Saturday September 26, 2009
The entrepreneur with the Midas touch
By Tee Lin Say
CALL him anything you want – a recluse, a hard driver, elusive even – but it’s hard to dismiss Malaysian billionaire T. Ananda Krishnan’s (AK) phenomenal business acumen and razor sharp instincts.
Based on data from Forbes’ widely-followed list of world’s billionaires, with an estimated net worth of a whopping US$7.4bil, AK tops out as South East Asia’s third richest man, only after fellow Malaysian Tan Sri Robert Kuok and Singapore’s property magnate Ng Teng Fong. On a global scale, he turns up at 119th spot in terms of riches.
Interestingly, although much has been written about his UTSB (Usaha Tegas Snd Bhd) empire, especially its stable of listed companies – at presently that includes Astro All Asia Networks plc, Tanjong plc and Measat Global Bhd – not enough is known about the man himself. That he is a mighty low-key businessman, deliberately that way, who is rarely spotted at business or social events makes him even more of an enigma.
The little that we do know of him is gleaned through the many corporate moves and turns he has made for decades in Malaysia and abroad to expand his sprawling business empire with businesses in telecommunications, property, gaming, power, satellite, media and so forth.
But even as he leads a tightly-guarded private life, he is widely known to be generous, donating to numerous charities, temples and providing scholarships for the needy and deserved. A few years ago, it was reported that he had given away as much as RM160mil to charities through privately-owned UTSB Group.
Much of the good works are done through the foundations established by UTSB namely the Malaysian Community and Education Fund, Harapan Nusantara Fund and Yu Cai Foundation. As their names suggest, these foundations are mainly focused on the area of education.
“Clearly, he is well read, well informed and supremely articulate. I had a truly wow moment,” says one banker who has a lasting impression of the man he met only once, some 12 years ago.
“If you know your stuff, he will be reasonable. Otherwise, he can be impatient and tends to get agitated if you don’t know what you are talking about. He respects those with brains,” says another person who has worked closely with him in the past.
Rise and rise
AK was born in 1938 in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. His parents are from Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He studied at the Vivekananda Tamil School in Brickfields and later, the Victoria Institution in the city.
He pursued his tertiary education at the University of Melbourne, Australia where he majored in political science, after which he pursued a Masters in Business Administration at Harvard University in 1964. He has three children, one of whom is a monk.
He is said to have a penchant for modern art pieces and has beautiful homes scattered in lovely cities around the world (apart from KL) such as London, south of France and Melbourne.
He owns a stunning multimillion Kia Ora homestead – a breeding ground for horses – near rural Scone, about 330 km from Sydney, which he acquired five years ago from the Miller family who owned the property for just over four decades. The restored “sensational and practical” property won the prestigious 2006 Housing Industry Association Hunter Home of the Year Award.
AK’s first major entrepreneurial venture was oil trading; he set up Exoil Trading, which went on to purchase oil drilling concessions in various countries. Later he ventured into the business of gaming in Malaysia, stud farming in Australia and even ran a Hollywood cartoon studio.
He first emerged in the glare of publicity in the mid-80s when he helped organise the Live Aid concert with musician and social activist Sir Bob Geldof. His many big business moves and close contact with the influential and powerful made him one of the most talked about men in the country’s corporate circles.
His companies largely operate in hot spots in South East Asia. A quarter of AK’s wealth comes from the gaming business – lottery and horse-racing wagering.
In 2007, Astro forked out a whopping RM580mil for a 20% stake in a pay-TV company in India, Sun Direct TV Pte Ltd.
AK plans to produce TV channels which cater to the Indian market, especially the Tamil diaspora in the United States and Europe. He also owns stakes in TVB.com and the Shaw Brothers movie archives.
The AK Factor
A fund manager who tracks the Usaha Tegas stable of companies says that generally, the market holds a high opinion of AK companies.
“AK’s companies demonstrate good business sense, are transparent and uphold solid corporate governance,” she says.
Thus, it is no wonder that most of AK’s companies trade at a premium. Astro, for example, trades at a massive 36 times times price earnings ratio (PER). It’s gaming company, Tanjung Plc, trades at 10 times while Maxis will probably trade in the high teens too.
It was his exceptional entrepreneurial flair and foresight that managed to impress the then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad with the idea to build the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers. He was an original investor of the vast Petronas towers, designed to be the world’s tallest buildings. The Twin Towers have since been surpassed by landmark skyscraper, Taipei 101, in Taiwan.
The towers are today still the tallest twin buildings in the world. They were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004.
Last year AK sold ExCel London, the exhibition venue in London’s Docklands, for a reported US$230mil and bought a 20% stake in British regional newspaper chain Johnston Press.
From the V.I. Archives
Crowned Malayan Oratorical Champion 1955
As a Colombo Plan student at Melbourne University, 1956