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'The worst thing to do is to treat the consumer like a commodity'

   

Space Shaper

 

The Peak Malaysia, Vol. 17. No. 7

 

Photos: KB Lin with additional photography by YTL Corporation Berhad

 

YTL Corporation Berhad’s Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh, CBE, shares with Diana Khoo the inspiration behind his phenomenally successful Starhill Gallery and how it has made Kuala Lumpur the place to watch, literally, when it comes to exemplary shopping within the highly competitive luxury retail industry.

 

Sitting at his desk in his dimly lit penthouse office in Yeoh Tiong Lay Plaza, his family's corporate headquarters, Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh Sock Ping, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, is many things to many people. Frequently described as a flamboyant tycoon, he is also a philanthropic billionaire, a patron of the arts, a born-again Christian and, more recently, the man who has lifted the luxury shopping ante in Malaysia with the unveiling of the new-look Starhill Gallery along Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Bintang Road mid last year. It has already attracted the attention of the world's most instantly recognisable names in high-end retail, from designer fashions to branded jewellery, with a huge space measuring 30,000sqft, dedicated to luxury timepieces from 70 top-flight brands, as well as having its own limited edition Armand Nicolet Starhill timepiece created in the gallery's honour. Yeoh's Starhill Gallery, in fact, has been credited with the country's high-end retail development, as well as the emergence of Kuala Lumpur as the region's definitive hub for luxury timepieces."

It must be said though that fortune and luxury have long been intrinsically connected to the Yeoh clan. His Kuala Lumpur-based family company, YTL Corporation Berhad, generated RM4.9 billion in revenue last year, having grown from a single listed entity in 1985 to five listed companies currently, boasting a combined market capitalisation of US$5 billion. Overall, the company's interests and assets range from utilities (the group has a 100 per cent equity interest in Jawa Timur which carries out operations and maintenance for Jawa Power, as well as the Wessex Water concession in the UK and ElectraNet in Australia) and cement manufacturing to construction contracting and property development. Hotel management and development are also on the list, with the YTL name strongly associated with some of the business' best names, including The Ritz-Carlton, the Eastern & Oriental Express (of which he is founder-president) and, of course, the Pangkor Laut Resort with its world-class spa located on the Yeoh family's private island of the same name.

"Being considered diversified is an oxymoron, really," says the charismatic 52-year-old billionaire. "YTL is actually very intensified as our core competency is engineering, while infrastructure forms the core of our business." Dressed in a smart dark suit with his trademark yellow tie, Yeoh is disarmingly charming despite having endured a rough few days. Looking very much the same as he does in pictures, his office is filled with snapshots that invariably show him and other family members posing with the powerful as well as the glamorous - from Nelson Mandela and the Prince of Wales to world figures like Bill Clinton and Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. What makes the photographs extra striking is the fact that most bear a decidedly chummy air rather than the typical stiff shots taken during obligatory press photo calls. And certainly there has been no shortage of press for the prominent tycoon. Hardly a day goes by without him making the news, be it for his business ventures or an event where he is generously "giving back to society".


   
Starhill Gallery's multifaceted and visually-arresting interiors.

Enthusiasts of the arts, in particular, wax lyrical about Yeoh for his soul-enriching deeds, like his collaboration on the new Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre located in YTL's Sentul West development, to supporting world-class musicians and music events (YTL Corporation sponsored the amazing Three Tenors concert in Bath, England, in 2003), as well as bringing in international talent like Greek artist Sophia Vari's (who also happens to be Mrs Fernando Botero) exhibition at the National Art Gallery. Likewise, retailers have been equally enthusiastic about his newly refurbished Starhill Gallery. Launched in spectacular style last July (the new-look Starhill Gallery celebrates its first anniversary this month) with bigwigs and celebrities like the Pointer Sisters in attendance, the luxurious David Rockwell-designed mall is clearly the apple of his eye right now. "It is an iconic product," he smiles. "Kuala Lumpur is an exciting paradise for both shoppers and retailers, and it made sense for us to take advantage of the relatively inexpensive construction costs to create such a premium retail space. What we've achieved with Starhill probably amounts to a fifth of what it would cost to create something similar in, say, Hong Kong."

