Tan Sri Leong Hoy Kum of Mah Sing Group had but one simple ambition: “I just told myself that I cannot be poor.” As the heir to his father’s plastic business, the young Tan Sri Leong was quick to spot an opportunity in property when working to acquire investment properties for himself and the company. Mah Sing Group has since grown to become the second largest property development company by sales value. To date, the group has 40 projects spread throughout the Klang Valley, Johor Bahru, Penang and Kota Kinabalu.
“Back in those days, it was different. Things were simpler and times were harder but there were many more opportunities as well,” says Tan Sri Leong. “The generation Y has it easy but you cannot blame them. They’re raised in a very different environment.” This applies to most of the generation Y employees including his own daughter Jane Leong who joined him in 2010.
Jane joined the company after a short stint as an investment banker. “While my ambition has always been to work for my family, I was also fascinated with banking and investment, so I began my career as a banker. It was the ideal platform for me to gain exposure and experience,” says Jane. It was after investment banking that she joined Mah Sing Group as a management trainee. “Most people think that my position was handed to me on a silver platter but the truth was, I started out just like any other employee – as a trainee.”
Even as a trainee however, Jane felt a different sort of pressure from the other trainees. There were expectations placed on her by her colleagues, the management and of course, her own family. While there was trust and responsibility that naturally flowed her way, she shares that this simply meant she needed to work harder to meet higher expectations. Most have the opportunity to gradually learn but Jane shares that a mentor once told her that she wouldn’t have that luxury. She would have to learn three times more quickly than the rest.
For Jane however, nothing beats learning from her family. “Observing my father’s decision-making process informs my own,” she shares. Her familiarity with Tan Sri Leong’s ways – as a father and a boss – helped her greatly in her work as a trainee. All this on top of the years growing up immersed in her father’s passion for property development. “In fact, our Sunday activities as a family often included visiting our own projects to check on their progress of development,” she says.
There are of course conflicts, mainly differences of opinions, due to the generational gap. Jane shares though that they have managed to work through many of these, enough to come to a point where they are able to listen to one another more effectively and find a balance between the traditional and the modern. “Listening to what Jane thinks inspires me to keep Mah Sing Group on the cutting edge. After all, we do not own the earth – it is merely borrowed from the next generation.” The developer’s recent string of developments – Icon City Petaling Jaya, Icon Residence at Mont Kiara and M-Residence – are among the Jane-inspired ones. The group’s Garden Residence is another iconic property that has seen Mah Sing Group merge innovation and creativity with traditional values.
“A tried-and-tested method delivers results and it is important for continuity,” says Jane. She adds that it is important to be respectful and appreciative of this rather than be arrogant about it. There are things that each generation can contribute and active listening can bridge the gap. “Innovation is also important to deliver creativity and freshness in concepts.” Now Mah Sing Group’s deputy general manager of business development and investments, Jane is quickly picking up the tricks of the trade from her father. “I benefit from my father’s over 30 years of experience in the business. I also learn a lot from the senior management team.”
Tan Sri Leong has the vision of taking Mah Sing Group global and is grateful for Jane’s decision to be a part of the business he has built. Jane, on the other hand, is grateful for the opportunity to carry out her father’s vision. “My father has done a great job and it is my vision to sustain this and build Mah Sing Group to become a regional player.” With Jane’s younger brother Lionel recently jumping on board, the Leongs are on a mission to make all this happen.
Having this united mission for a family is valuable. While the Leongs spend a lot of time together during the weekends engaging in leisure activities, Jane shares that what she appreciates most about being in a family business is the opportunity to work closely with her father and siblings. There really is something special, she says, about working together.
The man behind Ken Holdings Berhad, Dato’ Kenny Tan, is frank about it, expressing a stern view that the younger generation should return home lest they waste the hard work of their forefathers. “They must take over the business,” he tells me in no uncertain terms. The group executive chairman with a humble disposition tackled my questions methodically, revealing a sincere and principled man who stood firm on the belief that each individual should work hard not for himself but for the next generation.
Dato’ Kenny is a man who practises what he preaches. His children Sam, Yvonne and Jasmine were sent to a prestigious boarding school in Cambridge before completing their university studies and coming home to work. Eldest son Sam may have initially expressed a desire to get called to the UK Bar and eventually obtain a permanent residency in the UK, but he decided instead to return home and sow into the family business. He is now the group managing director of Ken Holdings Berhad.
