Koh Boon Hwee couldn’t kill a rabbit

That’s why he decided not to be a doctor and became a corporate head honcho instead

Straits Times Aug 10, 2014
By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

Over a two-hour chat with Koh Boon Hwee, one learns three key things about the corporate titan.

One, he does not like to give up on what he has started.

Two, he does not look back.

Three, he believes education is the key to changing one’s life.

These attributes have helped him navigate through life more than just niftily.

Just look at his curriculum vitae. A respected investor who co-founded private equity firm Credence Partners, the 63-year-old has chaired some of the country’s biggest and most successful organisations including SingTel, Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank.

He serves on the board of several public and private companies, both locally and in the United States and Hong Kong. He also chairs the board of trustees of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and is credited for overseeing its growth into an internationally recognised research university.

“I’m just lucky,” he says, trying to downplay his achievements. Several good mentors and some astute decisions at critical junctures, he suggests, are responsible for who, what and where he is.

Breaking out into a hearty laugh, he adds: “You know, being lucky is better than being smart.”

Perhaps so but Mr Koh – who has a first-class honours degree in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London and an MBA (Distinction) from Harvard Business School – also has one heck of a brain.

Almost sheepishly, the eldest of three children of a trader and a homemaker says: “Studies came very easily to me.” He breezed through his years at St Andrew’s and was Singapore’s top boy in the O-level and A-level examinations.

At St Andrew’s, he met Ms Lenn Mei Ling, a teacher who was to have a lasting influence on his life.

As one of the school’s brightest, he was sent to the pre-medicine stream for his A levels. A couple of months into his first year, he started having doubts if he was suited to be a doctor. “I hated the idea of gassing rabbits and guinea pigs; I just hated the idea of having to kill them,” he says. “So I thought to myself, if I have some difficulty with animals, I may have problems with humans.”

“Obviously, not because I’d have to gas them,” he adds with a chortle. “But if I was not successful in treating them, I might find that difficult to deal with.”

Engineering, he decided, was a good fallback except for one snag: mathematics – a requisite for engineering studies – was not part of the pre-med syllabus.

So he decided to do maths as a private candidate and approached Ms Lenn for help to catch up, even though she was not his teacher. It turned out that he did not need her help that much, but she became a respected mentor.

She died a few years later from leukaemia, in her early 30s.

“The problem with the world is that you have many people who profess to be a lot of things but don’t live according to what they profess to be. She was an exception,” he says. “The way she lived her life, the fortitude she showed, the faith that she had… I’ve not seen that in many people.”

Teachers like her were a reason why Mr Koh – who has sat on NTU’s board of trustees for more than 20 years – is such a strong champion of education. It is a social leveller and can help anyone make his way through the world as long as he is diligent.

Four years ago, he donated $2.5 million to NTU to help deserving students and honour teaching excellence. He has also given generously to his alma mater and other educational causes.

Earlier this year, Imperial College London conferred an honorary doctorate on him for his contributions to education in Singapore. “I believe the award is not because of my personal achievements, rather it is a reflection of the tremendous accomplishments of NTU – how it has gone from a teaching university in Singapore to being an internationally recognised research-intensive university in such a short time,” he says modestly.

It was shortly after sitting the A levels that he met another person who helped to shape his life. With nine months to kill before beginning his degree course in London, he found a job as a computer card puncher with consulting firm Arthur Young for $180 a month.

“But I found card punching very boring. After just two weeks, I was the department’s fastest and most accurate card puncher,” he recalls.

The precocious 17-year-old then approached the firm’s director William Schroeder one Friday evening and told him he wanted to be a programmer instead. “He asked me, ‘What do you know about programming?’ I said, ‘Nothing, but I can learn.'”

Mr Schroeder gave him three books on programming which he read from cover to cover over the weekend.

“On Monday morning, I went to Bill and told him I was ready to write programs,” recalls the skilled raconteur. His sceptical boss decided to test his claims and asked him to write a program calculating mortgage payments, and was stupefied when the young man did just that in a few hours.

“On the spot, he said, ‘Well, you are no longer in the card punching department, you are in the programming department and I’m doubling your pay.'”

Over the next couple of months, Mr Schroeder threw all sorts of programming challenges at the young man.

“One day, he asked me, ‘What would your parents say if you moved to Hong Kong to work for a few months?'”

