A rare in­ter­view with Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, CEO and Chair­man of Gent­ing Group, re­veals a man keen on har­ness­ing his knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence for growth and change.


A rare in­ter­view with Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, CEO and Chair­man of Gent­ing Group, re­veals 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

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.

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!”

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.

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