Entrepreneur who drives the smaller Eco World group is still a much talked-about figure in corporate world
AT 57 years of age, Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin can easily count himself to be one of the most talked about personality in Malaysia’s corporate circle – by the Government, the private sector and property investors.
Amidst the unravelling of events over the past four years, including his exit from SP Setia Bhd, Liew continues to be among the corporate figures today that enjoy the adulation of some and the wrath of others.
Since leaving SP Setia a year ago, Liew has been furiously on the ball, trying to “regain” what he has lost. He has kept a fast and furious pace, though buffeted on every front by unabating current.
Although he has previously overcome challenges thrown at him, the pressure this time is different, in severity and magnitude. It’s a pressure cooker in Eco World Development Group Bhd (EWB), he admits.
“The momentum is on-going. It forces me to be the face of Eco World,” he says.
The positive side to all these is that he has about 300 out of a staff count of 800 who joined him from his previous company. This round of rebuilding includes his son, Tian Xiong, 24. That may also account for him being more driven than before.
While he has made a success of the 4,000 acres in S P Setia’s flagship development in Shah Alam years ago, today’s climate of high house prices and stagnant wages mean his team would have to work doubly hard. So far, however, most of his projects in the Klang Valley and Johor seem to enjoy take-up rates of 80% and above.
His latest launch in Batu Kawan, Penang, has prices hovering in the RM700,000-RM800,000 bracket.
Credited with making something out of 4,000 acres in Shah Alam, Liew is trying to do the same in Semenyih, Selangor, and Batu Kawan, Penang, on a smaller scale. Liew says his objective is to set a new benchmark in terms of concepts, ideas and designs for branding purposes.
Next month, he will be launching 1,130 units in London City Island with a gross development value (GDV) of £617mil, at a time when house prices are frothy, with wages stagnant. The May 7 elections is another dampener. The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) has just sold a building at a profit and may be selling another.
The weakening ringgit works for and against him. For local investors, a property abroad is a good hedge against exposure to any possible future weakening of the ringgit. The downside is that the pool of buyers shrink with the weaker ringgit.
However, the target market for the London City Island project goes to Hong Kong, Singapore and London.
Even as he is keeping his finger on sales, other challenges faces Liew and the Eco World group.
Eye on SPAC
In October last year, Liew and his team proposed to list Eco World International Bhd (EWI) as a SPAC (special-purpose acquisition company). But the Securities Commission has yet to approve the application.
While awaiting the SC’s nod for the the proposed SPAC, in January, he and his right hand man Datuk Voon Tin Yow in their personal capacity, via a private vehicle, entered into a joint venture with UK-based Ballymore on a 75:25 basis to develop three projects in London – with the first slated to kick off next month.
The plan was to inject the three properties into EWI, which will be the vehicle for the proposed SPAC. Shareholders of EWB would not be left out as they would be offered up to a 30% stake in EWI.
It was a neat plan – at least on paper.
But the snag is that a SPAC is a blank cheque listing. It is supposed to list without pre-identified and ready assets, which is an issue when it comes to EWI. This is despite Liew’s plan to inject the private purchases “at cost plus holding costs” – meaning Liew and Voon do not profit from the asset injection.
“But this goes against the spirit of SPAC guidelines as set by the SC. A SPAC is a blank cheque listing ... a cash box looking for assets,” says a merchant banker.
“To go global, we must react quickly to market conditions, better design concepts and learn. We have the skill set,” he says. He learned a lot managing and marketing Battersea. No matter how challenging a project, “you gotta break it down to smaller bits”.
Nevertheless, Liew hopes to see some development with respect to the SPAC application within the next month or so.
Keeping EWB and EWI on separate lanes will help him to manage the gearing of both companies and reduce dilution for shareholders of EWB that includes his son, who is the major shareholder.
Liew says he also does not want to park the London assets under EWB because they are too big for its balance sheet.
Although his stake has diluted from 35.05% in 2013 to 13.52% on March 27, 2015, he is still the major shareholder.
Visionary though he may be, time was on his side when Liew built his previous “priced possession”, which is S P Setia. He built S P Setia over the years at a more even pace while the momentum and task he faces today with regards to the Eco World Group has been nothing short but blistering.
Within two years, the company has accumulated 5,396 acres with a GDV of about RM55bil. Debts was up at RM1.15bil as at Jan 31, 2015, from RM215mil in September 30, 2014. (Sept 2013: RM52mil). EWB completed a rights issue raising RM800mil and will undertake a placement. At the end of the corporate exercise, EWB’s gearing will be less than 0.6 times and it will be sitting on a pile of cash that will be used for working capital to develop the massive land bank here.