Spanning seven luxuriously conceptualised floors, each bearing a name like Indulge, Adorn, Relish and Explore chosen by Yeoh himself, it is indeed a fitting creation that bears tribute to its tagline: 'A Gallery of Rich Experiences'. "It's not an advertising mantra," he admonishes, "and it's certainly not your average mall. We didn't build a world-class facility simply for an ego trip; we truly wanted a place that would give people a rich experience. The worst thing to do is treat the consumer like a commodity or sales target." Although a self-confessed anti-shopper, he is proud to admit he finds the atmosphere he's created at Starhill to be "positively therapeutic. I hate the harried feeling and in-your-face hassling I get from other retail spaces. At Starhill, you'll find the level of service to be fabulous. Personally, I can't imagine getting tired of it, and I am the sort who's easily bored. For me to still be fascinated and, in fact, find it more beautiful day after day, is an achievement for Starhill in itself," he grins.

Filling up Starhill's retail space with the most exclusive brands has also been a clever strategy on Yeoh's part, "I didn't want Starhill to be peddling common things," he sniffs. "I wanted brands with richness, history and heritage that sold, not commercial merchandise, but rare collectibles that matched the level of sophistication our customers possess." This move has resulted in another major plus point for Starhill in the eyes of its tenants: top quality human traffic. Nick Hayek Jr, CEO of the Swatch Group, only has the highest praise for Starhill. "I've been to many shopping malls but never in an environment like this," he says during a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur. "There is a lot of festivity and uniqueness in Starhill and there is always something to discover. I am impressed and we want our presence here." Both he and his father, legendary Nick Hayek Sr, the creator of Swatch, have already pledged to create a second-to-none Omega boutique at the gallery with the Sapura Group, their Malaysian partner, with plans to bring Nicole Kidman herself in to launch it.


   
Left: Pak Loh Chiu Chow restaurant at the Feast Village; Right: The colourful Village Bar.

"I've always liked Starhill," adds Kathy Lam, General Manager of Louis Vuitton Malaysia. "It has constantly managed to maintain its prettiness. We're very happy with the quality of human traffic it attracts, and we've experienced about a 15 per cent increase in foot flow ever since Starhill unveiled its new look about a year ago. Francois Delage, President of Louis Vuitton Asia-Pacific, was just here in fact, and was pleasantly surprised and very happy with what he saw." Yeoh chips in, "Starhill does attract top-flight traffic. People come here to do serious spending. Our price points are not low and they know the level we're playing at. Be it to eat, shop or enjoy a session of pampering, customers come here knowing they'll feel comfortable being among like-minded people. Also, Kuala Lumpur is truly becoming the Paris of the East. Everyone who's been to Starhill simply loves it. CNN has already shot Starhill three times, so we must have done something right." On his favourite aspects of the gallery, he admits he likes the way it is connected to three top hotels: the JW Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton as well as The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton. "It's a beautiful maze of a walk," he explains. "There are lots of nooks and simply walking around it is a nice, meandering experience, not boring in the least. Every floor offers some visual excitement, from the window displays to the changing scenes of everyday life. I personally walk all the floors and peep into each store every day I'm in town," he shares. "There's nothing I love seeing more than people in the shops or enjoying themselves in one of the restaurants."

Speaking of restaurants, Starhill Gallery's Feast Village concept remains the talk of the town. A unique cluster of 13 top dining establishments, it offers an unrivalled multi-cuisine gourmet experience and is, to date, the first of its kind in the country. "I thought it would be a nice idea to have a little 'village' of restaurants," shares Yeoh. "Shook (the pioneer open kitchen restaurant which opened in December 1999) was a successful concept for us and we wanted to create something new that would complement it. The challenge lay in recreating the same kind of success with, not one, but 12 other restaurants... and I must say, it's worked very well."

YTL Corporation also recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and Yeoh confidently states that he expects the company to continue doing well "with at least a 20 per cent growth in earnings, revenue and profit", although he adds wistfully that it's unlikely he would be around for the 100th anniversary celebrations. "YTL has everything in place: our marketing skill sets, capital, reserves as well as tremendous intellectual assets, so it's only a matter of time before we reach all our targets. As well, we are not subject to the tyranny of quarterisation'," he jokes, referring to the short-term performance and financial reviews most big corporations are subjected to. His business outlook on not having "in-betweens" but, instead, focussing only on the upper tier, be it in deal-making, property development or opening resorts, has also stood the company in good stead.


