Kwek Leng Beng: Tycoon, father, son

By Cecilia Chow and Nur Hikmah Md Ali
/ EdgeProp Singapore |
Kwek: I never imagined that at age 82, I'd publish a memoir; and mentally, this was one of the greatest feats of my career - harder to put together than any business deal (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
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The launch of real estate and hotel tycoon Kwek Leng Beng's biography, "Strictly Business: The Kwek Leng Beng Story" by author Peh Shing Huei was held at the John Jacob Ballroom of the St Regis Singapore on Nov 9. It was a grand affair attended by over 300 guests, including Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat and Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong, the guest of honour.
In his speech, Kwek said, "The book's title perfectly captures the essence of my life's journey. Doing business has been my lifelong passion, strength and purpose. It is my favourite topic and one that I think and talk about most of the time."
Kwek, the executive chairman of Hong Leong Group and Singapore-listed real estate conglomerate City Developments Ltd (CDL), has had an illustrious career spanning over six decades. "Whilst I have always been encouraged by my friends and associates, writing a biography was never part of my life's plan," Kwek said. "I focus more on closing business deals, seizing opportunities and taking work trips while managing a growing company."
It wasn't until 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and when he turned 80 the following year, that friends and associates once again urged him to write his memoir. "In a phase of introspection, I relented," Kwek said in the foreword to his book. "It seemed like the right time. If not now, when? I thought."
He added: "I never imagined that at age 82, I'd publish a memoir; and mentally, this was one of the greatest feats of my career - harder to put together than any business deal."
ESM Goh Chok Tong and Kwek Leng Beng sharing a toast (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
ESM Goh and Kwek were born in the same year, 1941, and are the same age. "I see a parallel between his and my life journey; we both have a mission, although we have travelled along different tracks," Goh said in his speech.
Both are second-generation leaders: Goh became the Prime Minister after the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down. Kwek and his cousins took over the leadership of Hong Leong Group of companies and CDL, succeeding his father and uncles.
"Leng Beng's vision was strictly business; my vision was strictly politics," adds Goh. "We have, in our separate ways, shown that good leadership and careful planning of succession is the only way to ensure that wealth lasts beyond three generations."

Father-son relationships

Another parallel is the relationship between Kwek and his father, Hong Png, the founder of Hong Leong; and between him and his son Sherman, group CEO of CDL.
Navigating the fine line between being Kwek's employee and son had always been tricky, Sherman noted in his speech on Nov 9. "Many a time, friction can arise," he said. "But I think this is typical of any father-son relationship, especially when work is intense and we work in the same company. After all, I believe it was the same for our chairman and his father, my late grandfather. And I think we all read in the book and media interview that he even ran away to Penang to seek refuge."
In his book, Kwek shared about his relationship with his boss and father, Hong Png. "It was very stressful for me as a young man," Kwek said. "The pressure from him was too much." He recounted how he escaped to Penang, Malaysia, in a fit of rebellion. All he wanted was a reprieve from the incessant shelling --- "pom, pom, pom, pom, pom", he recalled.
Sherman shared a similar anecdote: "Whenever I went into his office for a meeting, I always made sure to put on a bulletproof vest because of the inevitable barrage of criticism that was going to come at me."
In hindsight, Sherman added, "I've learned much from his constant teachings, which has shaped my capabilities over the years and decades and, of course, significantly increased my tolerance for pain."
Kwek, likewise, came to terms with his father's harsh treatment and embraced his father’s teaching: "Don't ask too much. Just observe." In a speech in 2010, Kwek said, "Only with hindsight am I now able to appreciate how much I learned from the experience of his tutelage. I benefited by observing him at work, watching how he took important decisions – sometimes intuitively, sometimes drawing on his insight and witnessing how he was able to draw on his understanding and experience of the real estate business."
Kwek's first hotel, Copthorne King's, formerly King's Hotel opened in 1970 (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)


