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Saturday June 23, 2007

Westports - Tan Sri G Gnanalingam & Ruben Gnanalingam


I have very big shoes to fill,” confesses Ruben Gnanalingam. It must be daunting but he displays no sign of it. At 31 years old, he is heir apparent to the throne his father Tan Sri G Gnanalingam or as he is fondly known, Tan Sri G, has steered and built successfully over the years. 

Westports, nestled in Pulau Indah, makes up one half of Port Klang, the world’s eleventh largest container terminal and since inception in 1995, has been commended for its revolutionary concepts, and garden port landscape. All of these have long been attributed to a single individual – Gnanalingam. 

It appears the time has come to to pass the baton on to the next generation. 

Ruben Gnanalingam 31, was appointed executive director of Westports in January 2006 and has been running the day-to-day operations since, but not without the watchful gaze of his father's keen eye. 

Ruben (right) with his father
“My dad is still here to do the day to day operations with me. I lack the experience, so he guides me. The only way to gain the experience I need is to keep on working,” he says. 

He reflects: “I must say he provided me with very good training. At a young age he used to send me for Harvard courses. If it was not Harvard, it would be some other course like MIM (Malaysian Institute of Management) and so forth.” 

Reminiscing with a smile, Ruben says that he attended one of his first of what would eventually turn out to be a series of courses when he was 19: “It was a senior management development programme. The others present were over 40 years old!” The courses served its purpose or that of his father's - “The courses broadened my understanding and taught me much about business. These courses give you the edge; the university and school give you the discipline of learning. My dad knew that already and that was why he did it,” says Ruben. 

Gnanalingam’s prowess as a marketing guru is widely documented. But like many of his established peers in the elite circles of corporate Malaysia, the beginning was not easy. He almost dropped out of university following his father's demise in the mid 60s as someone needed to support the family. 

But he held out on a limb and infallible traits such as persistence and perseverance. 

He made his name as a marketing whiz after successful stints with Malaysian Tobacco Co (now British American Tobacco) and was appointed marketing director at the age of 34. 

After a 19-year stint, nine as the marketing director Gnanalingam left Malaysian Tobacco Co to join Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) to reposition the station’s two channels. Although the task was considered impossible by many, he came out smelling like roses, having successfully pulled the company out of the rut it fell into as a result of stiff competition from TV3. 

Gnanalingam also played a key role in the 1989 South East Asian Games held in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia as the host nation came out tops, and the profits amounted to more than RM16mil, surpassing the modest target of RM5mil set by the Government. 

Five years later, his rainbow arrived, in the form of Westports. As the man at the helm of the port company, Gnanalingam made waves in the sector, calling for new rules and higher benchmarks for the industry. 

His pragmatic ways appear to have rubbed off on to his son:” It appears that Gnanalingam was not a disciplinarian but left his children pretty much to do what they wanted to. That came with predictably and universally common conditions though - their school grades had to be satisfactory. 

He treated us as adults. He taught us to tackle issues without getting emotional...to focus on practical solutions,” says Ruben. 

That aside, it was pretty much a dream childhood for the Gnanalingam brood: “We could stay up late...watching TV. It was like that even when I was as young as 10. He was basically a result-oriented person, a trait that he practises till today. 

“His rule was very simple. If the results don’t come in, the axe would fall and changes would take place. His rules are strict, very strict. He’s the kind who goes to bed at 9 pm and gets up at 5 am, basically RMC (Royal Military College) training. 

“It was quite simple. He set a benchmark for me, and if I achieved it, he would not interfere. He treated my siblings and me as adults even when we were young, which meant we had to make choices and take responsibility for our actions and our lives even at a young age. He only stepped in when we faltered. This makes you challenge yourself to see how far you can go. 

“When we were older, he focused on the integrity of doing things the right way, doing things in the right manner. Without scheming or looking for the easy way out. 

Put our heart and soul into whatever we wanted to do. 

“Even if I said I didn’t want to work with him and I wanted to become a painter I don’t think he would mind, so long as I did it well ... One of his key requirements was that we have integrity in whatever we do,” Ruben says. 

Ruben readily admits that his father is his role model. He often shares his views with Gnanalingam, picking his brains and tapping into the man’s wealth of information and experience. 

“I try as much as I can to understand his thinking process as I spend time with him. 

This is the benefit of being his son, I get to see him on a daily basis and pick his brains, he is a very knowledgeable man and a wealth of information,” he says.

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