   
Stunning ID at Gonbei on the Relish Floor

"The top end of things will always remain pretty recession-proof," he quips. "As you can see, the brands at Starhill have weathered countless recessional cycles which, in turn, guarantees insulation for us." Indeed. Louis Vuitton, one of the mall's anchor tenants, is testimony to that. "We have invested a lot in Starhill and are pleased to say the store here has the highest per unit sales transactions in the region," adds Lam with a smile. "Which is why we have greater expectations when we open our new 6,000 sqft store at the gallery's storefront this third quarter. I must say I'm also pleasantly surprised to see Tan Sri Francis, being such a busy man of many other talents, so hands-on with Starhill. He's really done a good job and it just goes to show that if we have passion in whatever we do, success is certain to follow."

And should you happen to ever hear Yeoh speak about YTL and his career, it is clear that the word 'passion' couldn't be more apt. One of his happiest moments in life, in fact, is work-related. "I remember spending three months on Pangkor Laut (the private island he owns off the Straits of Malacca) when it was being rebuilt and refurbished in the late '80s, and I can't remember enjoying myself more," he says. "It was simply being surrounded by the 180 million-year-old jungle and appreciating the biodiversity, from the exotic plants to a tree bark I remember that tasted of sarsaparilla. It was an ideal time in my life as I could combine work with nature - a time with no stress or a mobile phone. The time I spent there, in fact, made me toy with the idea of shifting our corporate headquarters to the island during weekdays," he laughs. "It's amazing what nature and the environment can do. I never felt healthier in my life, coupled with peace, joy and solitude. It made me think that touching a forest is like touching eternity, and I am glad that through YTL, I have enjoyed that Garden of Eden experience."

Business aside, Yeoh is also well known for his great love of the arts, the operas of Verdi and Puccini, in particular, being personal favourites. He is even the proud owner of Zubin Mehta's baton from his Terme di Caracalla concert with the Three Tenors. "The arts have always been the medium of expression that reflects the state of our heart and soul," he muses poetically. "As long as one breathes and has a soul, I don't see how not to love music, arts and culture. And I've also realised that most of us have forgotten how to give back to society. If you look at history and all that the human race has experienced - socialism, communism, in fact, every kind of 'ism' - we have forgotten to give back in all of them. The world's moving so fast and it's incredulous when you stop to think we can go to the moon but not go home to a good family. That's why it's so important to give: back whenever we can and how we must," he stresses, "remember those who aren't as blessed."


   
Left: The facade of Starhill Gallery; Right: Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh at the David Rockwell-designed Starhill Gallery

Not one to spout empty rhetoric, Yeoh is as good as his word. YTL's recent artistic contributions included a series of free concerts that spanned five days, featuring talents like celebrated British tenor Russell Watson accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, as well as sponsorship of local production M! The Opera. "We do this not for the PR, but people in the arts are professionals too, and they need us to support them. All these form the building blocks of society - it's for the soul, he adds.

On his most positive contributions to the company, Yeoh maintains an equally altruistic outlook. "It's whenever I bring joy to people," he says, flashing his trademark megawatt smile. "It's seeing happy customers and shareholders: people who've been touched from attending one of our concerts, satisfied new homeowners from one of our housing projects or when I see my staff becoming millionaires from exercising company stock options. That's what makes me proud - seeing how YTL uses our God-given talent to produce good things, things that give people comfort and pleasure. Our business is not into things that can destroy families, like gambling, and never will be. So much has been given to us, likewise more is expected from us - it's noblesse oblige. I see YTL as a servant-king - we should serve and not just take."

The first in his family to embrace Christianity, I gingerly ask Yeoh how his family initially reacted to his conversion. "Have you ever heard of the French Revolution?" he wisecracks. But he remains devoted as ever to his faith and is well known for giving credit back to God whenever he can. "I see YTL's success as blessed," he explains. "Being at the right place, at the right time, meeting the right people and seeing the company's miraculous growth, I credit all these opportunities and successes to God who is and should be our moral compass. Some people squirm when they hear me speak, but the truth shouldn't be hard to hear or tell. If everyone could make their walk a journey of light, the world would indeed be an awesome place." Aah... blessed words indeed.

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