Travel mogul Datuk Seri Lee Ee Hoe already has many achievements under his belt. But, he insists that after 37 years, he still calls himself just a tourist guide. He shares with Sunday Star his plans to create bigger waves by listing Apple Vacations Group of Companies founded by him and an old schoolmate and other ambitious endeavours.
In the world of tourism, Lee San stands head and shoulders above the rest. This travel guide extraordinaire is not only known to the Japanese Emperor, but was also one of the Malaysians invited to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to Malacca last November.
But Lee San, which is the Japanese name for Datuk Seri Lee Ee Hoe, is not contented to be just a tour guide who brings the rich and famous around the world, particularly to Japan.
He is also not contented to be known as the man instrumental in bringing the franchise on China’s famous “Impression” stage-show series to Malacca to produce Impression Melaka, which promises to turn the Straits of Malacca fronting Malacca into a night theatre and cultural extravaganza in 2017.
The ambitious self-made entrepreneur, from Yong Peng, Johor, now wants to enter the exciting yet ruthless corporate world that has seen the rise and collapse of many self-made tycoons – big and small alike.
Last August, Lee San made the first corporate foray when he and his business partner signed deals to pump their joint property projects into listed Yong Tai Bhd, with the ultimate aim of controlling the loss-making textile company and turning it into a profitable property player.
On the cards this year is yet another plan to list separately the 20-year old Apple Vacations Group of Companies, founded by him and his old schoolmate Datuk Seri Koh Yock Heng, possibly via a reverse takeover of another listed firm. And action has started the past week.
“Once Apple is listed, I will give one million ringgit to each of our senior managers responsible for the growth of the company. Who knows, each might be motivated to earn 10 million for Apple. If money can make our staff earn more, why not,” says a smiling Lee San in his stylish Wisma Apple office in Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.
Apple Vacations, which sells outbound tours catering to the upper and mid-market travellers, posted a revenue of RM209mil last financial year ended July 31, 2015, with a pre-tax profit of about RM10mil. The company, set up in 1996 with a capital of only RM15,000, is said to have a profit track record for main board listing.
Apple Vacations is particularly known for its Japan tours, mainly due to the efforts of its founders, who have not only led tours themselves, but have also established Apple as a market leader for Japan tours.
In 2013, Apple Vacations became the first tour company outside Japan to receive the prestigious “Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner’s Commendation Award”.
For his huge contributions to popularise Japan as a tourist destination for Malaysians, as well as his bold move to lead the first tour to Japan soon after Japan’s devastating tsunami and earthquake in 2011, Lee San was conferred “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays” by the Japanese Emperor in June last year. This was the highest honour ever bestowed on a foreigner and Lee San was the first recipient.
The tall 52-year-old Foo Chow says he will continue to lead tours even after his foray into Yong Tai, as travelling has been in his blood from his younger days. For this year, the multi-millionaire will take four thematic tours. One of these is a premium gourmet tour to Korea in March with Hong Kong’s famous food connoisseur and Chinese newspaper columnist Chua Lam, who is a brand name in the world of food and leisure.
“We will celebrate our 20th anniversary this year and through our promotional activities, we want to tell Malaysians that our passion for this outbound travel business has not cooled down.
“We are as enthusiastic as ever to serve our customers, as we have done from day one. Many tour companies lost momentum after reaching their peak, but not us. Our conviction stays. We will continue to enhance the quality of our tours and service, and I personally will continue to see to this,” Lee San tells Sunday Star.
Lee San shot into the corporate limelight last August after Yong Tai Bhd announced the signing of five memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with PTS Impression Sdn Bhd; Yuten Development Sdn Bhd; Terrawest Resources Sdn Bhd; Land & Build Sdn Bhd; and Admiral City Sdn Bhd – on proposals involving the sale of properties and tourism-related products. All these firms are jointly owned by Lee San and business partner Boo Kuang Loon, who is not involved in Apple Vacations.
