Wednesday 07 Jun 2023
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This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 30, 2022 - June 5, 2022

Author: Lee Hoong Lian

I had been eyeing the book The Tree Whisperer (Shen Shui Jing Liu) for a while, whenever I visited a Popular bookstore. It is a biography, written in Mandarin, of the late Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng, tycoon, philanthropist and founder of the IOI Group.

In my view, biographies could end up as bad purchases or feel-good books littered with excessive praise and compliments, lacking depth and criticism. It also did not help that I had not heard of the author, Lee Hoong Lian (direct translation from Chinese), on whom there was little information online.

Still, I decided to give it a shot as I was looking for something light and easy to read in my leisure time. It cost me RM54 (with a 10% discount for Popular members).

To my surprise, it turned out to be a pleasant read. I would say it is nearly as good as Cold Eye (Fong Siling)’s biography, A Lone Traveller of a Thousand Mountains (Qian Shan Wo Du Xing), or Datuk Seri Nazir Razak’s What’s in a Name. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book as I relived Lee’s childhood stories and journey as an entrepreneur through the author’s narrative. 

Clearly, the author had access to Lee’s family and close friends to collect the bits and pieces of his life before putting them together for an inspiring rags-to-riches story.

Like many other biographies of older-generation entrepreneurs, poverty is a main theme of the book. But the author is able to sketch out Lee’s childhood well and paint it vividly.

Just how poor was Lee? A story in the second chapter, titled “The ice cream boy”, depicts it well. Lee was born into a poor large family in Jeram, Selangor. His dad ran a grocery shop in a small village and his mother was a housewife. He was a scrawny little kid, but at the age of 11, Lee set out to sell ice cream to support his family.

One might ask: Isn’t selling ice cream as simple as riding around with a bicycle or motorbike and ringing the bell on the handle? This was certainly not the case. The challenges that Lee encountered in the 1940s as a child surely must be beyond the imagination of most millennials and Gen Z.

As a motorbike was a thing of luxury back then, Lee had to ride a bicycle much taller than him with a heavy wooden box on the back to store ice cream. Being short, his toes could hardly touch the ground when he sat on the bicycle. 

Someone had to push him from behind when he was astride the bicycle so that he could kick-start and get the bike moving. If he were to stop halfway before reaching the next destination, Lee would have no choice but to push the bicycle to the next stop under the tropical sun.

Once, it started raining heavily when Lee was on his way to the next village, and his bicycle was trapped in the mud. Knowing that he could not afford to let the wooden box fall on muddy ground or the ice creams would melt, Lee quickly jumped off the bicycle and supported the box with his shoulder. Shivering in the rain, he shouted for help but to no avail. The only option then was for him to slowly lower the box onto the ground as best as he could. And when he finally did, he sat down and bawled, soaked to the skin.

It was the will to escape poverty that propelled Lee to scale greater heights in his later life. Having worked as a manager at several rubber estates, he started a pig farming business in his late 20s but this failed. However, Lee quickly turned his fortunes around by seizing the chance to run a Mobil petrol station in Old Klang Road, Kuala Lumpur, and ventured into the property sector in Sungai Chua, Kajang, in 1975 through Lam Soon Huat Development Sdn Bhd.

Lam Soon Huat’s first successful property development project was Taman Mayang in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in 1985, the year the company was listed on the stock exchange. It launched its maiden project in Puchong — Bandar Puchong Jaya — in 1990 and was renamed IOI Properties in 1994.

The best part of the book in my view is how Lee took control of Industrial Oxygen Inc Sdn Bhd (now known as IOI Group Bhd), a move that began in 1980. Under the influence of Tan Sri Lee San Choon, former president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Lee was in search of an acquisition target that would allow him to raise funds from the public to expand his business quickly. Industrial Oxygen became his target due to its relatively fragmented shareholding structure.

With a few of his close friends, Lee quietly accumulated a large number of Industrial Oxygen shares from the open market. In 1981, the market was shocked when Lee announced that he controlled about 30% of the company and was prepared to join the company’s board of directors.

According to the book, Lee’s stealth move was possible only because share registration was done manually back then, with missing records when the market was hot with a large number of shares being transacted. There were also no rules and regulations that required a person to issue a public announcement once his shareholding of a company exceeded 5%.

To defend their turf, the existing shareholders of Industrial Oxygen fought back and a series of boardroom tussles and court cases regarding share registration matters ensued. Both parties attempted several strategies, such as share dilution through new acquisition exercises, to outmanoeuvre each other and gain control of the company. It was not until January 1983 that the dust (mostly) settled.

Lee’s unprecedented stock market manoeuvre to acquire Industrial Oxygen — which was renamed IOI in 1995 — was termed “The Ambush of a Lone Ranger” by the media.

While Lee was on the attack in 1981 in acquiring Industrial Oxygen, he was on the defence in 2001 when Sime Darby quietly acquired shares of Mega First Corp Bhd, in which Lee and IOI had a substantial stake of over 30%. Again, both parties made a series of announcements and share acquisitions in the market, akin to a game of chess. However, Lee and IOI once again emerged as the winner on Oct 4 that year by becoming majority shareholders of the company.

Both events, Industrial Oxygen and Mega First, were interesting to read, and will intrigue especially younger readers keen to know more about the country’s corporate history and exciting “battles” in the stock market. These are stories that readers don’t usually find in other biographies of local entrepreneurs.

The last few chapters of the book talk about Lee in the eyes of his friends and family. They also touch on his role as a generous sponsor of Chinese primary and independent schools and his trip back to his parents’ hometown in Yongchun county in Fujian province. These heart-warming chapters are more relevant to the Chinese readers and people who know Lee personally.

Overall, The Tree Whisperer is a book worth reading and one of the best local entrepreneur biographies I have ever read. The good news is that the English version of the book is now in the making, according to the publisher.

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