Singapore Companies
Published May 8, 2006

Midas touch of CityDev's boss
Kwek Leng Beng set to make a killing as the property market rebounds from a 5-year slump

KWEK Leng Beng, Singapore's second-richest man, has made a fortune selling luxury homes. He looks set to make a whole lot more as the swankier end of the real estate market leads the way out of a five-year slump.

As Singapore lures the jet set with private banking services, low taxes and plans for casinos and marinas, the 65-year-old tycoon's City Developments Ltd, the top seller of private housing in Singapore, can watch its bet on top-end real estate pay off. 'Kwek was out of fashion for a while. But he's reaffirmed his reputation as one of Singapore's savviest businessmen,' Daiwa analyst David Lum said.

Mr Kwek is building a sail-shaped skyscraper, part of the government's multi-billion-dollar waterfront that will include Singapore's first casino, a marina and parks. Called The [email protected], the project was sold out within weeks of its launch last year. Another of his projects - St Regis Residences, where condo owners can opt for in-house butler services - is expected to set a price record when it goes on sale in a few weeks.

Mr Kwek inherited wealth from his father and used it to expand the family's property and hotels business. With an estimated net worth of US$3.6 billion in 2005, he was ranked Singapore's second-richest person by Forbes magazine after Ng Teng Fong, who owns property firm Far East Organisation.

Mr Kwek's father, the late Kwek Hong Png, was a classic overseas Chinese success story. He left Fujian province in China as a penniless teenager with his three brothers, arriving in Singapore in 1928 and later founding the Hong Leong group there.

Mr Kwek trained as a lawyer in London and joined the family firm in the 1960s before becoming Hong Leong's chairman in 1990 under his father's watchful eye. He is grooming his two sons - aged 30 and 26 - for the family empire and is described by long-time aides as a demanding manager. 'He sets such high standards that he finds many people either incompetent or untrustworthy,' said an associate.

His competitive streak extends to the tennis court, where he can be found most mornings before work. 'He wants to win all the time and isn't a good loser,' an occasional opponent told Reuters.

With a market capitalisation of US$5.8 billion, CityDev ranks just outside Singapore's top 10 listed companies and is the second-biggest property developer in South-east Asia. But it has not followed the example of rivals such as CapitaLand, which have divested assets into real estate investment trusts or Reits to lift profits and provide some protection through diversification in case of a market downturn.

Forthright player

'I do not want to be a hybrid company, a half-breed - half-financial manager and half-developer,' said Mr Kwek, who earned $8.5 million last year as head of CityDev, in February. Analysts said that that could hurt CityDev if property prices fall.

Mr Kwek's forthrightness set him apart in corporate Singapore, crowded with state-linked firms led by former civil servants who are cagey about expressing their opinions.

Yet, in some respects, Mr Kwek guards his privacy. In January, CityDev pulled out as an equity partner in Las Vegas Sands Corp's bid for Singapore's first casino, just one month after agreeing to take a stake. Mr Kwek later said that some in his organisation baulked after discovering the full extent of probity checks for the bidding process.

While CityDev remains very much focused on Singapore, its 53 per cent-owned hotels unit - London-listed Millennium & Copthorne (M&C) - is decidedly international.

Through M&C, CityDev owns and operates 97 hotels in 18 countries, up from just six in 1989.

Mr Kwek spearheaded the hotel expansion with an aggressive acquisitions drive in the US and Europe. In 1995, he teamed up with Saudi Prince Al-Waleed to buy the landmark Plaza Hotel in New York from US tycoon Donald Trump for US$325 million - and sold it nine years later for more than twice the price. 'When the market hits rock bottom and nobody dares to buy, I come in,' he said at the time. - Reuters