View From The Top - A rare interview with Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay

View From The Top – A rare interview with Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay

The CEO and Chairman of Genting Group, is a man keen on harnessing his knowledge and experience for growth and change.

The wood-panelled inner sanctum of Wisma Genting in Kuala Lumpur is a mix of East and West. Oriental objects form part of the interior amid Western paintings, while portraits of the Genting Group’s Chairmen from past to present feature prominently along one wall. The quiet dignity of the office from which Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay operates may well reflect the balance of Eastern values and Western sensibilities that inform his own approach to the business.

The current Group CEO of Genting presides over a proudly Malaysian conglomerate that needs no real introduction in the East – or West. Tan Sri Lim’s father, Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, had founded Genting in 1965, with leisure and hospitality being the main drivers of the company. Under this umbrella, the organisation has concentrated on a diverse number of enterprises, including gaming, theme parks, entertainment, and hotels and resorts. The group also owns oil palm plantations, power generation, oil and gas, property development, cruise, biotechnology and other industries.

It is Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay – or KT Lim, as he is known to his peers – who has spearheaded its global expansion, realising ambitious plans to build premier brands like Resorts World properties and partner international brands as diverse as Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios, Premium Outlets and Norwegian Cruise Lines, establishing the group as a leading business entity worldwide.

Yet, for someone so dynamic and whose net worth is a reported USD4.5 billion, Tan Sri Lim is quietly unassuming. Dressed in a simple day suit with an iWatch on his wrist, he is genial, with a ready smile, happy to accommodate the photographer’s directions and already impressed with the photography set-up done within a small space in the meeting room. “This is so much better than the last session I had,” he laughs quietly as the photographer snaps away.

“It was my late father who set the pace,” says Tan Sri Lim, when asked about the impetus for going global. “What he had established up in the mountain range amongst virgin jungle is, in itself, a tremendous feat. That gave us a very firm foundation to expand from. We’ve learnt through our mistakes but, obviously, we’ve created a brand and it was important to learn what branding can do to a business. Taking into account the gaming trends, we expanded outside of Genting Highlands, initially into Australia – Perth and Adelaide. Soon after, we invested in the Bahamas in Freeport, where we operated a gaming resort. Many years later, we have come full circle in the Bahamas with Resorts World Bimini. I guess that would be the fifth Resorts World venture that has proven to be a very recognisable brand in the gaming business.”

“We learnt a lot from our US colleagues in terms of branding and marketing. I think the intermix of our Malaysian colleagues with our US colleagues has imparted the Malaysian team with knowledge and expertise to continue to expand the Resorts World brand overseas.”

The former civil engineering graduate from University of London may be modest about his accomplishments, but there’s no mistaking his hand in the current slew of projects and expansions. In Malaysia, he oversees the implementation of the Genting Integrated Tourism Plan (GITP), a 10-year master plan launched in December 2013 to transform Resorts World Genting further as a dynamic integrated resort, even as it attracts 20 million visitors annually. Already equipped with six hotels, theme parks and entertainment attractions, dining and retail outlets, international shows and business convention facilities, the GITP will see the development of the world’s first Twentieth Century Fox World theme park. The experience has been “challenging but it was also very educational for the team to learn how to deal with one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies.”

Tan Sri Lim sees the brand constantly evolving. “Change is the only constant, but it’s not just changing for change’s sake,” he says. “Following a global trend gives you a guide as to where one should head towards, but it’s important to understand the impact on what the company is doing in terms of the marketplace and its products. We need to be ahead of the curve – it means a lot of attention in research and development.”

Tan Sri Lim sees constant brand evolution as a way of keeping things up-to-date and ahead. “When you make a change, you are peering into the future,” he says. “You check yourself again at present to see whether it has been executed correctly and then move on to the next step.

“I think the brand is being reenergised all the time. When the GITP is completed, we would be more than reenergised. It’s sort of a circle. We went international – now we are gathering together all our experience and circling back to Asia. In Malaysia, we have returned to the highlands not just to revamp it, but to put all we have into making it the leader of integrated resorts.

“I think it would be interesting to see next year. After opening the Fox theme park, we would have opened most of our new offerings by then as well. I’m confident that it will transform us into the world’s leading integrated resort.”

