The Straits Times, December 2, 2007
Billionaire tycoon Francis Yeoh, the man behind YTL Corporation, opens up about his life and loves
By Jessica Cheam
Singapore: WHILE his pals were off sightseeing during the school holidays, Malaysian tycoon Francis Yeoh was doing his own brand of 'site'-seeing: checking out the building sites run by his father's construction firm.
It was no holiday. Mr Yeoh stayed and worked on rough terrain with the people who helped to build YTL Corporation.
Given that he now has a personal fortune well in excess of US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion), a private island and two helicopters for his personal use, you would have to say it was time well spent.
Mr Yeoh has overseen the remarkable transformation of YTL from a tiddler worth $200,000 to a $13 billion conglomerate, with interests in construction, property, hotels and utilities.
Its latest move made headlines here last week when YTL paid an eye-popping $435 million for Westwood Apartments (above), a 30-year-old condominium in Orchard Boulevard.
It raised the usual questions that often follow one of the firm's coups: 'What is YTL and who is Francis Yeoh?'
While relatively unknown here, YTL is a household name across the Causeway.
Founded in 1955 by Mr Yeoh's father, Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, whose initials inspired the firm's name, YTL began life in a two-storey shophouse in Kuala Lumpur's Jalan Bukit Bintang.
Its first two decades were successful, but then came the 1970s oil crisis.
'It was a turbulent time,' Mr Yeoh, 53, told The Sunday Times this week. 'Two generations of savings were wiped out.'
Despite this, his father managed to scrape together enough money to send Mr Yeoh, the eldest son in a family of seven children, abroad to get a degree. 'He wanted me to come back and change the way we do things.'
He earned a civil engineering degree, found a fresh perspective on business management and came home to revolutionise YTL, turning its fortunes around in 1978, when he took over the reins at 24.
Its aggressive expansion has seen profits grow every year for the last decade.
YTL moved into the utilities industry, becoming Malaysia's first independent power producer and listed on the Malaysian bourse in 1985.
It ventured overseas, buying a stake in one of the biggest power distribution companies in Australia and a part of Indonesia's second largest power generator.
It also bought English utility firm Wessex Water, a bold ?1.2 billion (S$3.6 billion) swoop that prompted Britain's Daily Telegraph to ask in a headline: 'Who the hell are YTL?'
Many might regard the firm, with its surprising moves on the international stage, as a bit of a dark horse, but the same cannot be said of Mr Yeoh, for whom the phrase 'flamboyant entrepreneur' seems to have been invented.
He has an abiding love for the arts, especially opera, and counted the late Luciano Pavarotti as a good friend. On one occasion, Mr Yeoh flew 200 businessmen, politicians and celebrities to his private island - Pangkor Luat, off Malaysia's east coast - for a Pavarotti concert.
He is also a keen buyer of art and fine wine and loves golf, skiing and the rarefied sport of flying helicopters. That's why he has two.
Mr Yeoh is also an arts patron and funded KL's new Performing Arts Centre.
His philosophy, for business and life, is 'go for the best of the best'.
That approach can be seen at YTL's Starhill Gallery in KL, a vast retail space with blue chip brands such as Louis Vuitton and Fendi.
This is also YTL's approach to its next gambit: real estate in Asia, starting here in Singapore.
YTL owns majority stakes in two Sentosa Cove projects - Sandy Island and the Lakefront - and is planning luxury villas designed by Claudio Silverstrin, the architect behind Armani stores worldwide.
As gilded as his life has been, Mr Yeoh was touched by tragedy when his wife Rosaline died after a seven-year battle with breast cancer.
It had been love at first sight, with Mr Yeoh proposing to Rosaline, then a Hong Kong actress and TV star, within two weeks of meeting. 'Both our mothers cried with joy' at the news, he said.
'She was very courageous and uncompromising in quality. If I did something wrong, she'd prod me. She always told me to go for the best.'
Mr Yeoh said that after her death, he felt like 'a bit of my flesh was torn away from me', but added that he was happy that she was in heaven.
Mr Yeoh, a born-again Christian, credits his success to God, and said: 'I don't fear death. Because I know I'll go to a better place. And I... will see my wife again.'
His children, aged 15 to 26, are all Christians and named after Biblical characters: Ruth, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua and Rebekah.
It is perhaps his robust belief that gives him his unshakeable business confidence. 'People ask if YTL will be as big as General Electric some day. I think, why not? I don't think there's a limit to how much YTL can grow.'