It turned out that the programming tasks he had been doing were for Hong Kong’s first private housing project – the Mei Fu Sun Chuen – by oil giant Mobil. The 99-tower complex built between 1965 and 1978 was considered the largest private housing development in the world then, home to nearly 80,000 people.

The teenager was made leader of the project to handle computerised billing for the estate’s residents and put up in a suite at Hong Kong’s most expensive and exclusive hotel, The Peninsula.

“Bill introduced me to the head of Mobil who asked, ‘Are you sure this kid knows how to do anything?’ Bill’s response was, ‘I’m telling you, he’s the best.’ After that, I just couldn’t let the man down,” says Mr Koh, adding that Mr Schroeder taught him a lot about mentoring and spotting talent.

At Imperial, he did so well that he won a scholarship to complete his tertiary education. The British government also offered him a scholarship to do his PhD.

“My claim to fame was getting a computer to draw an ellipse with just the definition of the two focal points and the radius. In those days, everyone thought it was a big deal,” he says with a laugh.

But he had to return to Singapore for national service. And that was when his life took another turn.

While in the army, he developed an interest in the stock market. “I had no background in economics but every day, I’d read in the newspapers all these reports of stocks going up and down. Based on what I was reading, I put two and two together, the same thing as I’m doing now,” he says, adding that he and three of his army mates would pool their monthly allowance of $90 to play the market.

To better his understanding of business and economics, he decided he needed to learn how to read accounts. He took up a professional accounting course, completing four of five modules on his own. An engineering PhD no longer appealed to him; he applied for and got into Harvard to do his MBA instead.

Upon graduating, he was hired by Hewlett-Packard in 1977. He started as cash manager, got promoted to accounting manager, and after two years was posted to the multinational corporation’s cost accounting division in the United States. After seven years, he was made managing director of HP in Singapore.

Although sterling, his 14 years at the company had its fair share of bumps. In steering HP from a manufacturing company to a research and development one, he launched two projects, one to develop an oscilloscope and another a disk drive. Both projects bombed spectacularly and cost the company more than $1 million each.

But he did not get fired because his bosses encouraged risk-taking and did not punish failures. It is a philosophy he holds close to his heart, especially since he invests in many technological start-ups and steers NTU, which is very research-based.

By definition, he says, research is a little messy and results are not always immediately tangible.

“It’s not a good idea to pull a tree up by its roots every day to see if it’s healthy. I’d rather have my people try and fail because they would learn from it than not to try. If you don’t try, you are not pushing the envelope and will not make progress,” he says.

After HP, he continued making strides in the corporate world. He was executive chairman of the Wuthelam Group from 1991 to 2000, guided SingTel’s transformation from statutory board to telco giant in 1993, steered Singapore Airlines through a tumultuous time after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, and shepherded DBS through the financial crisis after the Lehman collapse in 2008.

Asked how he holds his own in the corporate jungle, Mr Koh, who is married to a former banker and has four children and one grandchild, says: “I don’t look back. Looking back takes a lot of negative energy. There are bound to be setbacks, ups and downs, betrayals. You just have to move along and move on.”

He believes he is lucky to love what he is doing.

“A lot of people in today’s world decide what they want to do based on what they think they are going to get compensated for. And some of them grow to love the job, which is fine. A lot of them don’t, and then they’re actually not very happy.

“I think that’s a tragedy. Life is too short for that sort of stuff.”

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Background story

Mentor’s wise words

“One day, I jokingly asked Bill if I should give up the idea of university and continue working for Arthur Young. He looked at me and said: ‘You are fired. No matter how attractive it is, you have to go to college.’ He did not promise me a job after I completed my studies either. He said if I went back, people would say he favoured me. He told me it was important for me to see what was out there and learn to make it on my own. We became friends for life.”

MR KOH BOON HWEE on his mentor William Schroeder, who died a couple of years ago


Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses

“We shouldn’t get caught up with wanting to make sure that whatever we do in life, we want to have the approval and adulation of other people. There is always someone better. If you are famous, there is someone more famous, with a bigger Twitter following. If you are good-looking, there will be someone better-looking. You will never be happy. The important thing is to be happy with what you have. If you wake up every day measuring and comparing, life can’t be much fun.”

MR KOH on contentment

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