During that crossroad, Dato’ Kenny told me that his advice to his eldest was simple: “I asked him, do you want to be a lawyer or do you want to run a business? Then I asked him, do you want to live in Kuala Lumpur or do you want to live in London?” Those two questions gave Sam serious food for thought and after some time, he expressed a desire to return and help run the business. His father told him to come home. “In life, focus in important,” says Dato’ Kenny, adding that leaving options open can be counter-productive and breed double-mindedness.
In Sam’s view, his returning home was natural. “Having been exposed to property from a young age, I think that planted a seed in me to want to build homes for people. I have been preparing myself my whole life to do this,” Sam tells me. He had read law and engineering in the UK and after three years of work as a civil engineer in London, he returned home. He joined Ken Holdings Berhad in 2004.
The father-and-son working relationship is no different from any other with Dato’ Kenny holding the same high expectations of his son and Sam learning to meet those expectations without losing himself. “I have many expectations. In some instances, it is fine if my son does not meet them, but there are other instances where he must,” states Dato’ Kenny. The father and son both hold the view that the company may have been founded by Dato’ Kenny, but it is at the end of the day a listed entity. They have responsibilities towards their stakeholders and must therefore, maintain utmost professionalism at work. They are there to build a company that can go the distance and this means building and nurturing the next generation.
Dato’ Kenny is adamant about disciplining and mentoring the younger ones. In mentoring Sam along with his other employees, Dato’ Kenny believes that certain independence must be given. “It is only then that they can grow,” he explains. “Being young, their ideas are better, fresher, more idealistic and ‘pie-in-the-sky’ while we are more prudent because we’ve made the mistakes. My advice is often the result of having gone through those same mistakes and having learned from them. The younger ones still need to experience them, so it is best that they do so while we are still here to correct them when the mistakes are made.”
There is a certain respect Dato’ Kenny and Sam have for each other. The duo has a great working dynamic, recognizing what each one can bring to the company. Sam values the experience and hard work his father has put into building the company and bringing it to where it is today. Ken Holdings Berhad started as a civil engineering firm in 1986 and under Dato’ Kenny’s leadership, took on an ambitiousness that led it to become one of the leading contractors around, with a portfolio that grew to include land reclamation works in Westport Malaysia. Upon being listed in 1996, Ken Holdings Berhad launched their property development arm with their first project, Ken Damansara.
Ken Holdings today stands as one of Malaysia’s top green developers. Their iconic Ken Bangsar has won the Green Building Index Gold Award, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Green Mark Gold Plus Award and the FIABCIMalaysia Property Sustainable Development Award in 2011. Sam’s passion for sustainable development saw them turning a squatter resettlement area in Shah Alam into Ken Rimba, which is a pilot Green Township project that has been awarded Greenmark awards by BCA.
Sam’s contribution to the company has been substantial. He is instrumental in launching Ken Holdings Berhad into the realm of green buildings and homes, an area he is clearly passionate about. “But on top of this, I too want to create something,” he says. “I want to create something for the generations after us. Sustainability has always been our main focus. It is not something we can do overnight. We have been here for 33 years and hope to be here for another 55,000.”
So what is next for them? Dato’ Kenny sees the company taking their building philosophies beyond the Klang Valley. They are now working on projects in other states, mainly Kelantan and Johor, and it is their aim to apply their green building philosophies to these developments. “With the upcoming high speed rail and the congestion and high property prices in Singapore, we can foresee that many will begin living in Johor and travelling down south,” explains Dato’ Kenny. Taking their business philosophies and strengths, and building green buildings into the hub down south, the father and son continue to support each other in building their brand and company. They have also recently recruited the two younger Tans, Jasmine and Yvonne, into the company.
Seeing the Tans at Ken Holdings Berhad establishes one positive thing about family businesses. There really is no need to reinvent the wheel. Successive generations, if they are lucky enough to be part of a well-built wheel, should work to build upon the hard work and foundation left by the ones who’ve gone before them. If they remain true to this principle, a fruitful and long-lasting family dynasty is well within reach.
Photo credit: Prestige