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Building Tradition

Malaysian Business, April 16th-30th 2002
By Joanna Sze

For the Yeohs, outings at construction sites are part of early training and growing up.

They were like any other family on an outing, only that the car they were in turned into a construction site instead of into a park.

For these seven young teenagers, the noise, the dust, the vibrations from the pounding and piling, were all part of their training, their experience, their life. As they walked through the sites, they were observing and learning from real-life situations the organisation, supervision and implementation of work plans. When they were not at school or at the site, they were sitting in on board meetings to observe how decisions were made.

As the eldest of them once said, 'I was a full-time student and school captain and a part-time manager at the same time.'

Today, these seven children are all grown-up and running a much enlarged business, heading its different divisions. The family has grown bigger, more revered, and definitely much richer. And the seven are making sure that their own children will get a taste of their childhood experiences, from the construction sites to the boardrooms, in due time.

If there's any family business determined to fight the 'third-generation curse' (according to a Chinese maxim, wealth cannot endure three generations), it's the YTL Group. With the conglomerate thriving under the founder's grandchildren, it would seem that the family's wealth would remain intact even for the fourth and fifth generation. The Yeohs would have it no other way.

The genesis of the YTL family holdings began with the late patriarch Yeoh Cheng Liam, who in 1920 came to Malaya from the Fujian province of China. He initially worked as a clerk at a timber store in Klang. In 1923, he got married and moved alone to Kuala Selangor to start his own timber business. He later branched out into transport and construction-contracting, the latter soon becoming his core business.

In the 1960s, the second generation took over. Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, the third son of eight children, led the company to further progress.

Tiong Lay was born in 1929 in Klang. In 1932, the whole family moved to Kuala Selangor to join their father. Tiong Lay received his early school education in Kuala Selangor and his secondary education in Klang and Kuala Lumpur. He was first registered as a Class 'E' Public Works Department contractor in 1953 and helped his father run the Yeoh Cheng Liam construction company, playing a major role in the 'earth-fill project' when the colonial government built the metal road from Tanjong Karang to Sabak Bernam between 1953 and 1955.

Tiong Lay married Tan Kai Yong in 1953. The couple met while they were studying at Hin Hwa High School in Klang and subsequently had seven children.

In 1955, when Tiong Lay was upgraded to a Class 'A' contractor, he registered his own company, Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay, which became the forerunner of the YTL group of companies.

The fortunes of the company was intimately tied to the development of the country. In the early Fifties, Tiong Lay I helped carry out renovation of army camps, built armoury stores, schools and medical clinics. As the nation's development programme gathered momentum, he moved into the building of hospitals, university and other institutional buildings, and other high-rises.

While Tiong Lay had his hands full, his mathematics-teacher wife brought up their children, tutoring them in their school work. Tiong Lay made sure they were groomed and exposed to the family business.

The going was far from smooth. In 1971, the company was hard hit by the world energy crisis. The construction sector came to almost a standstill as prices of materials soared. As the company tottered on bankruptcy, its 100-odd employees, mostly relations, offered to pawn their jewellery to save the business.

After finishing his Higher School Certificate, Francis, Tiong Lay's eldest, wanted to postpone his college plans to help his father. However, the elder Yeoh told his son to arm himself with a good education instead.

It was advice Tan Sri Francis Yeoh Sock Peng paid heed to. His father managed to pull the company back on track, and Francis, former head boy and tennis captain of Kuala Lumpur's Victoria Institution, went on to get his civil engineering degree with honours from Britain's Kingston University and some engineering experience.

Upon his return in 1978, he was quickly absorbed into the company. Always quick to learn, he soon took over the reins of day-to-day management. When the nation enjoyed a boom, the company's fortunes flourished. The company made a name for itself in its many skyscrapers dotting Kuala Lumpur's landscape, such as the 20-storey Apera-ULG building on Jalan Raja Chulan, the 39-storey MAS Headquarters on Jalan Sultan Ismail, the 27-storey Perkim building on Jalan Ipoh and the 29-storey UMBC Tower Annexe on Jalan Sulaiman.

Ten years later, the company was injected into listed Hong Kong Tin Corporation (M) for RM45 million in a reverse takeover and renamed YTL Corporation Bhd. The group has not looked back since.

As Francis would recount in 1992, 'Ten years ago when we were writing mission statements, we never thought that we could do business involving billions of dollars. You think that it wouldn't happen, but quantum leaps have taken place since.'

