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The master builder

Yeoh: Perhaps his greatest success is having ensured that his company is in the safe hands of his children
Malaysian Business, 16 July 2003

YTL is one of Malaysia's foremost business groupings and a builder of note. Progressive and clannish at the same time, it owes much of its success to the drive and foresight of its founder, Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay.

By Joanna Sze

'WHO the hell is YTL?' screamed the British newspaper headline when the local conglomerate pipped other big international names in its bid for utility company Wessex Water in 2002.

Today, we ask the same question: Who is YTL? Not the company, but the man behind the initials. Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, 74, is chairman of the YTL group and patriarch of the formidable Yeoh family that owns and runs the companies in its stable.

A familiar face at corporate and social functions, Yeoh is far from being a recluse. But as one who has achieved much during his prime, he prefers to sit back and stay out of the limelight, declining Malaysian Business' repeated requests for an interview over the past three years. 'He has been in semi-retirement for the past several years and has not been fully active in corporate and national affairs' is the typical answer given by his office.

But his story remains to be told. After all, Yeoh set in motion a business empire that has grown, in a period of five decades, from a small construction business into a group of five listed companies. His reach today ranges from utilities and power generation & transmission to transport services, technology and property development, spread out over three continents - Asia, Australia and Europe.

As Datuk TC Low, managing director of Ho Hup Construction Company Bhd, puts it, 'He's very smart. Look at the size of his company. It speaks for itself.'

Similarly, his contemporaries see him as an enterprising businessman, a visionary and hard worker. 'Tan Sri Yeoh is a man of principle and a true-to-heart entrepreneur with very good business acumen,' says Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng, executive chairman of the IOI group.

Agrees Tan Sri Lee San Choon, chairman of Sunrise Bhd, who has known Yeoh for more than 20 years. 'As an entrepreneur and businessman, Tan Sri Yeoh is very focused in what he does.'

Yeoh's entrepreneurial drive is attributed to the migrant mentality of his father, the late Yeoh Cheng Liam, who came to Malaya in 1920 from the Fujian province in China.

'Without the protection of education or kin, they (the early migrants) found their security in material wealth,' said Francis Yeoh Sock Ping, Yeoh's eldest son and managing director of YTL Corporation Bhd, in his address at the London Business School in May 2003. 'Their one object was to create not just a business but a family enterprise; a family fortress.'

Francis' grandfather initially worked as a clerk at a timber store in Klang. He married in 1923 and then moved alone to Kuala Selangor to start his own timber business. He later branched out into transport and construction-contracting.

   Yeoh (left) at the handover ceremony of the new ISO 9001 certificate to YTL Power Services
Yeoh, the third son of eight children, was born in 1929 in Klang. At the age of three, his family moved to Kuala Selangor, where his father was working. Yeoh received his early school education there and his secondary education in Klang and Kuala Lumpur. It was at Klang's Hin Hwa High School that Yeoh met his future wife, Tan Kai Yong, whom he married in 1953.

That same year, he was registered as a Class 'E' Public Works Department contractor, and helped his father run the Yeoh Cheng Liam construction company. He played 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.

Soon after, in 1955, he was upgraded to a Class 'A' contractor and registered what was to become the forerunner of the YTL group of companies, Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay. In the mid-Fifties, Yeoh's construction company was involved primarily in the building of barracks and ammunition buildings for the British colonial forces.

In the Sixties, he moved on to build defence installations for what was now the Malaysian Government, followed by schools and agriculture installations. As the nation's development programme gathered momentum, he moved into the building of hospitals, university and institutional buildings, and other high-rises.

Then in the 1970s, Yeoh's biggest test came. It was the international oil crisis. The construction sector came to almost a standstill as prices of materials soared. Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay was not spared, and bankruptcy seemed inevitable. Its 100-odd employees, mostly relatives, offered to pawn their jewellery to save the family concern. Eventually, with everyone's support and tireless efforts, the company was pulled back on track.

When the country entered a period of economic prosperity, the little company Yeoh founded rode the tide, focusing on building skyscrapers and other high-rise developments and pioneering the privatisation of Malaysia's regulated housing sector by providing homes for the poor.

The major milestone for the company was in 1988 when it was injected into listed Hong Kong Tin Corporation (M) for RM45 million in a reverse takeover, giving birth to YTL Corporation. What followed was the dynamic expansion and growth of a company that has made a name for itself both locally and in the international arena.

Perhaps Yeoh's greatest success is having ensured that his company is in the safe hands of his children. The Chinese family business operates on primogeniture. Thus, as Francis put it, 'The family business was an inescapable destiny.'

