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Starry, Starry Knight

   
Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh

Wealth Magazine, March 2008 issue

By Bee Ong in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore

A rising Malaysian multinational is acquiring key assets worldwide, including high-profile acquisition in Singapore. The YTL group had previously ascended on the strength of its audacious deal-making, consistent ability to beat deadlines and the magnetic personality of its Managing Director, Tan Sri Datoí Francis Yeoh. Can YTL make as much of a difference in established global markets?

Most VIP visitors to the S$211 million (RM480 million) Starhill Gallery in Kuala Lumpur get a tour personally conducted by the upmarket mall's quick-witted chief concierge. The last stop on the reconnaissance leave many laughing.

In the basement of the seven-storey building, made over by the New York architect David Rockwell, visitors are encouraged to visit the ladies' or gentlemen's rooms. Inside, there is not a tap in sight. At the basins, attendants pump water by hand - a manual wheel for women and a series of hand-operated levers for men. Nineteenth-century bathrooms in one of the region's most prestigious shopping destinations.

It is the idea of a man who built his father's smallish construction business into a powerful conglomerate, parts of which are listed on the Tokyo, London and Kuala Lumpur stock exchanges. The group has significant infrastructure, real estate, utilities, cement-manufacturing and other assets in Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Dubai, with more on the way.

It was also one of very few Asian conglomerates that escaped the Asian crisis of 1997 untouched and in fact had cash for shopping during the panic asset sales. Today, the market capitalisation of his six listed entities total more than $13.2 billion, and the main listed entity has delivered a compounded annual growth rate of 55% over 22 years.

Now, Tan Sri Dato' Dr Francis Yeoh is said to aspire to own Harrods of London if it were for sale. (Tan Sri is the second ≠highest federal title in Malaysia, after Tun, which has customarily been awarded to the prime minister upon retirement). Yeoh is Managing Director of Kuala Lumpur-based YTL group and his values - the same values that gradually lifted the group onto the world stage - are encapsulated in those bathrooms in the basement of Starhill Gallery: Inventiveness, environmental conservation (Yeoh wanted the bathrooms to convey the message that water is scarce), technical capability, efficiency, surprising elements, consistency and a sense of humour.

He wants YTL to be the Asian General Electric or Siemens. But with much more glamour. Yeoh, a UK-trained civil engineer, says the second stage of his life has begun - and hence the next stage of YTLís development as well. It is a stage where he needn't fight as hard as he did during the early years. "It was like the curse of Sisyphus, pushing boulders up a hill. When you get there, you see many of the rocks rolling back downhill. At least some stones are staying up now!" he remarks, sighing at the memory of decades of fighting for viable financing schemes and friendlier policies.

The next stage for YTL appears to be a larger and more prominent presence in the world's most magnetic cities, primarily via luxury real estate development. Many of these cities will be in Asia, as the tide of power is shifting to this region. "China and India are going to be like the US and Europe to the world;' Yeoh says. In his estimation, Singapore will be like Zurich, Hong Kong perhaps the equivalent of London and Dubai will be the bridge between East and West.

In his long-term vision, the areas surrounding Singapore and Hong Kong - such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and parts of Indonesia - will also be lifted by the global cities' economic progress, as wealthy residents begin to buy real estate in idyllic retreats. They will be the Mediterranean and Caribbean of the East, Yeoh predicts. YTL already has spas, resorts and hotel assets in most of these locations. The group recently partnered Lehman Brothers to develop properties at Koh Samui in Thailand.

Although the YTL group continues to accumulate assets in the utilities, cement-manufacturing and infrastructure sectors worldwide, YTL's public face is going to be defined by the landmarks and conversation pieces like Starhill in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, three luxury residential developments in Singapore and future premium properties in the region.

Industry specialists who have dealings with Yeoh say he is seeking similar projects in the world's major cities. In Singapore's real estate circles, for instance, it is said that Yeoh is looking for a suitable location for a Starhill Gallery concept. Starhill Gallery was conceived from Yeoh's own shopping style - "I know what I want and I like to go to an exclusive place to get it and not linger': It's not quite the Paris Place Vendome, but it is a novel concept for Southeast Asia. The flagship boutiques and concept stores of international luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Audemars Piguet and Chaumet are presented on seven floors. Each floor is themed for a distinct experience: Feast, Indulge, Adorn, Explore, Pamper, Relish and Muse.

