The Star Online, November 26, 2005
IT'S been 50 years. Celebrations of half a decade are usually themed with gold, but surely simple aurum is too pedestrian a metal for the glitz and glitter that have become synonymous with YTL Corp Bhd??
Managing director Tan Sri Francis Yeoh might concur, but he'd be just as likely to disagree. It's a blend of brashness and humility that has come to characterise both the man and his reign at the top of one of Malaysia's most recognisable corporate institutions.?
“The funny thing about me and my family is that we never had the lack of confidence of YTL's future... We are humble, but the confidence comes from our fear and love of God,” smiles Yeoh. To him, completion can be derived from mastering three languages – the language of God, man's language of articulation, and the machines' language of zeroes and ones.?
“With this little formula, we have been able to groom very good leaders and build YTL into what it is today. A lot of my old staff, having been with us for 25 to 30 years, will tell you that I’m always the brash young man that says we're going to have a billion ringgit turnover by a certain date,” he says.?
“They used to laugh behind my back – I know that. They dare not laugh now.”?
No laughing matter, indeed. From its origins in Kuala Selangor in 1955, the construction company founded by patriarch Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay has expanded into a sprawling empire that has no less than four listed companies under its umbrella – YTL Cement Bhd, YTL Power International Bhd, YTL E-Solutions Bhd and the parent company itself.?
With a history intertwined with that of Malaysia and horizons that in recent years have expanded to include the likes of UK-based Wessex Water and power plants in Indonesia and Australia, where can the company go from here? To Yeoh, it would seem that the only direction is up.?
YTL's latest flirtation with headlines came after Yeoh's announcement that the company was aiming to hit a market capitalisation of US$100bil by the year 2020 – a compounded growth of 20% from its current market cap of US$5bil.?
“I simply dare not say no. When we started out, we hardly had any cash in the bank. You could dream ? but you don't have the resources to back you up or the finances to put ideas on wheels. Today, we have the resources, the intellectual capital, and the assets. We have no limit.”?
Yeoh gives credit to YTL's wealth of intellectual capital, explaining that the group hires “the brightest people on this earth”. It's part of the reason why YTL features on the Forbes Global 2000, with the added distinction of being one of the most profitable companies per employee in the world (coming in at US$56,600 per employee).?
He's equally confident about the company's just-launched Starhill Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). Typically, amidst some analysts' lukewarm view of a retail REIT, Yeoh ebulliently announced that more properties would be added to the current portfolio, which includes Lot 10 Shopping Centre, Starhill Gallery and the JW Marriott Hotel.?
“Never in the world can they beat KL now as a centre. Why can't people wake up to this?” he asks, pointing out that Starhill has attracted investors from retail hotspots such as Singapore in addition to “the Luis Vuittons of the world”.?
“Remember, all branded goods sell for the same price. The rental in this city is a tenth of that of Hong Kong so why wouldn't people come here? The margins are much bigger.”?
Did he always know that he was going to follow in his father's footsteps? The answer is an unequivocal affirmative.?
“I know the smell of different types of concrete as well as I know the smell of different types of wine,” says Yeoh. Indeed, at a time when most families would soak up the plastic charm of Disneyland, the Yeoh brood were regular visitors to construction sites.?
“My father did it to register the fact that the next line of leaders are coming, so all the (people in our company) would get used to our faces. When we came back with engineering degrees and the like from abroad, it was a natural continuation – they just expected us to fit in because they've seen us so often.”?
With the YTL of today a seemingly indelible part of Kuala Lumpur's business community, how does the company maintain its commitment to social responsibility??
Avoiding the usual corporate spiel, Yeoh explains that YTL's successful performance as a company, allied with the level of service it provides to its customers, has the domino effect of ensuring that its shareholders and staff are fulfilled on a variety of levels without having to resort to corruption.?
Yeoh also outlines a vision of Malaysia, under the leadership of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, which has reached a level of civic-mindedness where society is civil not out of a fear of punishment but simply because it is the correct thing to do.?
With this in mind, YTL has embarked on a number of agendas to foster such a society, not least of which is its commitment to the performing arts. ?
The company maintains a widespread support of environmental programmes, including the preservation of a 180 million year old forest in Pangkor Laut and the establishment of a park in the company's Sentul development – what Yeoh has previously described as a “secret garden.” ?
It also promotes initiatives such as the use of radio frequency technology (think of a barcode for trees) to promote legal logging, while Yeoh is a member of the World Conservancy Group, what he understatedly describes as “a group of people who can raise enough funds to preserve forests.” ?
So who's going to take the helm for YTL's next fifty years? The answer comes as no surprise – the heirs of the Yeoh dynasty. ?
“One of the things we have said is that the next generation must be much more equipped than us,” says Yeoh. To this extent, he has ensured that his children are anchored in both faith and technological aptitude, in addition to being schooled at the likes of Oxford and Cambridge to thrive amongst their peers.?
Whether it's running the good race, or continuing on its journey, the fire that fuels YTL looks set to burn for years to come.