This is part of an on-going complex corporate exercise that will see Lee San and Boo gaining control of Yong Tai eventually. In fact, the founding family of Yong Tai has been selling down its shares and quitting director’s posts, according to Bursa Malaysia announcements.
The five MoUs included the acquisition of the entire equity interest in PTS Impression, which holds the licence to produce and stage Impression Melaka; a joint venture with Yuten to develop 1.2 acres of land in Kuala Lumpur into high-end residences; a mixed development on a 1.5 acre land in Puchong owned by Terrawest; and a mixed development on 1.77 acres of land in Johor Bahru for which Land & Build holds the development rights.
There is also a separate proposal to acquire 17 acres of seafront land in Malacca for a development into a theatre as well as to jointly develop 100 acres of leasehold land in Malacca.
The development of all these proposed projects, spanning eight years, will have a combined gross development value of about RM7bil and a total return of RM1.6bil, said Yong Tai in August.
Prior to this, the key corporate exercises within Yong Tai included a joint-venture project with Apple-99 Development Sdn Bhd to develop a hotel and serviced apartments known as The Apple in Malacca, a mixed development comprising a 16-storey four-star hotel known as Courtyard by Marriot and a block of serviced apartments. These projects are also co-owned by Lee San and Boo, now executive director of Yong Tai Bhd.
Lee San and Boo’s Malacca properties, together with China’s multi-billion dollar investments in Malacca’s port development and industrial parks, are set to boost Malacca’s economy and tourism.
In the two and a half hour interview with Sunday Star, the visionary and dynamic Lee San talks passionately about Impression Melaka, travel business, Yong Tai, and his success story. Below are excerpts of the interview:
Impression Melaka has generated a lot of buzz and excitement. Why?
Unlike Japan and Italy, Malaysia lacks iconic features and international brands to attract repeat tourists. Chinese tourists like to come to Malaysia, but there is no iconic site for them to see. Boo and the Chinese Embassy officials had discussed this issue a lot and when he sought my views, I proposed using the concept of “Impression Liu Sanjie” for Impression Melaka. This has gained support from our top leaders, Malacca and China.
Impression Melaka is a cultural franchise from China’s Guilin Guangwei Wenhua Tourism and Culture Company, which will also jointly promote Impression Melaka to Chinese tourists who know that Ming Dynasty’s Admiral Cheng Ho came to Malacca several times 600 years ago.
“Impression Liu Sanjie” staged in Yangshuo, Guanxi Province, is making an annual net profit of over RM60mil. More than 10 million people have viewed the show.
While “Impression Liu Sanjie”, the world’s largest natural theatre, is a fusion of classical folk songs and ballads, with a live performance set against a beautiful natural landscape, Impression Melaka will trace the roots and growth of the multiracial society in Malaysia and their descendants in this country.
Impression Melaka will inject vitality into Malacca, especially at night. Tourists now don’t normally stay overnight in Malacca. But, with this spectacular night show, they will have to stay. The project will spur the growth of tourism and related industries, such as real estate, hotels, eateries, transportation and arts education.
With total investment of RM300mil and support from the authorities, Impression Melaka is to be premiered in 2017. This will be the first “Impression” show series outside China.
When did you begin to feel the need for Apple Vacations to diversify?
Five or six years ago, we saw the need to diversify into tourism-related properties. Now, we have three hotels catering for different classes of tourists: one in KLCC and two in Bukit Bintang. They are 100% owned and operated by us. The latest included The Pines in Malacca, which became operational in September 2015. The Courtyard by Marriot is still under construction.
How did you manage to make Apple’s Japan tours so outstanding?
I love the Japanese way of life and culture after studying at the Tokyo International University and working as a tourist guide there. It is now our key business and our selling point, though we are also doing well in other markets.
For Japan tours, we do everything for our customers. We manage and operate our tours. We don’t farm out to other travel agents in Japan. Hence, we can do excellent Japan tours. We can promise safety, reliability and quality, and we deliver.
