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The Most Memorable Lessons From Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s Richest Tycoon

I like to read during bull markets.

Reading helps me take my mind off the stock market, and at the same time, it helps to enrich my understanding of the world. The latest book on my shelf is Robert Kuok’s memoir. Kuok, of course, is one of the most well-known and respected businessmen in Asia.

Today, Kuok’s business stretches to almost every region around the world. He has interests in commodity processing and trading, property development, logistics, media, maritime shipping, hotels and philanthropy.

It’s not often that I can finish a book within days, but the memoir was so engaging that I breezed through it almost effortlessly.

I’d like to share some of the insights.

A Different Era

Kuok was born in Johor Bahru, Malaya in 1923.

Back then, the country that was under British colonial rule. It was an era of relative peace, but also one that was marred by racism, and colonialism.

Everything changed when the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941. As the soldiers closed in, his mother loaded the family onto an open lorry, and hid at a nearby pineapple plantation. Half a year would pass before Kuok’s family moved back to Johor Bahru to live under Japanese rule. To avoid suspicion, Kuok left for Singapore to work at Mitsubishi Trading. It was during this tumultuous period that Kuok started to learn the ins and outs of commodity trading.

The Japanese rule lasted until 1945, but the British came back to claim Malaya after the former left its shores. Kuok worked for his late father until 1948, when the elder Kuok passed away.

With his inheritance, Kuok formed Kuok Brothers Limited in 1949. While the Japanese rulers had left, the renewed British rule made it hard for local businesses to succeed. Kuok recounted the times when he couldn’t even secure a loan to support his trade deals.

But the sun was setting for the British empire.

As former British colonies started to break away from its rule, opportunities to supply basic necessities such as rice, sugar, and wheat to Malaya and Singapore opened up. For much of the first decade, the Kuok Brothers traded around these basic commodities.

Kuok’s business would bloom from there on out.

He would make deals to supply the states in Malaya, then around the region, followed by the world. Kuok also set up the most dominant sugar refinery in Malaysia, earning him the nickname “Sugar King.”

The Sugar King Takes on the World

As we look back at the first trimester of Kuok’s life, it was rife with uncertainty and danger.

If you made a wrong step during the Japanese rule, and you could very well end up dead and forgotten. And even as the British rulers left, Kuok’s business had to deal with discrimination. As countries like Malaysia and Indonesia gained independence later on, Kuok had to often relent to local politics in order to enter different markets to run his business.

But it’s not all challenges alone.

It was also an era where countries like Indonesia and China started to open their doors to foreign trade. Simply said, Kuok was the right man at the right place to make the most of these opportunities. For most of his business life, he seemed to be well aware of the conditions that helped to make him successful, and he did not take his success for granted.

There were times when Kuok stood at the brink of a financial disaster, and other times where he paved his own way to success. All the while, he did not shy away from the brutal truths that were at his front door.

For me, Kuok is someone who saw what was in front of him and made the best of what he could from the situation.

It’s About People

For each person that Kuok met in his life, he would spend time describing the character of the person, their family ties, their trustworthiness, and their political or business standing.

Kuok often spoke simply, but it belied his keen understanding of the business world, where he saw culture, politics, and business interwoven with one another. Time and again, Kuok highlighted the importance of seeking out partners who are honest, competent, and hard-working.

Kuok applied his belief to his business deals and his partners.

In his establishment of the Shangri-La hotel, Kuok laid down his priorities for the business, in this order: look after the hotel staff, look after our guests, and look after our shareholders. In his eyes, it is important to treat his staff as a fellow human being, with kindness and generosity. He believed that would motivate his staff to provide the best service they can to their guests. And if the guests are satisfied, shareholders will be rewarded with better profits.

The Shangri-La hotel philosophy is, in my eyes, the clearest demonstration of Kuok’s focus on people, rather than being caught up with the frivolous trappings of a luxury hotel.

A Foolish Closing Thought

At The Motley Fool, we actively seek as many motley perspectives as we can.

To be sure, it’s not always about investing perspectives alone, but also business and cultural perspectives. We are, after all, interested in investing in businesses—not simply stock tickers. As such, it follows that we should increase our knowledge of how businesses around the world are run.

Kuok’s memoir adds a valuable perspective to running a successful business in Asia.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore writer Chin Hui Leong doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned and is an ex-scholar for the Kuok Foundation.