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Francis Yeoh on the Telegraph's article 'I'm not a po-faced zealot, I'm not'

   
Baker with Yeoh during the interview
Kuala Lumpur, 18 August 2003

During a trip to the United Kingdom, Bath - to be precise, YTL group Managing Director Tan Sri Francis Yeoh was interviewed by Martin Baker from the The Sunday Telegraph.

The article by Baker was published on the 17th of August entitled, Business profile: 'I'm not a po-faced zealot, I'm not'. YTL Community catches up with Yeoh upon his return from the United Kingdom for a follow-up to the article.

Q: Have you read the article by Martin Baker in the Sunday Telegraph?
Yes, I just did. I enjoyed talking to him - he told me that he is a Christian.

Q: Is the article accurate?
It's quite okay, but for starters, I'm the Managing Director, not the Chairman of YTL. There is a reference to the "sophisticated Oxford and Cambridge types". It was not my intention in that context to be skeptical about Oxbridge types, quite the contrary I admire the writings and works of many Christians from Oxbridge not least among them is C.S. Lewis. I have read most of his writings on God and I bought many of his personal letters in an auction, I treasure them more than the Mouton Rothschilds! I was just saying in jest that some people think when you’re in business (in the world of Mammon), God should take a back seat.

Full text of Business Profile: 'I'm not a po-faced zealot, I'm not'

Sunday Telegraph (UK), 17 August 2003

The billionaire chairman of YTL, Francis Yeoh, was wounded when allegations of impropriety were made about the takeover of Wessex Water. But his huge ambition was unchecked

Francis Yeoh claims to be "abdicating responsibility for the first time in 10 years" as we sit down for our supposedly private chat in a Georgian anteroom of the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath. But a down day for this reputedly workaholic Asian billionaire is hardly relaxing.

For a start, our tête-à-tête is conducted in front of eight other people, including a camera crew, which is there to capture the thoughts of the YTL supremo for the group website.

After Yeoh has finished the interview he will head out on to the adjacent parkland to check on the progress of the specially constructed auditorium for the Three Tenors concert sponsored by YTL - which incidentally owns Wessex Water, the local utilities company.

Later on, he will host a dinner for Pavarotti, Domingo and the slighter one whose name always escapes me. That'll be leisure time, then.

The tenors, incidentally, are termed the Free Tenors in the publicity material, just in case the customers of Wessex Water don't know who's being beneficent. Yeoh can say whom the public of Bath should thank with considerable confidence, which is a trait he does not lack.

He is a converted Christian, the first in his family for 30 generations. So God, who features prominently in his conversation, gets credit for the concert: "We've been doing this [putting on free concerts] for 10 years. It's a journey of thanksgiving to the community at large and also a spiritual journey - a thanksgiving to God for blessing us."

This slight, affable man exudes all the determination and ease with power one would expect of a billionaire heading a huge infrastructure development company (power generation and transmission, transport services, property).

Yeoh tends to a business that spans three continents, has a market capitalisation of some £5bn, and boasts a compound growth rate of 42 per cent (earnings per share adjusted for bonus and rights issues) since 1986. He has also signed up for one of the planet's most aggressive expansion plans.

Yet he is clearly hurt by some of the things that have been written about him. He knows that the liberal prejudices of many journalists will be affronted by his constant references to God and his Christian faith. Yet he cannot help himself. Later in our interview, he refers to coverage that has annoyed him, and states: "I'm not a po-faced zealot, I'm not."

However, Yeoh clearly cannot resist a little bit of freelance evangelising - and the more famous the potential converts, the better. He hosts a weekly fellowship group of local friends and business associates at home in Kuala Lumpur, and the dialogue continues in the world of corporate schmooze: "My role is very exciting, meeting people like Pavarotti and Charles."

Yes, that Charles. "Every time I meet him [Prince Charles] he refers to me as a 'dangerous man, the God man. Here he comes again. He's going to talk about God.' " To be on the receiving end of such a comment from the Prince, not known for ducking the big issues, is probably significant.

But for YTL's shareholders, the figures tell the only story they really want to hear. Listed on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange in 1985, with a secondary listing in Tokyo acquired in 1996, YTL has squeezed value out of South Australian electricity transmission concessions, Malaysian power plants, high-speed rail links, cement manufacture, hotel management and new economy technology incubators and consulting.