In December 2015, we chartered seven flights, each with 280 passengers, to Hokkaido. We have done this for six years. Including tours to other parts of Japan, we have taken 4,000 tourists on 262 tours to Japan in December 2015 alone.
Hence in Japan, from the governor to the Emperor, they know Apple Vacations. In terms of business, we may be small compared to other international tour agencies going to Japan, but in terms of status, we are high in Japan.
I am honoured to be the only foreign recipient for “The Order of The Rising Sun”.
How do you make sure Apple continues to appeal to customers?
Tours have to be innovative these days. Many tourists want quality lifestyle travel. They want to abandon themselves to a life of pleasure during travel: eat, drink and be merry.
Malaysians have upgraded their travel tastes. Travel is now more of a journey, not just heading to destinations. It has become a lifestyle. With more international flights and cruises plying in this region, I believe Malaysians will travel more.
In fact, we do a lot of thematic tours for repeat customers. For example, the gourmet tour with Hong Kong’s food connoisseur Chua Lam in December was fully booked, although each member had to pay RM36,000 for a nine-day tour of Japan.
We have also organised other thematic tours like going to the North and South Poles, taking Trans-Siberian rail journey of 9,289km – the longest train ride in the world.
As a company, we are quality-conscious. We are serious about complaints. If there is one complaint, not only will we talk to the complainant, we will also check with other tour members to find out if there are unreported problems. I will see to all this personally. Because we care about the well-being of our customers, we can continue to stay in this business – with vigour.
This year, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary. We will tell the public our promise on quality will stay. We will come out with innovative tours to attract more customers. Apple Vacations is successful because we provide our service with sincerity and passion. We may not be the biggest in the market, but we are known to have put our heart and soul in our work.
In managing this company, people will come first although every staff member will have to respect the system and contribute to the best of their ability.
For this year, the Japan tours will continue to be our mainstay. But, we are going to organise more European tours this year. Last year, we started cruises and there will be cruises to Alaska in July, August and September this year.
What is your vision for Apple Vacations?
By 2018, we want to have a staff force of 500 regionally (from the current number of over 200) and a team of 100 tour professionals, producing annual business of RM1bil, with our staff having a minimum yearly income of RM60,000. Above all, we will become a public-listed company.
When did you begin to think of having a public-listed company?
As our business grows bigger, there is a need to own a public-listed company for future fund raising.
As going for IPO (initial public offering) is subject to many conditions and could be time consuming, and it happened that Yong Tai’s board was looking at diversifying into other business as its garment business has been loss-making for years, we decided to give it a try at Yong Tai.
While on the one hand, we intend to turn around Yong Tai for the interest of the shareholders, on the other hand, we see Yong Tai as a platform to raise funds for several projects, including Impression Melaka. We believe with the injection of these good projects from us, Yong Tai will be able to attract investments from local and foreign investors, which will be rewarding for Yong Tai shareholders in the long run.
What will become of Yong Tai once it is under your and Boo’s control?
After the proposed injection of projects, Yong Tai’s turnover, profit and net tangible assets will increase substantially. But, the impact will only start to show in one to two financial years, as we need time to obtain necessary approvals before these projects can be launched and generate revenue.
As we are working on raising funds through certain instruments that may not come from financial institutions, the gearing of Yong Tai may not rise much. Yong Tai’s current gearing is very low and we intend to keep it low at this juncture.
Tell us about your early life and how you became linked to Japan.
I was born an estate boy in Bukit Paloh (part of Yong Peng), which had the largest rubber estate in Malaysia then.
After finishing my Form Five in Yong Peng, I came to Kuala Lumpur to do pre-university. At that time, I was already a part-time tourist guide. But, because I felt my knowledge was inadequate, I followed friends to go to Japan to study. It was a trend among our friends then.
After returning to Malaysia, I set up Apple Holidays Sdn Bhd with Koh in 1996.
Going to Japan was the turning point in my life. I was studying and working as a part-time tourist guide.
I learned to love Japanese food and culture. Like the Japanese work culture, I have never changed my job. After 37 years as a tourist guide, I am still a tourist guide.