Robert Kuok More than a Company Owner
Robert is also called the “Sugar King of Asia” for having 80 percent of the Malaysian sugar production, which accounts for ten percent of the total world production, under his control.
Robert’s amazing story of rising up from poverty and becoming Southeast Asia’s richest person has become a shining inspiration for a lot of people. Robert is a firm believer of hard work, diligence, and a broad set of thinking. He believes that these traits allow a person to achieve their goals, and enable them to properly set the course of their life.
Robert has a deep root in Buddhist and Communist beliefs, in helping others and how everyone has an equal opportunity of succeeding, but is hindered by so much corruption—not just in politics, but a corruption of the entire system of life itself. In his interviews, Robert often cites his mother and his brother as his influences, stating:
“Otherwise, probably I would have been an arrogant middle-class Chinese, only caring about materialism, worldly pleasures, and fleshpot pleasures. When I am tempted, I think of what William went through. He sacrificed his life trying to help the underprivileged.”
Having a good understanding of the communist mindset, Robert has had very good relations with China, compared to other businessmen of his stature. In fact, he was among the very first foreign entrepreneurs who did business with Communist China, right after Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution.”
Robert has established a good deal of connections in mainland China, which enabled him to successfully gain the trust and acceptance of the communist leaders. And while he does hold great favor amongst the leadership of the country, Robert is in no way subservient to them. It is said of him:
“Robert is the best China watcher in the business. He understands the steel backbone of the Communist Party, but while other Hong Kong tycoons tend to be hugely subservient to Beijing, he is in no way obsequious.”
An Interesting Fact about the Real Estate Titan
In spite of having wealth, power, and influence, Robert is a very humble man, and prefers to live a simple life. He rarely indulges himself in the pleasures of life, nor does he love to be in the company of the press. In fact, Robert is known to be very media-shy, so much so that he only has had one or two interviews over the course of his entire career.
This love for the simple life has allowed Robert to remain humble in spite of all his accomplishments, and has forged in him a lifestyle that he passed down to his children, thus teaching them to wisely handle all the wealth that they have. He stated in an interview with him:
“Everything on earth is dynamic. I can only give my children a message, not money. If they follow it, we can go another three or four generations.”
Robert’s philosophy in business can be summed up into four words: work hard, work smart. From a very young age, Robert has not only learned the value of diligence and hard work, but he has also discovered that it takes brains to become successful in the business world, and life in general.
He has instilled these values in his children very well, so much so that all of his children have gone on to become very famous and successful in their own right. Tim Dattels, a high-ranking officer at TPG Capitals, says of Robert:
“There’s only one Robert Kuok, there’s no doubt. But he has instilled his business philosophy deep into the family. With what he has built, they are well set to continue, whatever happens.”
Because of the life that he has experienced, Robert has made it a mission of his to ensure that he gives the next generation the opportunity that he was not able to get by his philanthropic work, the Kuok Foundation. This charitable organization aims to provide scholarships for numerous Malaysian youth to enable them to study and work in their area of expertise. From its inception, the Kuok Foundation has given thousands of scholarships to various students throughout Malaysia, giving hope to the future of the country.
The Kuok Family Tree
He was born Robert Kuok Hock Nien, the youngest son of a Chinese immigrant father and a Malaysian native mother, on October 6, 1923, in Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia. His father was from the Fujian province, and travelled south to Malaysia to look for a better life. He met Robert’s mother while he was staying in Johor and the two quickly fell in love with each other. They eventually got married and had three children: Philip, the eldest; William, the second; and finally, Robert.
Philip grew up to become a Malaysian diplomat, receiving numerous accolades and awards for his public service; William, on the other hand, took a different path in life by joining the communist revolt against colonial rule—he was killed in an ambush by British troops in 1953 while scouring the jungles of Malaysia.
Robert’s family was not wealthy; in fact, they were having quite some struggles in their finances due to the difficulty of living in the British occupied Malaysia. And yet, in spite of the hardships that they faced, Robert’s parents never failed to encourage their children to dream big and become someone significant in society.
Robert’s father taught him and his brothers to never settle for something small—this, in addition to seeing his family’s situation birthed a desire in Robert to rise up to become someone significant when he got older. Little did his parents know that their third son would become the richest person in Southeast Asia one day.