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Top: Adorn Floor at Starhill Gallery. Bottom: YTL's Listed Entities

The most ambitious element is the large cluster of luxury watch retailers that represent more than 100 brands. YTL believes that Starhill Gallery has the world's largest number of luxury watch boutiques under one roof. Over 10 days in December, the mall hosted an event that is only second in size to the venerable annual horology fair in: Basel, Switzerland. True to YTL style, the event, called A Journey Through Time, featured highly publicised visits by celebrities, royalty and top-ranking officials. It was one red-carpet moment after another, and Yeoh, accompanied by a bodyguard, was there every day, smiling for the cameras and making erudite speeches.

 

A Dubai group was so taken by Star hill Gallery that it is paying YTL a licensing fee to use the name Starhill Towers and Gallery Complex in Dubai. YTL has also been engaged to deliver brand-management services and share a percentage of the revenue. Yeoh declines to discuss the terms but says the licensing fee is "substantial". Another Starhill Gallery project is also coming up in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Yeoh says the terms are even more attractive than the Dubai project.

 

This is just the beginning. Singapore, for one, will hear much more of YTL in the coming years. So will other global cities like London and New York. Yeoh says the YTL group has a war chest of $3.08 billion which can be further leveraged for acquisitions.

 

Singapore Bling

The first two acquisitions in Singapore were the $50-million Lakefront Collections and the $S9.7-million Sandy Island, both at Sentosa Cove. The 132,688-sqft Lakefront will have 12 villas branded Armani Casa. Sandy Island will have I8 villas designed by the Italian architect Claudio Silvestrine, who designed the Giorgio Armani boutiques in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.

 

Starting prices for the 6,500sqft - 12,000sqft Sandy Island properties may be $12-$20 million each, analysts estimate. The project is expected to be launched at the end of March. In late November 2007, YTL purchased the Westwood Apartments site on Orchard Boulevard for $435 million or $2,525 psf per plot ratio. As of February 2008, this collective sale remains the priciest on record.

 

Analysts figure that the breakeven price for this site will be about $3,600 psf, assuming that the site is developed into 43 luxury apartments of 4,000 sqft each. Hence, the sale price is expected to be $4,000-$5,000 psf. Critics say YTL paid too much and too late for the site. They point out that the savviest buyers moved in just before the Singapore residential market recovered, in 2004-2005. But Yeoh says he has paid only the reserve price and has taken advantage of weakening market sentiment.

 

One of the earliest buyers was the Singapore developer Ho Bee, which bet on Sentosa before everyone else caught on. Ho Bee bought Coral Island and Paradise Island at Sentosa Cove for $206 psf in 2004 and $260 psf in 2005, respectively. YTL bought Sandy Island for $617 psf and Lakefront for $420 psf. However, compared with the latest Sentosa Cove land sale, of $1,822 psf to Ho Bee and 101, YTL's acquisitions weren't too richly priced. The group may, along with the early entrants like Lippo Group and Ho Bee, benefit from continued strength in top-end residential prices.

 

Singapore's luxury residential market went gangbusters last year. The all-time record is a penthouse at The Orchard Residences, which sold for $5,600 psf in October 2007. Penthouses at this spectacular development are about 5,000 sq ft in size.

 

"When I invest in a country, I invest long term and adopt the country as my own. Singapore is a safe city to invest in because the government has been well-tested and is responsive and consistent in reinventing the country and wanting investrors to win."

 

By late November, the market had turned slightly nervous. Only two luxury apartments, both at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, had fetched slightly more than $5,000 psf in December. Real estate specialists doubt that unbranded properties can fetch anything near $5,000 psf in the future. For instance, Marina Bay Suites, the luxury development in the heart of the new financial centre at Marina Bay, will likely launch at around $3,000 psf, according to Kan Kum Wah, head of residential marketing at Marina Bay Financial Centre. Marina Bay Suites range from 1,680-8,100 sq ft.

 

The 175-unit Orchard Residences, the only major residential development facing Orchard Road, has 41 units left at mid February. Average prices for the remaining three- to four-bedroom units, ranging from 1,800-2,800 sqft, will be about $4,000 psf, according to Soon Su Lin, CEO of Orchard Turn Developments, which is developing The Orchard Residences. Ď

 

But Yeoh is looking far beyond the price blips of a few quarters. "When I invest in a country, I invest long term and adopt the country as my own. Singapore is a safe city to invest in because the government has been well tested and is responsive and consistent in reinventing the country and wanting investors to win;' he says.

