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In the name of the father

   

The Edge Malaysia, 14-20 June 2004

COVER STORY
Stories by Leela Barrock, M Shanmugam, Jacqueline Ho, Evelyn Fernandez, Siow Chen Ming, Lim Ai Leen and Maryann Tan

These silver-spooned scions of the giants of industry have been groomed to take over the reins of power. But with power comes responsibility. Do the heirs have the mettle to continue building on the foundations laid by their sires? The Edge looks into the nature of the children of Malaysia's biggest brass.

Gilt-edged stock. That's what you'd call them, the progeny of the corporate Goliaths who have become household names. Think along the lines of Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, Datuk Lee Yeow Chor, Datuk Shahril Shamsuddin, Carl and Martin Bek-Nielsen, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh and Datuk Loy Teik Ngan.

These are just some of the scions, those who were born with silver spoons, when all the lucky stars congregated in the wealth house to smile congenially. These are the ones who know that their gene pool, bank balances and career paths all reflect the corporate genius of a parent. These are the ones who know that one day they will inherit, if not the earth exactly, at least a boardroom or two, a couple of companies and a whole lot of earthly goods.

Now, think along the lines of Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng, Tan Sri Shamsuddin Abdul Kadir, Tan Sri Bek Neilsen, Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, Tan Sri Loy Hean Heong. These are the fathers of those sons above.

Each is or was among the brassiest of the big brass in corporate Malaysia. Each has a compelling tale to tell about how he made it in a world that was no kinder to him than to the average person — in most cases. And each created an empire, a vast money churner to be handed down the line to the next generation.

All, happily, fathered heirs, and thus succession is not really an issue. Some of these heirs are already installed in their father's seats of power and have been running the show for a while.

A case in point, Yeoh's eldest son, Francis has been captain of the family flagship, YTL Corp Bhd for over a decade. Francis says publicly that his is the third generation that is building on the wealth of his grandfather. But the company he runs is called YTL — for Yeoh Tiong Lay, his father. Thus, we are taking Francis as the second generation building on this company and he has done good.

Francis says modestly that he couldn't have done it without his parents and siblings. Be that as it may, he has had a key role in growing the family business into one of the bluer companies on Bursa Malaysia.


Settled in and running the show

Father: Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, founder and chairman, YTL group of companies.
Son: Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, Managing director, YTL Corp Bhd

Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, has described himself as a pencil. God's pencil, that is. A little one.

"It is God who writes the script and I am just a little willing pencil," he said at the London Business School back in 2003, when he was invited to address senior executives during a Creative Leadership programme.

For Francis, who is a devout Christian, the pencil analogy must seem accurate. But for those who have observed him over the years it is difficult to marry the almost in-your-face confidence of the man when he struts around the corridors of corporate Malaysia, with the humility behind those words.

And that humility continues when he goes so far as to tell The Edge that his leadership role in the company is "a case of primogeniture [the state of being first-born]".

Again, those who know him say this is a man driven to succeed — who is sharp, quick, incisive and decisive. So, yes, an accident of birth ensured that the company became his birthright. But even if he wasn't the eldest son, the feeling is that Francis would still be leading something somewhere. He just has the mettle.

He trained for the job from the age of 16 when he was, in his own words, "construction sightseeing".

"Every school holiday, I was at an outstation site supervising a construction project. I used to stay with the workers in the kongsi huts and made decisions for the company."

But on-the-job training was not enough and Francis headed off to England to further his studies.

"My beloved father taught me some valuable lessons. When the company was hit by the oil crisis in the early 1970's, I thought that as the eldest son, I should sacrifice my university education and join him in the rough and tumble of the Jurassic construction business model then," Francis says.

But Yeoh senior would have none of it. So Francis graduated from the university at the age of 24 with an honours degree in civil engineering.

He reworked the company's strategies, investing heavily in intellectual capital and construction equipment. It was Francis' idea to list and tap into public funds.

It appears that Yeoh senior had then relinquished several of the decision-making processes to his son, forcing him to swim at the deep end. And, of course, there was no thought of sinking.

"Today, YTL is a global company with a staff strength of 6,000. The earnings of the group have grown an impressive 42% since 1986 and is still one of the most profitable companies per employee in the world," says Francis.

And, looking at YTL on a global scale, this is not an exercise in self-congratulation. YTL, thanks in large part to Francis, is a major league player, having acquired Wessex Water in 2002 for 1.4 billion. It was an open bid made for a utility in England which was eyed by the likes of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

While Francis always refers to the "we" in the decision-making processes, he was still the leader of the pack.

The company has a "cabinet" of 30 members comprising both strategic and implementation directors and it meets every Monday at 10am. Sharp.

"The joint intellectual capital and experience of the various cabinet members have contributed tremendously to the impressive growth of the group.

"Our future remains bright and we have set a new objective of growing 20% compounded from our present larger base till the year 2020. None of the cabinet members doubt we will get there," says Francis.

Music to shareholders' ears.




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