The tree whisperer

  • Business
  • Saturday, 24 Oct 2015

IN the world of tycoons, Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng (caricature) of IOI Corp Bhd is in the same league as Robert Kuok and T Ananda Krishnan.

He makes it every year to the Forbes Rich List, and as of the latest instalment, sits at sixth position with a net wealth of US$4.6bil.

The low-profile Lee has always been recognised as the palm oil man who has diversifed into other businesses over the years.

However, with the relisting of IOI PROPERTIES GROUP BHD (IOI Prop) in January last year, the investing community has been once again reminded of Lee’s might as a property man.

Lee, the executive chairman and founder of IOI Corp, is the single-largest shareholder of both IOI Corp and IOI Prop, controlling some 51% of both companies.

IOI Prop was demerged from IOI Corp and relisted separately on Jan 15, 2014 with a market capitalisation of RM8.13bil, making it the second-largest property player after UEM SUNRISE BHD back then. Today, it is the second-biggest property developer listed on Bursa Malaysia after SP Setia Bhd with a market cap of RM8.36bil.

This is the second time IOI Prop has been listed. Prior to 2009, it also had a listing status, but was delisted because it could not get the valuations it deserved. Nonetheless, even back then, IOI Prop was the biggest property company in terms of profitability.

While under parent IOI Corp, IOI Prop was the second-largest company in terms of operating profitability after SP Setia.

Visit Lee in his “kingdom” of IOI City Mall and you will perhaps understand why he is a tycoon. It isn’t simply about the money he has made either. It is the aura Lee emanates – walk with him and you will see how crowds part like dominoes, staff stop to bow and doormen and waiters trip over themselves to open doors and get to position before Lee comes. That is how much Lee is revered.

Lee came from humble beginnings. He had to stop schooling when he was 11 to help support his family. For four years, he rode his bicycle selling ice cream. Subsequently, he went back to school.

During his young days as a planter, Lee was working mainly with the estate workers who were mainly Indians. His Tamil was so proficient that he once said that if people didn’t see his face, they would have thought that they were talking to an Indian!

At 22, he applied for a job in palm oil company Dunlop Estate, but was rejected because of his poor English. Some 20 years later, he bought up the entire company!

Today, IOI Corp, which is valued at RM27.4bil, is an integrated palm oil player with operations stretching across the entire oil palm value chain (from seedlings to diverse value-added manufacturing), serving markets in more than 65 countries.

Lee is famed for his walkabouts in his vast plantations, during which time he talks and sings to his trees and encourages them to bloom. He calls the palm oil trees his “wife”. Many jokingly attribute IOI’s abundant yields to his sweet serenades.

IOI Corp is a fully integrated company that undertakes the plantation and resource-based manufacturing businesses. The plantation business covers Malaysia and Indonesia with a landbank of more than 230,000 ha, making it one of the largest plantation owners in the industry.

IOI Group owns four palm oil refineries, three located in Malaysia and one in the Netherlands, with a combined annual refining capacity of 3,300,000 tonnes.

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