Article 12 – Different breed of entrepreneurs
by Tan Thiam Hock
Some 50 odd years ago, my partner’s father, Ang Toon Chew was staying in a hotel in Johor Bahru when he bumped into two reputable commodity traders whom he had heard of by reputation but never met before. That was the first time he had come face to face with Robert Kuok and Tan Chin Nam. They were among the early batch of famous entrepreneurs trading across Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
From this chance meeting, they created a business alliance that spawned many joint ventures and collaborations. Together with a few other associates, they created their own business empires by being pioneers in many industries. They pooled their financial resources in those days when capital was scarce and stayed united through a maze of cross holdings that were complemented by complete mutual trust.
Right after Malaysia gained independence, the Ang family initiated the setting up of Petaling Garden (PGB) and together with all their business associates pooled an initial paid up capital of RM1mil. In the early 60s, this capital enabled PGB to buy many pieces of land that finally became Section 5 & 6, Gasing Hill and Section 17. Ang’s son, Ang Guan Seng was tasked to manage this company and he stayed there for almost 50 years and was believed to hold the record as the longest serving Managing Director of a Public listed company in Malaysia.
Robert Kuok managed the sugar and flour business and set up Shangri-la Hotel, again with these few close associates. Datuk Tan Chin Nam set up Ipoh Garden (IGB) and went on to own one of the most successful racing horse stables in the world. Their billion dollar empires were built brick by brick and often side by side. Just pure collective blood, sweat and tears.
I have admired a few master entrepreneurs in my short career and all of them tend to be “old school”. Nothing against the young entrepreneurs, as it takes more than one or two successful business ventures to earn the “master” accolade. The old Master has tasted more failures than success, cheated by those that he trusted and has sailed through countless economic storms and business cycles.
The entrepreneurs of yesteryear grow commodities, built factories that produce useful merchandise, built homes and create jobs. They work with the government to build a nation. Entrepreneurs nowadays create shareholder’s value, just numbers on a piece of paper as it is the easiest route to instant riches.
I admire Robert Kuok for his vision. His ability to see beyond communism and poverty. His courage to commit himself to the Chinese market way before anyone else did. His code of honour in his dealings earned the trust of the Communist Government. This master entrepreneur will eventually build over a hundred hotels and malls in many cities across China on prime commercial land that costs him zilch.
I admire Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan for his non sentimental predatory instincts. Buy companies, build the business and sell for 10 times what he paid for. His negotiating skills are legendary. Just ask EON Bank. Take it or leave it. All young entrepreneurs should learn to study his poker face. Just don’t blink first.
I admire Datuk Tan Chin Nam for his flamboyance. His gung ho enthusiasm made the “old school” look sexy. He built the first condominium in Malaysia when land was in abundance and Mont Kiara was still a rubber estate. He ploughed everything into the development of Mid Valley during a major recession to be the owner of the largest shopping mall in Malaysia.
Datuk Tan was well known for his charming disposition. He romanced Australia in the 70s and the 80s and was the leading Malaysian investor in properties and race horse breeding. His horses won the Melbourne Cup numerous times. He was on buddy terms with the first Prime Minister, Tuanku Abdul Rahman and was a proud friendship and business ambassador for Malaysia.
I admire my late partner, Mr. Ang Guan Seng for his generosity. Ever willing to help his friends and suppliers, he has helped many small entrepreneurs to become self made millionaires. He showed me the virtues of patience and humility, and taught me how to value friendship and properties. Honesty and integrity builds confidence among your business associates and bankers.
Now that my mentor is gone, I am truly on my own. Whenever in doubt, I always find comfort from his words of wisdom. The constant reminder to be thankful for what I have and to have survived the many mistakes that I have made.
Nostalgia aside, let’s compare the “old school” with the “new world” entrepreneurs.
Highly educated and tech savvy, the “new world” entrepreneur is impatient to build his business empire. To fast track his ambitions, he engages the financial market to raise funds. With a suave personality and refined marketing skills, he entices fair weather fund managers to invest in his company with promises of enhanced shareholder values.
His reduced shareholdings is compensated by rising valuation but he is now exposed to takeover bids.
The old entrepreneur always works silently with the government and would avoid confrontation. The new entrepreneur derives his courage from his political affiliation. The emergence of sovereign funds like PNB and Khazanah has complicated the political equation. Throw in the ambitious GLCs and we have a battlefield where confrontation is unavoidable.
New entrepreneurs engage in marriage of convenience. Old entrepreneurs still believe in the institution of marriage where integrity and friendship are valued highly. The new image is all about high profile personal branding. The old stays anonymous and feels more comfortable operating behind the chaotic scenes.
If you believe in the old way of doing business like me, stay away from businesses that has attracted the interests of the powerfully connected funds, GLC’s and politicians. Despite the shrinking economic pie, you can still make a comfortable living without compromising your integrity.
But if you intend to make a billion ringgit within 10 years, go ahead and be a “new world” entrepreneur. Embrace reality with your eyes wide open. Good luck.