As Robert grew up, his parents instilled in him a sense of equality and compassion for everyone. His father had a communist background while his mother was a devoted Buddhist follower. His parents believed that while everyone does have the same opportunity to grow and be successful in life, there is so much corruption going on for each one to achieve the same results.
Robert believed his parents, having witnessed exactly what his parents were talking about as he was growing up. The prevalent social inequality and injustice fueled Robert’s desire to do something about it, but he knew that without having the right platform to start from, he would not do much good.
Armed with the desire to do something great someday, Robert got through his school years quite well. In spite of being an average student, Robert’s diligence and perseverance enabled him to do well in his studies and receive high marks during his elementary and secondary school years. He was often praised by his teachers for being a hardworking student, always being on time and never forgetting to do his homework.
Robert graduated from his high school studies with high marks, and was accepted into Raffles College in Singapore (which his parents were quite able to fund). While there, Robert became schoolmates with Lee Kuan Yew, who would later on found and lead the modern Singaporean society. While in college, Robert took part-time work as an office junior at a local office nearby.
In 1942, just a few weeks prior to Robert’s graduation, the Second World War broke out, preventing him from completing his studies, but giving him just enough time to finish his undergraduate course. Singapore and Malaysia fell into Japanese occupation, and the soldiers took control of the city.
A lot of people were being killed and tortured, especially the males whom the Japanese thought were spies and rebels. Fortunately, Robert found favor in the eyes of the Japanese and was given work. He was assigned to the grains department of Mitsubishi, a Japanese industrial conglomerate, and worked there for three years.
Prospering Under the British Rule
In 1945, the Japanese were defeated by the Allied forces and thus ended the Second World War. Singapore and Malaysia was once again back under the British rule, and Robert went back and resumed his father’s business under British supervision. Although life was hard back then (due to the devastating effects of the war), Robert, his father, and his siblings never lost hope and worked diligently to reconstruct their family business. They were quite successful, and for the next two years, the small business flourished along with the reconstruction of the war-torn nations.
Kuok Brothers Sdn Bhd Biodata
However, in 1948, tragedy struck the family as Robert’s father died from an illness. In spite of this terrible setback, Robert and his brothers acted on their father’s desire for them to continue the business. And so, in the following year (in 1949), Robert, his two brothers, and a couple of other extended family members founded the “Kuok Brothers Sdn Bhd,” a company that traded agricultural commodities.
Having a natural talent for speaking English, Robert made several visits to London (starting in 1952) to learn more about the sugar industry (one of the products that Robert’s company heavily invested in), while keeping the base of operations in Malaysia (he later transferred the headquarters to Singapore).
Upon his return to Malaysia in 1957, Robert focused the bulk of the company’s resources into the sugar-making industry, working alongside the post-colonial government. In 1959, Robert founded the Malaysia Sugar Manufacturing, the country’s first sugar refinery.
Throughout the succeeding years, Robert continued to develop his knowledge and skills in handling the industry by constantly studying the business pattern and trend. He did not participate in the blockade done by other companies against communism. Instead, Robert took this opportunity by trading with both the capitalist and communist nations, meeting, and doing business with communist leaders, such as Mao Tse Tung and Fidel Castro (the communist leader of Cuba).
In 1961, the Kuok Brothers Sdn Bhd had a streak of successes when they bought large quantities of cheap sugar from India right before the prices skyrocketed due to an agricultural crisis.
Robert spent the next decade investing heavily on sugar refineries and establishing numerous partnerships in the sugar industry. By the mid-1960s the Kuok Brothers Sdn Bhd had a lot of alliances with many sugar producers and refiners, allowing the company to rapidly grow due to the steady rise of sugar prices.
In 1968, during the height of his sugar trading business, Robert established the Perlis Plantation, expanding the coverage of the company from trading sugar to actually producing it. This gained him so much success that he controlled around 80 percent of the Malaysian sugar market (which had a production of over one million tons), earning him the nickname “Sugar King of Asia.”
The Kuok Foundation and Partnership with China
In 1970, Robert established the Kuok Foundation as a means of fighting poverty in Malaysia and to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor communities in the country.
