to young consumers with a slew of prepaid cards and funky new products and services, like BubbleTalk, a technology that allows customers to record and send "talking" text messages. So it isn't a surprise that readers ranked it first.
DiGi's customer base grew 44% to 5.4 million in the second quarter from a year earlier. Rival Maxis, meanwhile, grew its Malaysian customer by just 3% to nearly 8.5 million. Norway's Telenor ASA owns 6.5% of DiGi.
DiGi has reinvested most of its fast-growing profit into network infrastructure. The company spent 700 million ringgit in 2005 expanding its networks, and expects to spend an additional 720 million ringgit this year.
In addition to ranking Public Bank No.2 over all, readers rated it No.1 for financial soundness and for reputation. In fact, it was the only Malaysian company to make the top five list in every attribute. "This is the best-run bank in Malaysia," said Mr. Ong, at Hwang DBS Vickers. "They've got fantastic management."
In February, Public Bank bought Hong Kong's Asia Commercial Bank for HK$4.5 billion ($578 million), a move that will provide it a springboard into China. Asia Commercial Bank, which has since been renamed Public Bank Hong Kong, has 12 branches in Hong Kong, another in Shenzhen, and representative offices in Shenyang and Shanghai.
Back home in Malaysia, meanwhile, the bank has grown its loan business by 20% per year, on average, for the last four years; the average for the industry in Malaysia is just 7% to 8%, says Mr. Ong.
Other Malaysian standards continue to do well in the survey. Conglomerate YTL Corp. ranked fourth this year; it also placed first for long-term vision. YTL, which is controlled by Francis Yeoh, son of the company's founder, has chalked up a compounded annual growth rate in pretax profits of 55% over the last 15 years.