The results speak loud and clear: "I've been paying dividends since '86, 18 years on the trot at a high rate. Last year we paid dividends at 7.8 per cent [based on the nominal value of the shares]. We beat the world. Who could pay dividends at 7.8 per cent? We make a lot of shareholders very happy."

Yeoh's obsession is with making sure that his customers are happy. If not, he argues, YTL will not be able to sustain its vertiginous growth: "I've 10m customers and they all vote with their feet every day. If we don't provide world-class service, we're out of a job - it's as simple as that.

"People expect so much now. The service bar has got higher and higher. So you have to provide world-class service almost at a third-world price, and still make profits - and keep the smile on your face.

"With the kind of culture that we have, if we say that we want to expand to 100m customers - you understand that I'm not boastful - I think [YTL employees] can manage; they can multiply; with the businesses they are managing, I have no doubt we can expand 10-fold." '

This is a remarkable ambition - and all to be achieved by 2020 (how's that for long-term thinking?). "I'll probably still be around," says Yeoh with a short laugh. "Not a very young man, but still."

Some of that growth will be achieved organically, by harnessing the "intellectual capital" of the YTL group to do what it already does a little better.

But we can also expect acquisitions: "We have the firepower to grow. We have an arsenal of expertise. We also have an arsenal of cash. Every year we have recurring revenues of hundreds of millions of pounds. We can acquire by spending £1bn every year."

The expansion needed to attain those goals will probably occur largely in what Yeoh refers to as "the new Europe, the Polands".

"Young Europe needs a formula," he adds. "They need world-class utilities at third-world prices. They are third world-ish in their economic maturity. Hopefully they will reflect on the British way as one of the better ways to go forward."

Progress in the UK for Yeoh really got under way when YTL acquired Wessex Water for £1.24bn in March last year. It is understood Yeoh was deeply wounded and privately very angry when allegations of impropriety were levelled at YTL after it emerged as the purchaser.

Everyone - including Colin Skellett, Wessex's chairman and chief executive - had been expecting Royal Bank of Scotland to waltz off with the prize (last August, Skellett was investigated by police for a £910,000 consultancy payment he received from YTL - but earlier this year police cleared him of all suspicions that he was bribed).

Part of the reason for Yeoh's distress at the allegations is that YTL is a classic family-run Asian business with classic family values. It is for this reason, he says, that the company will not run lottery concessions, even though they seem like a natural business fit. Yeoh believes that gambling destroys families.

There is a theory that the allegations of improper conduct - none of which was proved or in any way substantiated - stem from xenophobia or outright racism. Has Yeoh experienced any difficulties because of the colour of his skin?

He sidesteps the question, referring to a mandate from his father to go and see friends of the family in Shropshire on his arrival for the first time in the UK to study engineering back in 1974: "I loved the sheep, everything. I loved the food."

Loving the food served in Middle England might be seen as taking anglophilia to the extreme. However, Yeoh's school was very English indeed: "We had Oxford and Cambridge colours, and I was the head boy. You couldn't be more steeped in British traditions. So I was quite anglophile already before I came to the UK."

Does Yeoh have any idiosyncracies and indulgences, aside from anglophilia? Again an evasive air comes over him. Indulgence is not a word in Yeoh's vocabulary. I will have to ask other people. Again the short laugh. He snaps his fingers at the camera crew: "Cut, that's enough."

The viewers of the YTL website will not hear Yeoh on this topic, although if the interview goes out unedited they will know that he (or rather the company, which owns a Kuala Lumpur restaurant) has a collection of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, single and magnum bottles, from 1945 to 2000 in an uninterrupted series: "I like wine - it was Jesus's first miracle, so why not?"

Ah yes, God again: "God and Mammon converge and God wins all the time. You must be master [of Mammon] and not the other way round. This is a simple philosophy for people like you and me to understand, not for sophisticated Oxford and Cambridge types."

This is an odd statement. Yeoh may not be an Oxbridge graduate, but he is at least as sophisticated as your average billionaire and he should probably know that the media throngs with Oxbridge graduates - 10-a-penny types who will struggle to be mere millionaires on the back of their London terraced houses.

So how does God help Yeoh in business? Obviously not with strategic planning - but perhaps in the tough times? How does Yeoh cope with business obstacles? Again the short laugh, then the statement that might be described as muscular Christianity: "I pray first, then I make them disappear."



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