The group sees itself as a contributor to drawing tourism into the country and, despite its many ventures overseas, is proud to have its Malaysian roots intact. “We are a substantial part of tourism here in Malaysia. For instance, visitors from mainland China have been growing substantially. Eight out of every 10 Chinese tourists would at least be visiting Genting Highlands. When we have opened all the facilities, I would see that number, maybe, climbing up to nine out of 10.

“Now that we have taken that step towards globalisation or internationalising both the Genting brand as well as the Resorts World brand, we need to make sure that we improve the experience that the two brands represent. We have done that by carrying it over to our cruise business, and I can’t emphasise enough that part of the success of the cruise business lies in the strength of the brands that we have under our portfolio.”

The group’s foothold in the cruise industry sees three established brands – Star Cruises, Crystal Cruises and, the latest, Dream Cruises – but Tan Sri Lim is also careful when discussing diversification in business: “Diversification, yes, but there also needs to be a common thread to what you are diversifying into – you would not be optimising your own resources in doing that. So, when we diversify, we make sure that there is some relevance and making good use of our human resources. We would not jump into something that’s totally irrelevant.

“I would circle back to the cruise business as it’s a global avenue to tap into. There are not that many businesses that offer – especially to an Asian player – a good opportunity to go global. Currently, there’re really three large groups that would account, literally, for 70 to 80 per cent of the cruise business in the world, and the third largest is the Genting Group.

“At the moment, we are coming back to Asia and redeploying some of our investments into rebuilding our Asian cruise business, which is based out of Singapore and Hong Kong, replicating our success with Norwegian Cruise Line. When we acquired NCL at the time, the company was losing money and had great financial difficulties, but we turned it around, built it up and then put it on IPO. At the peak, the market cap of that company reached USD15 billion. From zero to 15 – I think we have done rather well,” he says, smiling.

“We hope to duplicate that for our cruises by extending our Star brand as well as the new Dream Cruises brand. The difference between the two is that Dream would address more of the higher end of the cruise market here in Asia, whereas Star would target the mass market. You have China and you have Asia – we have huge populations here; simply put, the mass market itself is very, very substantial.”

The eye on the Asian prize also sees Genting Singapore looking to Japan with a view of starting a formal bidding process for a Japan game license. This has come in lieu of the group exiting the South Korea market after selling its share of the USD1.8 billion Resorts World Jeju.

“It’s a question of priorities,” says Tan Sri Lim about the focus on Japan. “We recognise the limitations in human and financial resources, and we just have to prioritise what is the best at that point in time for the group. It’s still early days yet for Japan and hard to say whether the Japanese government would reach a point where it will actually call for bids for casino projects, so we are just staying in the background and monitoring the progress.”

Tan Sri Lim attributes the group’s success, and its ability to identify its strengths and shortcomings expediently, to its talent pool and company culture. Some core team members have been with the group for more than 20 years.

“I think our founder left behind a very good culture in terms of the company and its people. Honesty is important; to deal fairly with your partners and also treat our employees correctly. That’s the core value that a lot of us in the company has adopted.

“We try to practice this in whatever way we can, especially when expanding into new countries. I think a relationship that can be trusted is the foremost thing that one should look for. It’s not just having partners to make money with, but also having ones that you can rely on so you are able to sleep at night!

“Even though you are making a little bit less, that’s fine so long as the relationship is a good one. Our founder has always said that if the relationship is not good or the investment climate of a country is not correct, it is not worth getting into, even if you make money. That value has held us up well. Genting has built a lot of relationships and partners, and so far, I’m glad to say every one of these partnerships is looking very well.”

Tan Sri Lim’s own philosophy to successful business is simple: “Just work hard and keep my eye on the ball. That means I do travel quite extensively to keep in touch with the businesses, even though they are all around the world. It’s important to keep in real touch, not just talk to them over the phone, especially now through the Internet.”

I think a personal touch is very important. It helps encourage people on the ground to see a face. It also shows our concern about their personal wellbeing.

While Tan Sri Lim has been prudent in mentioning his father, referring to him as the group’s founder in much of the interview, he does oblige to share important life lessons imparted to him by the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong. Having maintained a professional stance throughout, he now allows himself the personal liberty of simply calling him his father.