Many family businesses flounder due to inexperienced or uncommitted successors. Yeoh was adamant not to let this happen. While his wife, a mathematics teacher, was instrumental in bringing up their seven children and coaching them in their studies, Yeoh made sure they were inducted into the family business from an early age, be it at the construction site or in the boardroom.

'My only idea of sightseeing was touring construction sites, not Disneyland,' said Francis of some of his earliest memories. 'Today, I can detect the amount of sand in concrete merely by the feel and can quickly spot sloppy contracting work.'

During the 1970 crisis, Francis, fresh from high school, wanted to postpone his college plans to help out. But his father would have none of that. Hard work was not enough. Education was vital. His children would further their studies, excel and return with the relevant know-how and foresight to not only be prepared for future economic turmoil but to bring the family business to greater heights.

'My father and grandfather had been denied any tertiary schooling, so they were determined the next generation would be armed with a good education,' Francis said. All the Yeoh siblings went on to obtain honours degrees in a discipline relevant to YTL's businesses and each now heads a department in the company. Five are engineers by training, one is an accountant and the other a lawyer. (Contrary to the Chinese tradition where girls do not have a hand in the family's business, Yeoh's two daughters are also actively involved.)

Yeoh relaxing with Acer Groups CEO and co-founder Stan Shih and wife Carolyn at YTL´s Pangkor Laut Resort, Malaysia
When Francis returned from the United Kingdom in 1978, he was quickly absorbed into the company, taking over day-to-day management.

'My father departed from the normal Chinese practice,' Francis said. It was customary for the company's founder to retain control of a company until he was of a ripe old age. 'He shove the reins to me immediately on graduation. I was thrown into the deep end in the belief that I should be allowed to make my mistakes early, when they would not be so costly. And so I was given the freedom to indulge an entrepreneurial bent from young.'

The management of the YTL group can be described as clannish, where decision-making is collective. The YTL 'cabinet' meets every Monday at 10am sharp, when every director and senior manager meets to discuss strategies and make decisions.

Even with professional managers on board, the family members still make the strategy and provide the entrepreneurship, said Francis. And they are working hard to expand the business to accommodate the 27 members of the next generation who are readying themselves to take over in the future.

Part of the success of the YTL group has been attributed to the work ethic, of which Yeoh epitomises. 'My father, who is in his seventies, comes in to work every morning,' said Francis. 'We work hard. We are hands-on. Success has to be earned, the hard way.'

On top of his corporate involvement, Yeoh is also a prominent leader in the Malaysian and regional construction industry. He is the past president and lifetime member of the International Federation of Asian and Western Pacific Contractors Association and senior vice-president of the World Contractors' body, the Confederation of International Contractors' Association. He is the co-founder and the first chairman of the Asean Constructors' Federation and vice-president of the Malaysian-Japanese Economic Association.

In 1988, he was appointed honorary life president of the Master Builders Association of Malaysia. 'He (Yeoh) is a very experienced builder; he has definitely done a lot for the industry,' says Goh Chye Koon, deputy president of the Master Builders Association Malaysia and deputy group managing director of IJM Corporation Bhd. 'During his three terms as president of Master Builders, he has brought up the image of the association in the international arena.'

Yeoh is also affiliated with the Selangor Kim Mooi Association. Says chairman Ong Ho Kiat, who has known him for some 40 years, 'Tan Sri greatly supports the association. Even though he's very successful, with his children taking over his company, he is not proud. He's very humble and low profile.' The down-to-earth tycoon is known to be equally at home at a hawker stall as at a five-star hotel.

'Perhaps what makes him stand out most of all is that he is also a very generous philanthropist, tireless in his efforts to contribute to the good causes of society,' says Lee of IOI. Yeoh is a familiar face at charity events and is known for his donations to schools and other organisations. His philosophy embodies the Confucian principle of repaying in kind the favours and services received from society. He also sits on the board of governors for several schools.

No matter what hat Yeoh wears, those who know him well consider him a true friend. 'He is friendly, understanding and considerate,' says Lee of Sunrise.

'My first impression of him is that he is a very humble gentleman,' says IOI's Lee. 'As I've had the pleasure of knowing him over the years, my first impression of him has not only been affirmed but reinforced by the knowledge that he is also a person who possesses the qualities of an outstanding entrepreneur and a sincere friend.

'Tan Sri Yeoh always shows genuine warmth and concern,' he adds. 'He will always be ready and willing to lend a hand or an ear to his friends.'

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