Liew says he received a lot of offers to work with landowners.
“People ask, why so aggressive? It’s because of the brand. We want to charge ahead in Malaysia. We are using up about 800 acres a year.”
Dealt a good hand
Although Liew has been dealt a good hand in his working life, he may be losing another priced project, all within two years.
As he goes about tying up loose ends on the Battersea chairmanship, a legacy from S P Setia days, and finishing the restructuring in EWB by the end of this month, questions about conflicts of interest have surfaced.
The Battersea Power Station is a 40:40:20 project with S P Setia and Sime Darby holding equal share and EPF remaining 20%.
“When I resigned from S P Setia in April 2014, the Battersea board suggested I wait till September 2015. At that time, there was no Eco World Ballymore (Holding Co Ltd, a developer of the three projects) yet.”
The private vehicle belonging to Liew and Voon – Eco World Investment – has a 75% stake in EcoWorld-Ballymore while UK-based Ballymore Group owning the rest.
At about June of last year, he declared to the board of Battersea of his interest to go into property development in Britain. He was told to wait.
Six months later in January this year, Liew and Voon went public with their 75% stake in the UK-Malaysia joint venture. At that point, he felt “obligated to resign” but was told to wait.
“We have three projects which may seem to be competing with Battersea Power Station although in terms of price point, they are priced differently.”
The latest Battersea Phase 3A units are priced at £1,700 per sq ft while the EcoWorld-Ballymore units are being sold at about £1,000 per sq ft. About 90% of the EcoWorld Ballymore units will be less than £1mil.
Ironically, a vexing issue confronting Liew these days is his chairmanship of Battersea. The roots of the situation he is caught in today can be traced to his entrepreneurship that created Malaysia’s biggest property company that he lost control to Permodalan Nasional Bhd – after a protracted corporate exercise which started in 2011.
Liew, however, is still capable and motivated to use his set of skills to further create value for himself and those around him. But the dichotomy is between duty and interest.
“I do not want to offend anyone anymore. But I (also) feel duty bound,” says Liew.
The Battersea project, which is Liew’s brainchild when he was in S P Setia, has several key milestones in the next one year.
Phase one of the project will be handed over to buyers next year. Work on Malaysian Square – the pride and joy of Malaysia – has just started. Work on London’s underground Northern Line extension, which connects to Battersea, begins this year. These milestones will help the investment to appreciate.
The British authorities are concerned about the reconstruction of the four white chimneys and the restoration of the power station brickwork. So Battersea has quite a bit of important obligations to meet in the next one year and it cannot afford any slip-ups.
“I am under a lot of pressure ... Morally, I should resign. But when I buy (my land in London), I also declare (to the board). I am duty bound to declare on the grounds of good governance. At the same time, I am also duty-bound as chairman because this year is crucial for the Battersea.
“I am trying to get out of this (situation) because I want to reduce the areas of conflict between myself, the Government and everybody else. I have lost S P Setia and I should gentlemanly give up (Battersea),” says Liew.
Time will only provide an answer.
With London mayor Boris Johnson ending his term in 2016 – and considering Liew has a good working relationship with him – there are are more than several reasons for shareholders of Battersea to continue to retain him for another year as chairman. Before works such as the construction of the underground station and reconstruction of white chimneys take off, there is a lot of interaction with the London authorities, something that is not easy to cultivate.
Interest versus duty
Whatever the outcome of his Battersea chairmanship, there are at least two broad contentious issues here. His fiduciary responsibility and duty of care is one. Liew has taken that duty seriously and returned value for that which was entrusted to him. The second issue is his skill set. Life has obviously given Liew a good card, despite his losses.
Now, the question that arises is if he should wait if opportunities come, complete all ties with Battersea and S P Setia before embarking on new ventures that may not come knocking every day?
Every day, directors are offered various opportunities which conflict with their fiduciary duty. Often times, the fiduciary duty of directors, parallel to trustees, can be onerous. But the law is the law.
Yet, in many ways, Liew’s situation is parallel to a 1978 case of Queesland Mines Ltd v Hudson. The company Queensland Mines was an iron ore mining company that established as a joint venture between A Ltd and F Ltd. Hudson was the managing director of A Ltd and had negotiated with the Tasmanian government for mining licences.
Just before the licences were issued, Hudson’s joint-venture partner ran into financial difficulties and was unable to proceed with the venture.
Hudson resigned, taking the licences with him, and formed his own company. At considerable risk and expense, Hudson exploited the licences and earned profits. Queensland later filed a suit against Hudson for what it claimed was abusing his position to divert opportunties for himself.