Sherman also elaborated on his father's legendary trait of punctuality: "In the early days, he would turn up for meetings 20 to 30 minutes ahead of the meeting time," he recounted. "As long as you arrive after him, you're considered late".
He added, "I always pity the poor soul who has just joined the organisation and is not aware of the protocol and turns up 10 minutes early for a meeting only to be scolded for being late."
Kwek is known for being a workaholic; his dedication, determination and business acumen, commented Sherman. He is also very hands-on. "Of course, if we probe further, there might be other terms that might come up like stern, impatient, slave driver," Sherman added. "However, it's these same qualities that have made him a successful businessman. And under his leadership, Hong Leong and CDL have risen to new heights."
From a handful of employees in the early 1970s, CDL has grown into a global real estate conglomerate with over 8,000 employees and more than $30 billion in assets, notes Sherman. "Over the decades, he's worked tirelessly with our late deputy chairman, Kwek Leng Joo, to transform the scale and breadth of CDL."
The 63- and 70-storey towers of the 1,111-unit The Sail at Marina Bay, once the tallest residential skyscraper in Singapore (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

‘Top salesperson at CDL’

Despite being a big-picture strategist, no task is too small for Kwek, noted Sherman. In late 2004, when The Sail at Marina Bay was launched, the real estate market was "still quite soft". The Sail, then the tallest residential tower in Singapore, was the first condominium in Marina Bay and relatively large at 1,111 units. At that time, Marina Bay was still not an established place to live.
"Our chairman took it upon himself to personally sell units to everyone he knew," relates Sherman. "He was more aggressive than an insurance sales agent."
Sherman attended many meetings with his father back then. "I quickly realised that every lunch, dinner and business meeting was an opportunity for him to market The Sail," he said. "He would endlessly market to people about the potential of the Marina Bay area and insist that these people just have to go and buy a few units at The Sail, and many did."
Ultimately, Kwek's advice was proven correct. "Not only did the project sell well, but it was widely credited for reviving the soft Singapore property market at that point," noted Sherman.
"And for all those who bought, I don't think they have much to complain about since prices have gone up significantly from the launch prices of around $800 to $900 psf for The Sail back then."
This example illustrates Kwek's "keen foresight and dynamic vision in seeing potential where others don't," added Sherman. "It also firmly cemented him as our top salesperson at CDL."
From left: ESM Goh Chok Tong, Sherman Kwek, Kwek Leng Beng, Professor Chua Kee Chaing, president of SIT and SIT Institute Professor Tan Thiam Soon

Building a legacy

Besides real estate, Kwek branched into the hospitality industry and found his other passion and calling. Starting with just one hotel, the former King's Hotel that opened in 1970, now known as Copthorne King's, Kwek started acquiring hotels worldwide.
He amalgamated a sizeable portfolio and eventually listed Millennium & Copthorne (M&C) Hotels on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in late 1996. It was the first Singapore company to be listed on the LSE. Even though M&C was delisted in October 2019, It is still a global hospitality chain with over 155 hotels across 80 locations. "This was no easy feat and involved astute deal-making," says Sherman.
Kwek also injected vibrancy into the Singaporean REIT industry by listing CDL Hospitality Trusts in 2006. It was the first listed hotel REIT in Asia, excluding Japan. Today, it has a market capitalisation of $1.2 billion.
He has built a legacy through sheer hard work, determination, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit "that I believe sets us apart from others", notes Sherman. And he is an optimist who sees opportunities rather than setbacks. Sherman thanked his father "for being an inspiration to us".
Kwek and CDL presented an endowment of $24 million to the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). With a matching contribution from the Singapore government, the total endowment is $60 million. "With this donation, I hope to further empower a new generation of hospitality professionals, paving the way for a bright future and successful career," said Kwek.
SIT has named its future high-rise university tower after Kwek. The tower will house the academic and administrative staff offices in the upcoming Punggol campus.
Check out the latest listings for The Sail @ Marina Bay properties

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