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Sunday July 31, 2005

Star light, star bright


When it comes to shopping, one street stands out in Kuala Lumpur. That's Jalan Bukit Bintang and its swankier stretch, Bintang Walk. And it's thanks to one man's vision and determination that KL even has its own version of Singapore's Orchard Road. But Tan Sri Francis Yeoh Sock Ping, YTL Group's managing director, wants to do even better than that; he prefers a comparison to Paris' Champs Elysees. And with yesterday's official reopening of his Starhill Gallery after extensive renovations, it's a major step closer to realising his dream. In a wide-ranging interview with KEE HUA CHEE, he talks about his passion for meaningful urban development, his business and work ethics, family and upbringing and most of all, his Christian faith

KUALA Lumpur boy Tan Sri Francis Yeoh Sock Ping loves his city and he wants great things for it. He has one to offer himself: Make Bintang Walk KL's equivalent of the Champs Elysees of Paris.  

Looking at the trendy street now, it's hard to believe it wasn't always so hip and people-friendly. But Yeoh remembers it all too well. 

“When we acquired Lot 10 (shopping centre), JW Marriott and Starhill in March 1999, there were acres of print about how cheap we got the assets. But I was shocked to discover the only tenants who paid on time were camera and watch shops. Some were even defaulting and some lots stood empty. 

“Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior were seen as very expensive shops but carrying stocks two seasons old. I used to joke that presents from KL's shopping centres were what you hoped you wouldn't get for Christmas!” 

Yeoh soon discovered the problem stifling retailers: high duties and taxes on imported branded goods. 

“So I proposed to (former Prime Minister) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to consider abolishing such duties. The Government responded positively and finalised everything within four months after steps were taken to protect local manufacturers. 

But as with most things these days, even a shopping centre needed to reinvent itself to stay relevant and exciting and Yeoh was fully aware of that. 

“Starhill needed a major makeover. The old cookie-cutter formula of big department store as anchor tenant attracting customers who spill over to the swanky stores and onto the bling-bling shops no longer applied. 

Clockwise from top left: Fishermen’s Cove restaurant in Starhill Gallery, the Skybridge, Starhill foyer interior, JW Marriott Hotel, Ritz-Carlton and Tarbush restaurant in Starhill.
“Lot 10 is okay as it has Isetan but since Tangs sold to us in 2003, we had to do something. I don't like huge mega malls with long stretches. They are like birds on a wire, not very pretty ? especially if they are the same birds! “ chuckles Yeoh candidly. 

Thus began his search for the best talent to transform Starhill. That yielded David Rockwell, the name behind New York' s hottest restaurants like Nobu, Vong, Sushi Palace and Ruby Foo's Dim Sum and landmark entertainment centres like Kodak Theatre. 

“Rockwell has done a swell job. Colours, space, textures and a playful use of energy are trademarks of a Rockwell design,” beams Yeoh, waving expansively at his new baby, especially the psychedelic Time Tunnel linking JW Marriott with Starhill. (An air-conditioned skybridge links Marriott with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences, another YTL property. The latter are apartments which have also just been launched.) 

“It's organic architecture with little or no polished marble or refined surfaces. It's not a commodity, that's why it's Starhill Gallery, not Starhill Shopping Centre anymore. It's a gallery of rich experiences.” 

The top three LVMH labels, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Fendi, are exclusively at Starhill and nowhere else in Malaysia. 

Other brands located exclusively in the 250,000 sq ft Starhill Gallery are Asprey, Garrard's, Brioni, Lanvin, Canali, Mulberry, Porsche Design, Jim Thompson, Bang & Olufsen, Alessi, Ligne Roset, Anne Klein and TUMI. 

Local designers include Jendala Batik, Rizalman, Beatrice Looi and Frank Lai. 

Declares Yeoh, “From a retail backwater in 1999, KL is now an exciting shopping destination. The abolishment of taxes on luxury goods cut the Gordian knot and encouraged serious investments by luxury purveyors like LVMH which is spending around RM20mil to renovate its stores in Starhill.” 

This is no empty boast as Christian Dior Malaysia confirms that the brand's new store is 3,500 sq ft with expanded selling space based on the new concept megastores in Tokyo's Ginza and Hong Kong's Landmark. 

“Our renovation cost is estimated at RM6mil so we are here for the long haul,” says the Dior spokesman. Similarly, Louis Vuitton has allocated at least RM20mil for their 6,000 sq ft mega store in the style their pampered customers are accustomed to while Jaeger LeCoultre's 1,000 sq ft stand-alone store in Starhill cost about RM2mil to set up. 

With so many international labels investing millions is proof of their confidence and commitment to both Starhill and the Malaysian economy. 

Now that all physical aspects of remodelling are done and the doors are open, Yeoh and his people must be on tenterhooks where public reaction is concerned.  

“I pray Starhill will live up to everyone's expectations as a 'Gallery of Rich Experiences'. Every great city needs an icon,” he says. 

Related Stories:
In God he trusts
‘Charity is best given and forgotten’
Investing in staff and education
 

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