“Whether it is in terms of a family or business, you have to have a clear-cut structure,” says Tan Sri Lim. “Tradition and culture, respect for your elders. Respect is very important. Experience also comes with age,” he adds, referring to his father’s rags to riches story as a penniless Chinese immigrant who had no formal education. “You can go to university but that’s a different type of learning. You cannot short cut, for instance, an experience of 30 to 40 years and say, ‘I can learn it in three years’.

“To draw that kind of experience from older colleagues and combine it with a formal education would be the perfect development for anyone’s career – a blend of values. I would try to impart this to my sons. They are developing in their own ways and I don’t expect them to end up 100 per cent like me,” says Tan Sri Lim. “I’d be very happy if they’d just end up taking the good things and adding on their own beliefs.”

With family values playing an integral part of his business makeup, it is only natural that his proudest moment stems directly from his father. “Just in terms of an education, I may have had an advantage over my dad, and that was the reason why he worked very hard, just as all fathers in any generation would work very hard to make sure the children end up with a good education, have food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads. Each cycle must be better than the previous one.

“There was a challenge imparted by my late father, which was how does one preserve one’s values and use them to extend the longevity of the business that he had painstakingly developed. Having wholeheartedly contributed to (this challenge), that would be my proudest moment, which I am sure was also my father’s, when he handed the business over to me at the ripe old age of 85 – it must have also been a great relief for him to shed that burden. Similarly, when I can reach that point, I can say that this would also be the proudest moment in my life.”

Tan Sri Lim’s devotion to the company sees his spare time filled with the company’s community efforts. He talks passionately about The Community Chest, which he helped to set up and has come to regard as a passion project, and the Lim Foundation, a family foundation he manages that was set up by his late father to help the poor and underprivileged.

“The Community Chest foundation was set up with sustainable charity in mind, with the objective that for every Ringgit we donate, minimally, 90 sen goes to the causes. We have achieved better than that through volunteerism,” says Tan Sri Lim. “So far, we have donated up to 99.2 sen to the Ringgit. We set up a trust and a company, which has a lottery business called Pan Malaysia Pools, in which all its proceeds go to The Community Chest.”

The Community Chest has donated in excess of MYR320 million that has benefited over 200 vernacular schools in Malaysia that need funding. Tan Sri Lim explains the sustainable and volunteerism model adopted by The Community Chest further: “We do not give money directly to the schools. We will ask what the schools require and our volunteers will check what is needed by the school. These could be roof repairs, new buildings, computers or other things. We pay the contracted suppliers, and monitor and check the work to account for the donated amount. That, principally, will keep things honest, which I think is important.

“We see volunteerism as part of Genting’s CSR activity. Our volunteers include the President of Genting Bhd, who is one of the main drivers, executives and experienced retirees. Our engineers from Genting Highlands also take time off to drive to the schools and check on the work, and negotiate with the suppliers to get the best cost pricing for the projects.”

Tan Sri Lim hopes to see a ripple effect in effecting change: “We try to demonstrate to other corporations that if they want to give to charities, the best way is to through The Community Chest. If they donate and can identify a worthy project and execute it, the donor’s name can be highlighted on that project, in conjunction with The Community Chest. It is quite challenging in Malaysia as many corporations are wary of donating. I hope The Community Chest can create trust with its open-book approach, as all contributions are tax-exempted and its books are independently audited every year.”

The group’s CSR efforts include Genting’s latest charity foundation, Yayasan Kebajikan, which sponsors neurosurgery costs to cure epilepsy in babies using a pioneering treatment. The surgery is charged at cost by the neuro specialists who are also doing their CSR. “We try to add on our experience, connections and networks, and try to convince others to volunteer,” says Tan Sri Lim. “Together, we can do a lot more to help our society.”

For all his almost superhuman dedication to the company and even while he seems unfazed by the multitude of projects he is overseeing, whether for business or for charity, Tan Sri Lim’s idea of success is uncomplicated – and completely relatable. “My idea of success?” He laughs: “Success is when I can be relieved of my workload and go cruising!”


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