ALMOST 30 years ago, at the enviable world-is-at-your-feet age of 24, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh assumed the top spot of his father's construction business. Since then, the roots of one of the country's oldest and largest business empires – the YTL Group – and how it has successfully branched out and broadened its geographical depth have become fodder for many business sheets in and outside the country.
Yet, what lies in the heart of this story is the sense of tradition and continuity.
In no other business empire in this country is this clearer than in the YTL group of companies founded by Tan Sri Yeoh Tiang Lay who came to Malaya in 1920 from the Fujian province in China, with no education, nor kin. Today, the group looks set to ride the wave of the third generation.
Francis Yeoh: He pushed us to the deep end ... but in a fond fatherly way
While it may seem that the group has grown by leaps and bounds since Francis took over the reins, he is quick to point out that many of the fundamental business acumens he possesses are those that have been cultivated by his father, be it during the spontaneous father-son moments or when Francis tagged along with his dad to the construction sites, immersed in absolute child-like curiosity.
“My father believes in teaching his children all the right tricks. He pushed us to the deep end ... but in a fond fatherly way. He doesn't believe in mollycoddling. But it wasn't all about work, work and work.
“I remember when I was a little boy, he bought a new car and he'd enjoy telling me all about the car. He can be very engaging when he wants to teach me something and often times he shared his little thoughts with me too. We have a fantastic bond,” recalls Francis.
“I'm a Christian and he's not. But he thought me values such as the importance of spending time with the children. I believe the love between parents and their children is a godly bond,” he says.
Understandably, it was during the real-time excursions to numerous construction sites alongside Daddy that taught Francis the skills of the trade. Watching his father manoeuvre the business through the cyclical waves (sometimes painful) of the industry and the way in which he won the unwavering support and loyalty of his workers provided an invaluable insight into the most crucial tenets of growing and managing a business. So, at 16, while most others spent their school break relaxing, Francis found himself at the construction camp, staying in and eating with the workers.
Seeing and watching Francis trudge along the sites with his father gave the employees a sense of continuity of business, which in turn provided a strong semblance of stability to their employment. This was important as the construction sector then was largely viewed as a volatile and risky sector.
The on-the-ground training was useful indeed. When Francis finally assumed his position in the top seat of the company in 1978, the job was a lot less daunting as he had already cut his teeth in the business.
“My father trusted me completely when I was young. He let me make decisions ... some turned out to be mistakes. But I think while the mistakes in the early days were painful for me, in the larger scheme of things, they were not major. It is like breaking a few pieces of furniture in the ship as opposed to creating a hole in the ship. The mistakes were also lessons learnt,” says Francis.
He recalls one of the business' most painful periods – 1971 during the oil crisis – when it came close to going bust: “It was a very difficult time. Those days, there weren't fluctuation clauses for contractors. My father had called me and my siblings to his room and said 'Listen, I'm so sorry, I let you guys down. We probably won't be very comfortable from now on, but we must pay every single bill.' “
From a glass half full perspective, the trying times had also brought to the surface the loyalty and support the family had won from its workers. Many of the workers (as well as relatives) pawned their jewellery to raise funds just to keep the business going: “That was very touching for me. To see my father's influence and the love people had for him. That is how I learnt that the greatest asset in a company is the people. The experience has taught me well,” says Francis.
WISE OLD MAN
The wisdom of dad is hard to match.
During the hard times, Francis came close to quitting school to help his father run the business. Naturally, his father who understood only too well the value of what he did not have when he first started out, which is education, would have none of it. The elder Yeoh said it would devastate him if Francis did not pursue his tertiary education in engineering and set a good example for the rest of his siblings.
“My father said You can outdo me and grandpa. We work so hard but we have no academics. You go to the university, set a good example for your siblings to follow and then, we can have a future. Then only can you grow this business, into its third generation, into something huge and permanent,” says Yeoh. (He has adhered to that tenet pretty much. Francis says for the fourth generation – his children – the benchmark is two degrees including a postgraduate: “They can make it. Don't mollycoddle them.”)
On hindsight, it was wise that Francis had taken heed of his father's advice. Armed with a degree and a more far-reaching business perspective, Francis returned with renewed vigour and knowledge ready to take the group to its next level. It didn't take too long after that for the group to make its debut on the stock exchange. By then, Francis had also managed to secure fluctuation clauses for the contracts which stabilised the outlook of the business significantly; he also invested substantially in people and machinery.
“I told many of my peers to do the same thing. If you want the business to grow and become big, you need to invest long-term in people and machinery. Otherwise, you're not going to make it. That's how I changed the business model from day one when I took over. I knew what I had to do
“We have climbed so many mountains, invested in so many things that are out of the box to make it work. We have to be different,” says Francis.
He says that if he has to choose his father's strongest trait, it would be humility.
“Some Chinese patriarchs do not let go of the rein of power. This is always disastrous because the patriarch hangs on to his old ways and may not be able to cope with the changing world. This has actually brought generations of people or businesses down. My dad knew when he had to do this.
“He may not be an articulator, but he is a doer. His work bears testimony to that.”
The wave of third generation is sweeping across the YTL group of companies and angling on its peak is Ruth – Francis' eldest daughter. She secured a board seat in the group two years ago, fresh after graduating from the University of Nottingham.
We meet her shortly after the interview with Francis at his penthouse office in Jalan Bukit Bintang. The interview with her needed some persuasion. Her one concern – she has been far too much in the limelight in recent months. But only a single thought runs across our minds when we first meet: “How does it feel to be her – 24 years old and heir apparent to one of the country's largest (and possible oldest) and globally recognised business empires?”
Her down-to-earth personality however easily shakes our minds away from that prospect yet, we persist. So, how does it feel to know that one day, all of this (my hands gesture towards the whole room in symbolic reference to the sprawling group), will be hers?
“For me, it's more of a natural responsibility rather than a obligation. Even with the way I am with my brothers and sisters. Being the oldest, it is not always the easiest thing. You sort of have to think for everyone, until it actually comes naturally,” says Ruth.
Nevertheless, she admits that the early days at the group was challenging as she was pretty much thrown into the deep end (sound familiar? her father pretty much learnt the ropes the same way from his dad). What made it easier however is having long watched her father managing the business.
But with trained humility, she adds: “It's not so much about building an empire or trying to get myself up there. I take pride in my work and my career. But it's more of a responsibility to the people that work for us. I'd also like to inject a little bit of hope into a company that has nurtured me,” she says, referring to her much-publicised cause on managing climate change (Ruth has co-edited a book with her mentor Dr Kenny Tan entitled “Cut Carbon, Grow Profits – Business Strategies for Managing Climate Change and Sustainability.)
She refers to her father as “cool” and “normal”. By that, she means he, like most committed fathers, despite his hectic schedule, comes back most nights to have dinner with the family, had set curfews in her younger days and isn't as strict as one would expect him to be.
“Like other fathers I guess, he expects me to tell him where I'm going. I couldn't have asked for a better father. He's my friend and I can talk to him about stuff,” she says. “For example, as I was growing up, I had my heart broken by this absolutely horrible boyfriend. He came into my room and saw me in tears. He hugged me and I just poured out everything that happened. He was very supportive,” she recalls.
“He has passion for everything that he does. From business to all of us. When my mum was ill (the late Puan Sri Rosaline Yeoh), he was there for my mum literally 24 hours, nursing her, dropping his work to be with her in Singapore.”
So, what are the traits she has inherited from her father?
“I'm not afraid to speak my mind. I don't hide anything from anyone. I think that makes me very real,” she says. –
By ANITA GABRIEL & TEE LIN SAY