MALAYSIA’S richest man, Tan Sri Robert Kuok, is often referred to as the “Sugar King” but the man himself says he does not like the title and deems it a “fake fame”.
Kuok, whose empire includes the Shangri-La hotel chain, prefers the title “Hotel King” instead.
“I like hotel but the word king’ is just a fake one,” the 87-year-old billionaire said in an interview with China Central Television (CCTV) recently.
Major local Chinese newspapers have carried reports about the interview as the low-profile and media-shy tycoon rarely agrees to being interviewed.
Among the topics he talked about were his foray into the travel industry in China, the venture in the sugar refinery business and his mother.
Kuok said that when he first went into China’s travel industry, the tourist facilities there, especially toilets, were poor and the country was unable to attract international tourists.
But “I had a feeling that China would have the most prosperous travel industry as it has historical relics and sites”, said Kuok, who built the first Shangri-La Hotel in Hangzhou in the 1980s.
Today, there are 72 Shangri-La hotels throughout the world, and 34 of these are in China. There are 45 hotels under construction now, and 28 are in China.
Kuok said the hotel, as a service industry, depended on its employees, from the head manager to the menial worker, to serve their customers. Thus, it has been his principle ever since he first became involved in this industry to take care of the employees.
The biggest responsibility of the board of directors is to take care of its employees, he said.
When asked whether he was “unfaithful” because of his diversified investments in various industries including sugar, hotel and the media, Kuok replied that it was not “unfaithful” because all industries were inter-connected.
Recalling the early years, Kuok said his mother, Tang Kak Ji, and his brothers decided to form Kuok Brothers Ltd after his father passed away in 1948.
During one of the board of directors’ meetings, Kuok said he suggested that they invest all their money in the sugar refinery business.
Besides rice and wheat, granulated sugar was also very important in the food sector, he reasoned.
“If children threw tantrums at night, the adults just needed to give them some sugar and they would remain quiet,” he said.
Granulated sugar was cheap so it was a business that could earn profits, he added.
“Sugar is unlike petrochemicals where sometimes there is demand and sometimes there isn’t. At that time, the information technology era had not started yet. So the simplest and wisest business to get rich in was the sugar refinery business,” he said.
Kuok said building a successful business empire was 90% dependent on hard work. The rest was intellect. On his success in the sugar refinery business, Kuok said he was young then and could speak English.
He said the businessmen he went to meet in London and New York were curious that he, a Chinese, could speak good English.
He said he had to run to five or six offices during the day and had dinner with company officials at night to get to know their views before he reported by telegram back to Singapore. By the time he went to sleep, it was almost 1am.
“I think many people were cleverer than me. However, their night life was more messy. The next day, they would fall asleep at their desks. I did not fall asleep, so my horse ran faster’,” he said.
He said those who want to venture into business must have courage otherwise they would remain poor forever.
“Every business has its own risks so if you are afraid, you just leave. It won’t be a problem if there is a better opportunity as you can always grab the second one. But if you are not brave enough, you will always be poor,” he said.
Kuok, who has held pole position as Malaysia’s richest man since 2006 when Forbes Asia began ranking the 40 richest Malaysians, said he did not like money.
Nevertheless, he hopes his companies would continue to make profits so that all the employees would have bonuses.
This year’s bonus for his employees was considered “okay”, he said.
Kuok speaks fluent Mandarin, attributing this to his mother who, he said, always taught them to remember their roots.
He also singled out his mother as the person who had the most influence on him. She always advised him to be humble and to help the poor, and she hoped he would be a businessman with good ethics.
Kuok recalled the day he bought a Mercedes as a surprise birthday gift for his mother who was in her 80s then.
“When my mother saw it, her face changed. She asked me why I had bought a luxury car when I could have just got a Japanese-made car,” he said, adding that he sent the car back at his mother’s behest.
Kuok said his mother recognised his talent for business and knew he would be successful one day. But she was worried that he would become an irresponsible businessman and had given him valuable advice, including reminding him not to be greedy.
She would be very happy with his achievement and if she were still alive now, she would remind him to “continue to be humble, continue to help the poor”.
“My love for my mum will be forever,” he said.