Three years later, in 1971, Robert and two big time entrepreneurs in the sugar industry sold over a million tons of sugar to mainland China. Two years later, he was called into a meeting with two of Chairman Mao’s trade officials, and was told that China was facing a sugar shortage. As no one wanted to trade with the country, Robert took this as an opportunity to expand his business in China and transferred his company’s headquarters to Hong Kong the same year.
In 1978, two years after the death of Chairman Mao, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, removed the Bamboo Curtain (which alienated China from trading with the Western world), sparking a tidal wave of reforms that resulted in a sudden increase in China’s economy.
Acquiring another Company
In the succeeding years, Robert began expanding his business into Indonesia by founding the largest sugar plantation in the country with his partner Liem Sioe Liong. In 1987, Robert purchased a 30 percent share in Sucden Kerry International, a French-owned company that controls a large percentage of international sugar trade. Owning a large percent of shares in the company opened a door for Robert to start investing in the oil industry as well. The following year, Sucden Kerry International acquired 67 percent of an oil-trading firm’s shares.
Robert Kuok’s Shangri-La
Robert first entered into the hotel industry in 1971, when he built Shangri-La, his very first hotel. The venture became a success, and Robert started pouring in investments in real-estate. That same decade, he purchased a plot of land on the Tsim Sha waterfront in Hong Kong, and in 1977 built the Kowloon Shangri-La. In 1984, Robert penetrated mainland China by building his first Shangri-La on the mainland.
The hotels became a gigantic success, and in the following decades had numerous branches built all over the world in places, such as Canada, the Philippines, Australia, and more. In 1985, Robert partnered with the foreign ministry of China to build the China World Trade Center in Beijing.
Robert has also entered into numerous other business forays throughout his career. He has made investments in various news corporations throughout Southeast and East Asia, such as the South China Morning Post from Murdoch’s News Corporation. Robert has also made a joint venture with Coca-Cola by establishing ten bottling companies for the beverage giant. He also established freight companies, such as the Malaysian Bulk Carriers Berhad and the Transmile Group.
Selling to FELDA
In 1993, Robert announced his official retirement from the Kerry Group so he could focus more on running his own companies. In 2002, Forbes magazine named Robert as the richest man not just in Malaysia, but in Southeast Asia overall, a title that he would carry from that year onwards.
In 2009, his PBB Group gave a statement to the Bursa Malaysia that the company has decided to let go of its sugar units along with the plantations and sell them to FELDA (the Federal Land Development Authority). The sale gave the PBB Group a one-off gain, for both the sugar unit and the plantation were among the largest business segments of the company.
Wives, Sons, and Daughters
Robert’s personal life is also a mix of disappointments and triumphs. He has been married twice, and has had four children from each of his wives, having a total of eight children in all. Throughout his life, Robert has always looked out for the well-being of his family, the same way his parents took care of him when he was young. Most, if not all of his children have held high-ranking positions in his companies, and have proven themselves to be successful in their own right.
For instance, Kuok Hui Kwong is currently the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of South China Morning Post Group Limited (source: tarfm.com).
Robert’s successes in the business world have granted him a certain level of political influence, as he was instrumental in the negotiations between Malaysia and China by conveying information between both countries and setting up meetings between the two countries’ governments, resulting in the full diplomatic cross recognition between them. Aside from this, Robert was also included in the list of advisors pertaining to the future of Hong Kong, and having a minority stake in CITIC Pacific, a Hong Kong-based conglomerate holding company.
Today, even at age 89, Robert continues to actively participate in the running of his family’s companies, although he has delegated most of the managerial work to his children and nephews. He does, however, serve as a voice of reason and counsel, always encouraging the next generation to do their best to achieve their goals in life.
Companies Founded or Owned
- 1948: Kuok Bros Sdn Bhd
- 1959: Malaysia Sugar Manufacturing
- 1968: Perlis Plantation
- 1971: Shangri-La Hotels
- 1987: Sucden Kerry International (owns 30% of the shares)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- The Kuok Foundation
- Kuok Foundation Scholarship
Awards and Achievements
- 1961: Named as the Sugar King of Asia
- 2002: Named as the Richest Man in Southeast Asia (from 2002 onwards)
- 2002: Included in the 100 Wealthiest People in the World by Forbes Magazine (from 2002 onwards)
- 2010: Named as the 33rd Richest Person in the World by Forbes Magazine
- 2012: Named as the 40th Richest Person in the World by Bloomberg Billionaires Index