 

Moreover, comparing prices without the context of exact location, land tenure, amenities, quality of the project and other details can be misleading. Yeoh is also looking at the longer- term trend of wealth creation and Asia's attractiveness to international buyers. Today, about half of luxury real estate buyers in Singapore are foreigners and an increasing number are from outside the traditional markets of Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

 

"I've always said the first trillion-dollar company would come from Asia and it has happened with Petro China's IPO. Now, I'm saying the first trillionaire will be found soon and I am sure he or she will to have businesses in Asia to make it;' he declares.


   
Left: Pangkor Laut Resort. Right: Wessex Water

His allies point out that Yeoh has the connections to attract a world-famous clientele; he knows everybody who is anybody, from the tennis star Roger Federer (who recently stayed in Yeoh's personal penthouse at the the Ritz­ Carlton Residences in Kuala Lumpur) to former British Prime Minister John Major. The late tenor Luciano Pavarotti was a friend' who performed twice at Yeoh's private island, Pangkor Laut, and was a kindred spirit in the pursuit of world peace.

 

"In YTL's real estate projects, Francis Yeoh is gunning for the billionaires. For an Asian brand to do that is really marvelous:' says a property consultant. Can YTL raise the luxury bar in Singapore?

 

Surprise!

There are still no firm plans for the Westwood site and world-famous architects have been called upon to enter a beauty pageant. But Yeoh's track record, ambition and persistent wish to make

a difference suggest that the Westwood project may well present a different perspective for the luxury market.

 

"I want to do something wonderful so that it won't be torn down 30 years later for an en bloc sale, and people say 'this building did not stand the test of time: I'm making sure it wont haunt me and that it will be appreciated:' Yeoh says. His personal property, The Estoril on Holland Road, had just gone on collective sale last year. YTL has stunned several times.

 

His allies point out that Yeoh has the connections to attract a world-famous clientele; he knows everybody who is anybody, from the tennis star Roger Federer (who recently stayed in Yeoh's personal penthouse at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Kuala Lumpur) to former British Prime Minister John Major. The late tenor Luciano Pavarotti was a friend who performed twice at Yeoh's private island, Pangkor Laut, and was a kindred spirit in the pursuit of world peace.

 

Pangkor Laut Resort, on a 300-acre private island owned by YTL off Malaysia's west coast, is one of YTLís most famous properties worldwide. When building the award-winning luxury retreat in the 1990s, Yeoh had ordered that the two-million-year-old forest be conserved, and only a small portion of the island has been developed. The guest accommodation, restaurants and spa were built to complement the forest.

 

There is also a resident naturalist. Yeoh had taken his children to Pangkor Laut to plant trees since they were tots. The result is an authentically serene getaway, where monkeys gambol on guests' balconies, and the aura of exclusive luxury is neither overbearing nor overly commercial. Pavarotti sang there twice and said of the island, "I almost cried when I see how beautiful God made this island:'

 

More recently, YTL masterplanned a 294-acre plot of land near the centre of Kuala Lumpur into what Yeoh envisions as an equivalent to New York's SoHo. Sentul was a neglected area once populated by railway workers until YTL came up with a plan about six years ago to build a sylvan, chic enclave. The Sentul project brought new concepts to the Malaysian marketplace, such as lofts, park homes and boutique offices.

 

At the centre of the project is a 35-acre gated park replicating 18th century English gardens. High-end residences, offices and shops surround the park, which is restricted to residents. Yeoh has observed that homes surrounding large well-maintained parks tend to have higher values. They include the neighbourhoods surrounding London's Hyde Park and New York's Central Park. One of Sentul's park homes, The Maple, was recently sold for $220 psf (RM500 psf), which is double the initial price of $110 psf.

 

In fact, nature conservation and lush landscaping are signature touches at nearly all YTL projects. Yeoh points to a preliminary marketing brochure for Sandy Islands at Sentosa Cove and highlights the dramatic greenery in the pictures. It looked like Beverly Hills on a good day.

 

"I have a green heart:' he declares with a childlike delight that belies the unrelenting negotiator and demanding boss that he is known to be. His next move in Malaysia's real estate market is to "change the shape of all our developments. We are bringing in the finest architects from around the world, the finest master planners, the finest interior designers and it will all be branded - Armani Casa, Ritz-Carlton Residences, for example. The brand's integrity, what it stands for and the craftsmanship are what people pay for:' he muses.

 

Let Stars Be Stars

YTL is also credited with transforming the area around Starhill Gallery into Malaysia's most glamorous shopping precinct. In 1998, YTL acquired three prime properties from the troubled Malaysian property company Taiping Consolidated for $142 million in cash - "a cheap price:' Yeoh declares. It was a year after the Asian crisis began and desperate asset sales were occurring throughout Asia. The three properties were Starhill, Lot 10 shopping mall and the JW Marriott hotel.


