Syed Azman steers group into the big time

Interview with Tan Sri Syed Azman Syed Ibrahim of Weststar at his house in Ampang.

FED up with traversing the country’s roads to grow his luxury car business, Tan Sri Syed Azman Syed Ibrahim acted on a bit of advice that made him one of the richest people in Malaysia.

He was told to buy a helicopter if he is fatigued by the weariness of travelling by road. Syed Azman, a former military intelligence officer, did just that.

In 2003, he paid US$1.5mil to buy a second-hand helicopter for his travels and when he was not using the copter, he leased it out. It was then he realized there was huge demand for helicopter-based aviation services in Malaysia.

Five years later he won his first contract to offer offshore aviation services to the oil and gas sector.

Today, as the owner of Weststar Aviation Services Sdn Bhd (WAS), he owns 40 helicopters and the company has over RM8bil worth of contracts to shuttle people and goods, predominantly offshore, for the massive oil and gas industry. He is angling for a further RM3bil worth of projects ranging from six months to 10 years.

“Now is also the window of opportunity and if we do not move fast enough we will miss it and have to wait ten years before a new set of contracts are given out by the oil and gas companies,’’ he tells StarBizWeek. He is group managing director of the Weststar group of companies in which WAS is a unit.

Though he remains elusive and shuns the media limelight, his name was all over the newspapers in 2005 when the Government named the recipients of the AP (approved permits). He and the late Tan Sri Nasimuddin SM Amin of Naza Group topped the list with the most number of APs. Hence he was dubbed the “AP King’’, a monicker he is trying hard to lose.

In 2009, Syed Azman created a stir in Britain when he staged a takeover of Birmingham-based van manufacturer LDV (formerly Leyland DAF Vans, then LDV Group Ltd), but pulled out of the deal as it did not fit his plans.

Last year, he was again in the spotlight for selling 30% of WAS to one of the United States’ biggest equity firms, KKR, for RM642mil. That values his company at RM2bil and he netted half of the sale proceeds.

Now he is planning to float WAS on Bursa Malaysia next year but that depends on market conditions.

He says he needs the lead time to “add value’’ so WAS gets the valuation he has in mind.

“But I am looking to build the most profitable offshore aviation services company though it may not be the biggest,” he says.

“I love money and everything I do is about making money,’’ he says.

Rise in the businesses world

Azman rose in the business world by tapping on opportunities provided by the Government to bumiputra businessmen wanting to make a foray in the automotive business.

He set up a company in 1994 after leaving the army. He and his wife had saved about RM200,000 and used it to get into the car business.

It is the passion for cars, nurtured since he was a boy, that saw him start by selling second-hand cars. As the business and profits grew, Azman secured APs from his friends and started bringing in more cars from Britain to be sold here.

The big break came in 2002. Then, Weststar secured the right to sell Honda cars from Honda Motor Co of Japan, a deal concluded after two years of negotiations.

It broke the 30-year hold that Kah Motor had over the distribution of Honda marques in Malaysia.

Via his majority-owned Weststar Holdings Sdn Bhd, he entered into agreements with Honda Motor Co Japan and Honda (M) Sdn Bhd to import and distribute certain Honda models, such as the Jazz, that were not locally assembled.

Weststar Aviation Services helicopter fleet

Weststar managed to obtain 1,000 APs, called “franchise APs” from the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) to import Honda cars.

The “franchise APs” phenomena had a great impact on the local automotive industry to the extent that it even dented the market share of Perusahan Otomobil Nasional (Proton).

The “franchise APs” paved the way for mass market sales of imported cars, a development that did not go down well with proponents of Proton. It was also the ticket that catapulted Syed Azman to riches. By then he was said to be worth a few hundred million ringgit.

Syed Azman grew his dealings with DRB-Hicom Bhd as his company Auto Pacific Star next started to import Chevrolet cars and sell them to DRB-Hicom’s wholly-owned subsidiary Hicomobil Sdn Bhd.

He also had rights to distribute other marques such as Suzuki and the smart car.

But the National Automotive Policy (NAP) of March 2006 killed the award of “franchise APs” to individuals.

However, after several years of being a car importer, he realised that the local passenger car market had its limitations.