Today, the third generation of Yeohs run the company, with Francis at the helm. Datuk Yeoh Seok Kian is deputy managing director and heads the assets and property development division; Datuk Yeoh Seok Hong heads the construction arm as well as the power generation and the infrastructure development unit; Datuk Michael Yeoh Sock Siong leads the industrial manufacturing division and manages the cement businesses; Datuk Mark Yeoh Seok Kah manages the hotels and resorts arm. Their sisters, Yeoh Soo Min and Yeoh Soo Keng, head the finance and accounting and purchasing divisions of the group, respectively.

Although this was a family business, it was no joy ride to the top.

'Any Yeoh family member who wants to be gainfully employed by YTL must get a university education and be a graduate with an honours degree in a discipline relevant to YTL's businesses,' Francis once said. 'This is to enable them to head a department when they join the company. All my brothers and sisters must do extremely well in their jobs. They have to shine, to outperform the other employees.'

In 1995, he told a Press conference, 'We have had no problems working as a team. We are very focused as a family. I am very blessed with brothers and sisters who sup port me strongly. They are very motivated and in turn, motivate the other staff.'

The group does not shy away from recruiting professional management and industry experts in its projects, such as British construction company John Laing (with which they worked on the nucleus hospital project) and German company Siemens. 'They use the right kind of people; they look for the best minds,' says Chan Fook Cheong, executive director of the Master Builders Association of Malaysia (MBAM).

As managing director, Francis runs a tight ship. 'Cabinet' meetings are held at 10am sharp every Monday, with compulsory attendance by all directors and senior managers. Most decisions that have to be made is made during that time.

As for Tiong Lay, despite knowing his company is in safe hands, he still makes it to the office at or before 9am when he is in town (that is, when he's not travelling). At 73, the group chairman's energy and enthusiasm for work is unwavering.

'He's still very hands-on, very sharp,' says MBAM's Chan. 'When we were in Japan recently for a technical study, he followed us everywhere, climbing up stairs and going to construction sites.'

Tiong Lay became president of MBAM in 1980 until 1988, and was instrumental in transforming the association from a 'social club' into a proactive voice of the construction industry. He was made honorary life president in 1988. He was also active on the international scene as early as 1970, becoming president of the International Federation of Asian and Western Pacific Contractors Associations from 1982 to 1983, and life member thereafter.

Despite being one of the richest families in Malaysia, the Yeohs are known to be down-to-earth and approachable. ‘Tan Sri (Yeoh Tiong Lay) is very humble,’ says Chan. 'When the MBAM delegation made a visit to the newly completed ERL (Express Rail Link), he was there to receive us and accompanied us on the journey from Sentral Station to KI1A and back.’

The tycoon, Chan says, is just at home at a hawker stall, eating his favourite pork dish, as he is sipping Ceylon tea with honey at a five-star hotel. He is also well known as a philanthropist, having made substantial donations to schools and other organisations. His basic philosophy is generally embodied in the Confucian principle, 'We must repay in kind whatever favours and services we receive from society.'

Tiong Lay's wife, Kai Yong, is also active in this area, establishing dialysis centres and helping out at the Chow Lap Chinese Primary School on Jalan Davidson in Kuala Lumpur, where she taught until her optional retirement.

On the home front, she continues to tutor her 27 grandchildren in mathematics, starting them as young as four years. She's also their ‘resident hair-dresser’.

The close relationship between the family and Kai Yong was evident when she celebrated her 70th birthday last year. In a birthday greeting, one of her grandchildren wrote: ‘When I look back at all those times, I feel you were not only teaching me but forging a special bond, a bond that would grow to be unbreakable.’

Despite living a life of privilege, Francis and his siblings are careful in the way they raise their children. Far from the traditional decadent and idle lifestyles of silver-spoon kids, the children study in public primary schools and excel in their studies, while their parents are active in Parent-Teacher Associations or on the school board of managers or governors.

One could surmise that this is part of the training for the younger Yeohs, that they keep their ear to the ground always, that they make sure they study hard, get that honours degree and internalise the family's work culture and values before they lay claim to their inheritance.

After all, Francis and his siblings are intent on building an immense empire that spans the globe, and they have to make sure equally able hands carry on the family tradition. Unifilar subtropical unstitch cooperation hypotrichosis meetly oleine fernico absorber somniferous ghetto peribronchial.
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