   
Sentul Park

CK Tang, the venerable Singapore retailer, was once housed in Starhill but eventually closed down from dismal revenues. "When I took over Starhill, only Louis Vuitton was paying rent. I found quite dramatically that good things are not cheap and cheap things are not good! I had to quickly think of something to revive Starhill. I persuaded the government to drop duties on branded goods and they promptly did so within four months and also let me build a " pedestrian way linking the various malls:' Yeoh recalls.

 

"When I took over Starhill, only Louis Vuitton was paying rent. I found quite dramatically that good things are not cheap and cheap things are not good! I had to quickly think of something to revive Starhill. I persuaded the government to drop duties on branded goods and they promptly did so within four months and also let me build a pedestrian way linking the various mall."

 

Within six months, his idea, Bintang Walk, was up and running. (Bintang means star in Malay). It is a strip of cafes and restaurants - many of them al fresco European style - boutiques, hotels and sometimes live street music. It was a novel experience for the city in those days and it drew the crowds. Today, it continues to be the city's place to see and be seen, although several other replicas of Bintang Walk have emerged in wealthy neighbourhoods.

 

Surprising The Jaded

But Singapore is a different market. In some ways, it is far more developed and competitive. Nearly every major developer has a product for the high end of the market that befits the status of 'global city' (See Castles Made In Singapore, November 2007 edition). Every marketing agent gushes about the world-renowned - architect who designed it, the stunning landscaping, the German or Italian fittings, the high ceilings, the size of the abode and so on.

 

However, ultra-wealthy buyers are attracted to one thing, says a marketing agent based in Singapore: Good value. Developments that are priced right will find demand but projects that are too richly priced may languish even in sturdy market conditions. "High-end buyers are very smart. Money may be no object, but they know good value when they see it. To achieve record prices, there has to be a fantastic distinguishing factor. Ritz-Carlton Residences (at Cairnhill) could have made profits at $3,500 psf but because they were asking for $5,000 psf, only a few units were sold out of about 60. It was unrealistic pricing:' he says.

 

This is something Yeoh understands well. "If you do not pay attention to details, you cannot claim a certain price. It's not just the buildings; it's the consistency and the passion that create a legacy. To decide on the best time for tea, Cesar Ritz (the legendary hotelier) sat every afternoon to observe ladies in his hotels. He wanted to see at which hour the sunshine makes their faces glow most beautifully. How wrong can you go with that kind of detail? Experience is priceless, like my Eastern and Oriental Express train. If you have to think about the price (tickets can cost US$5,000 a trip), you won't do it:' he says.

 

Kuala Lumpur's retail milieu is no backwater either. Developers in the city are as keen to build a 5th Avenue or Ginza as their kin in Singapore. In September 2007, a shopping centre that is larger than Singapore's VivoCity opened right next to YTLís Lot 10. The seven-storey Pavilion has 450 outlets from Ermenegildo Zegna, Hermes, Versace, Mikimoto and other brands, including a collection of lesser ­known names such as Arch.

 

All Abroad

This isn't the first time YTL is competing in established international markets. One of the group's most spectacular overseas acquisitions is the UK's Wessex Water, which was part of Enron. In 2001, as Enron unravelled, Wessex Water was put on the market at a time when major utility companies in the developed world were facing financial difficulties. YTL Power, the group's utilities unit, had beat what Yeoh calls "Goliath competition" to win 100% of Wessex Water for $3.41 billion (£1.24 billion). In the running were the Royal Bank of Scotland, Hong Kong's Cheung Kong, Enel of Italy and several other behemoths.

 

Ironically, some of these Goliaths may have refused to finance YTLís projects during the early days. Wessex Water supplies drinking water to 1.2 million people and sewerage services to 3 million people in southwest England, including Dorset, Bristol, Bath and several other areas. As a regulated asset, Wessex has a perpetual concession from the government.

 

YTL Power, the gorup's utilities unit, had beat what Yeoh calls "Goliath competition" to win 100% of Wessex Water for $3.41 billion (£1.24 billion). In the running were the Royal Bank of Scotland, Honh Kong's Cheing Kong, Enel of Italy and several other behemoths.

 

In 2007, the UK's sewerage and water industry regulator Ofwat, named Wessex Water Britain's most efficient water and Sewerage Company, among 10 firms in England and Wales. It was the third consecutive year the firm had received top billing. YTL had used the group's engineering competency to improve efficiencies and Wessex's long-term investment outlook. YTL also offered staff stock options to lift morale.