“I felt the passenger car market was not moving anywhere and we were already selling half a million cars in a competitive market where profit margins were falling. Rather than trying to build on the passenger car market, I decided it was better to move into the aviation business and also the commercial van business,’’ Syed Azman says.

It was 2003 when he first started to look at aviation services seriously, and later diversified into the distribution of commercial vans and supply of military vehicles. He dabbled in construction and property development, and also set up a company providing insurance for his group. All these businesses are part of his Weststar group of companies where he is the sole owner. WAS is 30% owned by KKR and Syed Azman owns 70%.

After walking away from buying LDV, Syed Azman started selling LDV commercial vans.

He secured the distribution rights for South-East Asia and selected Asia-Pacific countries from Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp which now manages LDV.

The vans are branded as Weststar Maxus and supplied to various local agencies.

“We assemble them in Klang and are going to open six showrooms in Jakarta by April and also move to the Philippines and Vietnam,’’ he says. Being a former military man, he understands the army needs. He set up Global Komited to sell military troop carriers and weapon platform vehicles.

“I know the military does not need fancy equipment that is difficult to maintain but whatever it needs must conform to Nato standards. So we got into providing specialised vehicles,’’ he says.

In the construction business, Syed Azman established Weststar Construction in 1984. The company has a PKK Class A licence and besides building showrooms, warehouses, delivery centres and hangars, the construction arm has also completed several property projects. The company today has RM600mil worth of jobs.

Though small, Weststar Construction has built some residential projects in the Klang Valley such as Taman Indah Jaya in Hulu Langat and Taman Titiwangsa Ukay in Ampang, including the high-end residential Sinaran service condominiums and retail projects in Taman Tun Dr Ismail. It is in the midst of completing 38 bungalows units in Kemensah Heights known as “The Reserve.”

“It is normal when you have good steady cashflow to diversify to buy land and develop it. But we are a very small player in the property sector. We buy 20-30 acres and develop in small pockets. We also prefer to develop land out of Kuala Lumpur. It is too expensive to buy and develop land in KL. We have just acquired 5,000 acres in the East Coast but it will take time as we need to first convert the agriculture land to commercial land,” Syed Azman says.

With all his business, he is not willing to put a figure to his net worth, though those who know him believe it could be RM2bil to RM3bil based on all the assets that he has locally and abroad.

“You work out your numbers, I can’t tell you as I would sound too boastful and my mother will not like it. She keeps telling me to have my feet on the ground,’’ he says candidly.

“With nine business units, we need to grow not in size but profits.”

The thought of listing WAS must have come after KKR bought into the company. KKR typically invests in companies for a period of five to 10 years and by the seventh year onwards, it starts looking to divest. KKR bought into WAS in October.

“There is plenty of time and WAS needs to grow and add value. It is still early days but eventually, it will need to maximise its investment,’’ says someone familiar with KKR’s investment strategy.

KKR has two out of the five board seats and though it will have influence, Syed Azman is very much in control.

WAS is aggressively bidding for new jobs and buying helicopters as it expands into new markets.

Maybank Investment Bank senior analyst Mohshin Aziz says that for a long time, WAS has been funding its helicopter purchases via borrowings. He says the listing of WAS will give it access to the capital markets.

The listing of WAS has seen bankers flock to knock on Syed Azman’s door. “Bankers from London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore are seeing us almost every week and local bankers are also interested to do the flotation,’’ he says.

CIMB Investment Bank Bhd and Maybank Investment Bank Bhd are the likely banks to be involved, those in the know claim.

“But these are early days and we have yet to finalise details and we are not in a hurry. What we want is good valuations and we must have more contracts and revenue,’’ he adds.

A board meeting is scheduled for next week and Weststar group financial advisor Datuk Syed Izuan Jamalullail believes the topic of flotation will be discussed.

Syed Azman is looking to finalise details in May and appoint investment bankers a month later. Listing will likely be early next year.

Both Syed Azman and Syed Izuan would not say how much they are looking to raise, but a Bloomberg report suggests RM2bil and that puts a market value of RM6bil for WAS.

The company in 2012 was said to have earned a net profit of RM40mil and given the projects in hand, it would earn RM100mil in net profit for 2013. Both Syed Azman and Syed Izuan declined to divulge the profit numbers for last year.

Related Story:

Time is money for copter tycoon

Syed Azmans love for flying machines

I am no front man I work for myself

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