From tobacco rep to port tycoon

TAN Sri G Gnanalingam’s (pic) strength was marketing. At every step of his career, he used it to the full and that made the difference.

He honed his skills as a marketing wizard in Malayan Tobacco Company (now known as British American Tobacco after the merger with Rothmans) where he spent his first 16 years of his working career.

The highlight of his stint in MTC was when he brought the 1986 World Cup to the crazy football fans of Malaysia. He played an instrumental role in securing the broadcasting rights to Malaysia and MTC’s Benson &Hedges was the sponsor.

At the age of 34, the Royal Military College-trained student, was already promoted to marketing director of BAT. This was considered unusual for such a young employee in the 80s.

His experience with the 1986 World Cup through gave him an insight on how to capture the attention of the people.

“People follow programmes … not the channel. They didn’t care if the World Cup was on RTM or TV3. All they wanted was to watch the event,” he said.

Armed with the experience, Gnanalingam left MTC in the late 1980s to set up G-Team Consultancy, the company given the mandate to beef up RTM and its advertising revenue in the wake of TV3 increasingly dominating the free-to-air television segment.

The advertising revenue of both RTM channels were less than RM60mil then. The deal was for G-Team to bring in additional revenue from new customers and it is to be shared equally.

By 1996, the revenue was already up to RM380mil, giving Gnanalingam and G-Team a hefty profit.

But two years earlier in 1994, he ventured into the port business which vaulted him into the billionaires’s league.

As of February 2014, according to Forbes list on Malaysia’s 50 richest, Gnanalingam was featured as the 26th richest person in Malaysia with a net worth of US$750mil (RM2.46bil).

This came about following the listing of Westports Holdings Bhd in October last year, an exercise that finally put an estimated value of what he is worth.

Gnanalingam, or as many call him Tan Sri G, admits that the billionaire title has not changed him a bit.

“Honestly it didn’t make any difference to me. When I know you guys are coming today, I ran as if my boss is coming,” he says jokingly.

He says Malay hawker food remains his preference and he would rather be in his daily T-shirt when in the office.

Gnanalingam says the main reason he was drawn to the port business was after he discovered the potential in the business.

“About 95% of cargo goes by the sea and ships spend 75% of their time in ports,” he says, adding that Malaysia is now the 17th largest trading nation.

At that time, he also realised that Port of Singapore’s Authority was the main beneficiary of the cargo going out and coming into Malaysia.

He submitted a proposal to build the second port in Port Klang along with other contenders such as Peremba Group and Malaysian Resources Corp Bhd.

He won the bid and ploughed in capital because port business is capital intensive. Money has to be spent to build warehouses and dredge the channel to accommodate goods and the large vessels.

Money also has to be forked out to bring in the customers. Only then will large liners come.

The crisis in 1997/98 did not help.

But the turning point for Westports was when Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing bought a 30% stake in the company in 2000.

“I met Li Ka-Shing only three times in my life, and he likes my idea of having a garden port,” he says.

Gnanalingam believes the strength of the company lies in its workforce.

“Like my mom would say, Taj Mahal was not built by Shah Jahan but by the workers,” he says.

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