   
YTL's next step - Water treatment services in Asia

YTL is reportedly the largest Malaysian investor in the UK to date. For his contribution to the UK economy, Yeoh was awarded an honorary CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2006. YTLís other major utility in the West is in Australia. In 2001, YTL Power took a 33% stake in ElectraNet, a power transmission network serving South Australia.

YTL is seeking more regulated assets in developed economies, which will add highly predictable streams of recurrent income because these assets usually receive long concessions of 30-60 years. Two years ago, YTL expressed an interest in bidding for one of Singapore's three power-generation plants, currently owned by Temasek. Like many other economies, Singapore wants to introduce competition into the power-generation and power-distribution markets to increase efficiency and reduce costs to consumers.

Temasek hopes to sell the first power plant by mid-2009 and the first to go on sale may be Tuas Power. A Reuters report in January indicated that the Tuas facility may get $2 billion. The other two facilities that might go on sale in the future are PowerSeraya and Senoko. "YTL is still very interested in bidding for these assets;' Yeoh says.

Utilities, although relatively unglamorous, is YTLís bedrock of financial stability. The sector contributes about 70% of the group's net profit. In Malaysia, YTL Power owns and operates two power stations with a total capacity of 1,212 megawatts.

Now, YTL wants to offer water ≠treatment services throughout Asia. Last year, the group won a $450 million contract from the Malaysian government to clean up the country's rivers, using Wessex Water's technology, and the first phase of the project has just begun. Yeoh says he will turn the dead rivers into live rivers where the water can be extracted and treated for consumption He is replicating the vision he had when he built the first power plants: First-world technology at third-world prices.

Like many other developing economies, Malaysia's growth depends heavily on the availability of sufficient water. The Department of Irrigation and Drainage estimates that Malaysia's domestic and industrial requirements will surge from 9.5 million litres a day in 1995 to 20.3 million in 2020. About 98% of the country's water comes from rivers, and only 42 rivers out of 116 are clean. Most are highly polluted.

Safe Haven?

Although about 70% of the YTL group's revenues have come from outside Malaysia for some time, some observers say that Yeoh is building up YTL's overseas assets as a passage to safe havens. Several years ago, a Kuala Lumpur-based banker reportedly speculated that Yeoh might be "preparing for a post-Mahathir administration".

Indeed, Yeoh has been criticised for his close ties to the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. When Malaysia's hard-charging leader launched the country's ambitious development plan Vision 2020, YTL had its own Vision 2020, which was to grow 20% annually until 2020. References to cronyism were not infrequent.

After all, YTL's ascent started when the group became Malaysia's first independent power producer, at remarkably favourable terms. Subsequently, there were other lucrative projects that set critics buzzing. One of these was 200 acres of land in Pulau Pangkor, near YTLís Pangkor Laut Resort, in exchange for constructing an airport and a marina on the island. There were myriad others.

But is there a change of the corporate guard? Yeoh says, "I don't know. You have to ask them." If YTL's only ammunition was link to the corridors of highest power in Kuala Lumpur, could the group have got Wessex Water in the UK, ElectraNet in Australia, the various land in Singapore and other international assets.?

When the current Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi took the reins, there was talk about a change of the corporate guard. In recent years, Patrick Lim, Executive Chairman of Equine Capital, whose nickname is Patrick Badawi, has been awarded key projects like the $11 billion Penang Global City Centre, a 104-hectare landmark that will have luxury hotels, condominiums, commercial centres and a park. The Prime Minister declared it will be to Penang what Kuala Lumpur City change of the corporate guard? Yeoh says, "I don't know. You have to ask them. If YTLís only ammunition was a link to the corridors of highest power in Kuala Lumpur, could the group have got Wessex Water in the UK, ElectraNet in Australia, the various land parcels in Singapore and other international assets?

It could be argued that YTLís ability to consistently beat deadlines, offer high quality services and Yeoh's talent for negotiating financially viable schemes carried the group through, more than any politically connected favours, perceived or real Legend goes that YTL's ability to complete Malaysia's first turnkey hospital schedule so impressed that he was entrusted with the honour of being the pioneer private-sector power producer.

In fact, a coveted YTL idea that Mahathir rejected, even after he retired - he reportedly said a country with 26 million people cannot sustain two train services to Singapore- has now received interest from Badawi's administration.

The high-speed train that would take passengers from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore in 90 minutes is now back on the table and a JP Morgan analyst believes that the plan has received all the major approvals from both Malaysia and Singapore authorities. Has anyone seen YTL move at bullet speed yet?

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