Up close and personal with Datuk Richard Curtis

IT'S the same silvery hair, ardent gaze and lips that when pursed, signals it's time to get down to work.

But Datuk Richard Curtis is not the Curtis who wrote the comedic scripts for the movies Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, or the Mr Bean series. This is the Curtis leading Sarawak's largest conglomerate, CAHYA MATA SARAWAK BHD (CMS), as group managing director.

Curtis started out as a lawyer in London, specialising in finance before joining the management team at Hong Kong-based trading house Jardin Matherson & Co for seven years.

Under Jardine Matheson, he worked in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta, during which he got what he calls a “taste of the multicultural scene and of the region to see its potential”.

After that he went back to business school as he realised one needed technical knowledge to be in business.

“I wasn't sure how much I knew vis-a-vis other managers,” he says. “But it gave me professional skills and knowledge that one can't acquire on the ground.”

Curtis then spent seven years involved with startup companies in UK before deciding to return to Malaysia in 1995.

“I was offered to come back to work, getting involved in the construction of KL International Airport and Putrajaya which was very interesting,” he says of the several years pursuing businesses in retail, consultancy and construction.

His foreign blood did not stop Curtis from going down to the field to get the projects running.

“It's easy to work in Kuala Lumpur when you speak English, it's international but when you get down there, you're dealing with the villagers, the makcik, the sundry store owner and district officer. It's a completely different scene,” he says.

He admits that it has shown him what makes Malaysia tick, how the melange of races interact and how people work at different levels.

“There was me, negotiating with a mamak stall owner in the then backwaters of Nilai because he wants a deal,” he recalls, “It was educational.”

It was his inherent cultural understanding of the Malaysian society that enabled Curtis to successfully manage the large-scale projects he had a hand in shaping.

In 1997, he joined the Melium Group as chief executive, steering the retail company through the economic crisis and actually managed to grow it too.

“When I left in 2000, the group had grown and I thought of returning to consulting,” he says. But he found it less fulfilling.

Disenchanted by the lack of appreciation for his work as a consultant, Curtis was then approached in a timely fashion to helm CMS in 2006 to restructure the company and set it back on a profitable course.

“I'd never run a company this size (ten times larger than what I've headed) but I know I could. So here was the chance for me to put into practice all the ideas and experiences I've had.”

Six years on, Curtis has stayed on to become the longest-serving managing director at CMS.

The key mindset to run a business is the same everywhere, in Curtis' opinion; it was about wearing many hats and juggling the various dynamics at the same time.

“With my experience as a lawyer and at Melium Group, I was accustomed to look at 12 different budgets, dealing with 12 different managers each with their own agendas,” he shares.

Under his purview, CMS has formed a management team that had a clear direction and received shareholders approval to stay in the right business mix and turn around these businesses.

Curtis also believes in nurturing inside talent in CMS.

“The staff then feel they had a purpose and shared values and goals. When I came in, they were keen to have a leader as they have not had a managing director for some time,” he says.

“We (the management) created this conducive environment where we treat them fairly, transparently, make two-way dialogues and help them understand what we're doing,” he adds.

CMS' current management has also agreed not to invest outside of Sarawak, preparing to catch the wave of growth in the largest state in Malaysia.

“We realised there are very large opportunities coming up in Sarawak in two ways through investing in energy-intensive industries which we are able to do because of our healthy financial position after having exited UBG Group and hence our indirect stake in RHB Bank, and through our key role in developing the state infrastructure,” he says.

Land of the Hornbills

As an infrastructure facilitator, CMS sees massive potential brewing in Sarawak and is setting up the right channels to benefit from it as a provider of construction materials and construction, road maintenance, township planning services.

When the Sarawak Corridor (Score) grows, it will need infrastructure so CMS has been expanding its production and services capacity in all those fields.

“It's quite humdrum, nothing sexy. We've stayed within our core competencies and we're building on that,” he says, “We know Sarawak, we understand the market and this is where our shareholders want us to invest in for the moment.”

Since he came on board, CMS has shaken off its flailing overseas ventures, leaving it to focus on Sarawak's potential but Curtis notes that the group can in due course, look outside of Sarawak to expand.

“We are a conservative company with a cautious risk profile, we like things clear and properly set up,” he says.

With Score, the target is to create 1.5 million jobs by 2030, on par with achieveing the developed nation status and multiplying the state gross domestic product by five times. “All this is by creating factories based on energy-intensive industries and other sectors related to that.

“Think of the electronics industry in Penang and how that transformed the state, that's what's going to happen in Sarawak,” he says, pointing out the new skill sets the locals would acquire and the trickling effect on the economy.

He compared the current status of Kuching to that of Penang decades ago when after the latter lost its duty-free status and the Australian air force base, did not know where it was headed.

“Then chief minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu identified the electronics industry, created the infrastructure and lured the industries in and gave them pioneer status. Everyone thought the state government was mad but they convinced people that the marshy land could be an industrial heartland and got it going.”

“That's exactly what's happening in Sarawak,” he affirms, “It's foreign investors primarily and some local ones.”

Curtis believes that companies needed to be agile to survive in a world that is increasingly complex.

“You have to have your foot on the accelerator and brake at the same time, even if you are a very traditional business,” he says.

And as a managing director, his take on leadership is to be “hungry but not cocky lest you face the tall poppy syndrome”.

When it comes to sealing deals, Curtis believes in playing a fair game.

“There was this lawyer in Hong Kong who has a big influence on, but he doesn't know it,” he says cheekily.

“He was the lawyer everyone wanted to work with,” he says, “Because every deal he did was concluded and closed and rarely fell apart.”

Curtis says this was because his mysterious inspiration never lets the client be unfair on the other side, something Curtis learned in his career.

“He protects his clients' interests but does it in a fair manner so the transaction could survive,” he emphasised, “He never takes advantage and put others in an impossible position.”

Malaysia, his country

Curtis, despite his Caucasian looks, is a true-blue Malaysian. He is the fourth generation of Scottish family who have grown roots here, his great grandfather being an indentured chef on a ship.

His ancestors came to South-East Asia in the 1870s, landing in Singapore and Thailand before settling in Malaysia.

“When the ship was sold off, my great grandfather was paid off. He took the money and stayed in South-East Asia,” he says, “He came from Northwest Scotland, a poor part of Scotland. You know the poor people from China who fled to South-East Asia? (We have the) same background.”

“Home is Malaysia, even for my parents. I grew up in Petaling Jaya and never knew much about England until university days,” he reveals. “I grew up in this world where my parents talked about Malaysian life what traditions to follow, the movements in politics, mixing in a very multiracial scene.”

“It wasn't an expatriate world.”

Although he already has relations in Malaysia, Curtis says he had to earn his success in his homeland. “I still had to earn it when I came back, by my actions, attitudes,” he says of his return to Malaysia.

A snapshot into the past shows that Curtis grew up the only son of a British Adviser to Selangor and Controller of the Royal Household after Merdeka, he is also a close friend of the Sultan of Selangor with a friendship spanning decades since they were children.

The man, married to a Malaysian and now has a two-year-old son, says his favourite compliment, thus far, was someone describing to others that “he's Malaysian”.

When asked what personal aspirations has he up his sleeves, Curtis reveals he would be finishing a book later this year on the mapping of Malaysia-Borneo.


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