However, the courts ruled that although the opportunity to make profits came to Hudson through his position at Queensland Mines and was something that the board was made aware of, Hudson was not in a position of conflict.
The position Hudson was prior to 1978 is the predicament Liew faces today. In both these cases, the contention boils down to timing and turn of events.
If one were to consider the big picture and balance out the events surrounding Liew in the last four years, should he not be allowed to exploit the resources due to him because of his skills and expertise? Or should he be shackled by time and ties, despite having added value to those he has been entrusted with? That would be unfair to Liew.
The legacy issue – passing the baton to the right person
AT the spanking new Eco World International Centre in the Gardens office block in Kuala Lumpur recently, a photo session was in progress. There was a light-hearted camaraderie in the air.
Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin and his top management were present, all of them in their white Nehru-collared shirt with green trimmings.
The photo session was as much symbolic as telling. It was as if to say: “These are the people I will need to grow Eco World Development Group Bhd (EWB).”
With a staff strength of about 800, about 300 of them were from Liew’s previous company S P Setia Bhd. Despite the market conditions working against the property sector and crushing issues confronting him, Liew was his usual warm, confident self.
A lot of this has to do with the people around him. Liew was named chairman in March and his right-hand man Datuk Voon Tin Yow, previously from S P Setia, joined the group officially as executive director.
A notable addition was newbie Liew Tian Xiong, 24, bright-eyed and smiling. He first surfaced in 2013 and has been seen as a proxy of his father. The presence of that young man has changed the landscape for Liew.
Passing the baton
It is a legacy issue. As one considers the property sector, a number of the country’s developers have in one way or another paved their sons and daughters to join Dad.
There is Datuk N.K. Tong, 47, group managing director of Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd who joined Datuk Alan Tong, who is known as Condo King for his work in Sunrise Bhd’s Mont’Kiara.
It was the elder Tong who saw the potential of the area, then Segambut and bought 100 acres there. Over the years, Mont’Kiara has progressed to become a thriving suburb and is currently considered as “an aspirational location” among the young.
Ken Holdings Bhd group managing director Sam Tan, 35, joined his father Datuk Kenny Tan. That was 2004, and he was 24.
Over at the Sunway group, Sarena Cheah, 40, the daughter of Sunway Bhd founder Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah and anointed successor, will assume full control of the group’s key property unit effective May 1. She may well have been the youngest to join Dad, when she was just 20, in 1995. She started out in the corporate finance and group internal audit divisions.
Passing the baton cannot be done overnight. There is a lot of planning to do. There is also the task of moulding and nurturing the right person for the job and looking over the shoulder of the young person to ensure they are constantly on the straight and narrow. If there are more than one, then there is the selection process of who will take up the position of annointed successor.
After the painful lesson of having lost S P Setia, Liew would clearly circumspect legacy and stewardship issues.
Which takes this story to next level.
Who is working for who?
The years of passing the baton may be painful, for both parties. This explains why the years of preparation are so crucial before the final moment of actually handing over the reins. In each of the three cases – N.K., Sam and Sarena – the children joined Dad and allowed themselves to be moulded.
Which takes us to the next question.
Is Tian Xiong working for Dad, or is Dad working for Tian Xiong?
Every parent wants the best for their children and Liew is no exception.
By joining the company now, Tian Xiong will have “the history” of the company. But will he be able to take on turbulent times?
He ponders: “It’s a pressure cooker here.”
If the staff do not accept him, he will never be the “real boss”, says Liew.
Of late, Liew has been keeping the young man closely by his side.
The rationale, says Liew is that, whatever Tian Xiong had learned in EWB in the last two years, he would take years to learn outside. So he better learn fast and learn now.
It is not just passing the baton. It is stewardship.
Says Tian Xiong after Liew steps out of the room: “Every night, from 9 to 10pm, he would nag me about how I dress, my tie, what time I get into office, how long I took for lunch and what I did after lunch. And other larger office and market issues.
“He also told me that I have to earn it, that it is not going to drop on me, that I have other siblings,” says Tian Xiong.
On whether he was pressured into returning to Malaysia from Melbourne where he graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Melbourne, Australia, he says he returned on his own free will.
The young man first surfaced in 2013 as a buyer for a little known company Focal Aims Holdings Bhd. His emergence “caused a tsunami” because during that period, there was many questions as to Liew’s move.
Tian Xiong started out in corporate finance department for the first two years and is currently in corporate marketing.
By Thean Lee Cheng The Star/Asia News Network
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