Wealthy and pragmatic

Wealth Magazine by The Business Times

BY any private banker's reckoning, he is ultra wealthy. But Liew Mun Leong has this to say of his wealth: "I never think of wealth as anything that is important in my life. I always tell people I never think of becoming a CEO, I never think of becoming a millionaire in my life. I think of survival."

Indeed, he tells Wealth in a recent interview at his Changi Airport Group (CAG) office where he is chairman: "As long as I can survive and live reasonably well, and loved ones are attended to, that is enough for me. I never take wealth as a driving force in my life, never. Once you are driven too much by wealth, you may not be a wholesome person."

Ironic words from someone who set a record for being the highest paid chief executive officer in corporate Singapore when his salary in 2007 topped $20 million for helping CapitaLand rake in net profits of $2.76 billion that year. That record is still unbroken.

"If I have $10 million or $20 million, what's the difference? In my whole life I've only had one car. A lot of people in my position will have three, four or five cars, but I only have one car and the purpose is to take me from point A to B. I can get a good car, I've a BMW, but I only have one."

He shares that he has the same pared down approach to his home: "I live in a semi-D. My architect tells me you can go and buy 25,000 square feet of land and build a big bungalow. But why do I need a big bungalow? I don't see value in it, I don't see any motivation because I'm happy where I am."

Wealthy, but former CapitaLand CEO wants just 1 car and 1 semi-D home
  • Liew Mun Leong has this to say of his wealth: "I never think of wealth as anything that is important in my life. I always tell people I never think of becoming a CEO, I never think of becoming a millionaire in my life. I think of survival."
  •  "As long as I can survive and live reasonably well, and loved ones are attended to, that is enough for me. I never take wealth as a driving force in my life, never. Once you are driven too much by wealth, you may not be a wholesome person."
  • Ironic words from someone who set a record for being the highest paid chief executive officer in corporate Singapore when his salary in 2007 topped $20 million. That record is still unbroken.
  • "If I have $10 million or $20 million, what's the difference? In my whole life I've only had one car. A lot of people in my position will have three, four or five cars, but I only have one car and the purpose is to take me from point A to B. I can get a good car, I've a BMW, but I only have one."
  • He shares that he has the same pared down approach to his home: "I live in a semi-D. My architect tells me you can go and buy 25,000 square feet of land and build a big bungalow. But why do I need a big bungalow? I don't see value in it, I don't see any motivation because I'm happy where I am."
  • He says half-seriously that there is another reason for not moving: "I've stayed there since the early 1990s, I've grown professionally, I've been successful as a business person, my family has been good, there is some fengshui effect. In fact, some of my people said 'Don't sell it, boss. If you move, CapitaLand may be affected!'"
  • Superstition, but perhaps not entirely without reason. When Mr Liew became CapitaLand CEO in the year 2000, following the merger of the former Pidemco Land and listed DBS Land, the group's market capitalisation was $8.9 billion.
  • Twelve years later when he stepped down, the market capitalisation was $44.5 billion.
  • One other area Mr Liew takes a keen interest in is restaurants. "I like to do direct investments, so I invest in restaurants." He has minority stakes - "never more than 20 per cent" - in three Japanese restaurants, Colours By the Bay at the Esplanade, a gallery restaurant called 7Adam along Adam Road, and recently brought Tim Ho Wan to Singapore.
  • He is also passionate about collecting art. In fact 7Adam, with its black and white bungalow setting, is more a gallery than a restaurant. He declines to give precise figures, but admits that he has to date spent millions of dollars on his art pieces.
  • But Mr Liew has his detractors, of course, especially after his handsome bonus in 2007 was made public. He is acutely aware of this, and so throughout the interview refuses to disclose his total net worth, saying in a somewhat self-deprecating manner that he is just a "hired gun" and not an entrepreneur. His net worth, he says, cannot be compared to some of the most successful businessmen in Singapore.
  • He does, however, share details about his investment strategy: He is a conservative investor and his focus is on wealth preservation. Half his assets comprises largely property and fixed income products such as bonds which have real estate as underlying assets. The other half is in cash, poised for investment opportunities along the way.
  • "I have two private bankers, DBS and StanChart. But to be very frank with you, I'm not big in shares and all that. My private banker is actually just to help me keep track of my accounts. If I ever go into the market, it's more bonds. I'm not at all involved actively in equity investment. Very little."
  • He says that he is not a fan of equities because share prices are influenced not by the performance of the company per se, but by global events. So if, for instance, Wall Street drops, chances are the company's share price will too regardless of how fundamentally sound it is.
  • He also has an aversion to unit trusts, saying: "If I want to fire crackers, I may as well fire them myself!"
  • The bulk of his portfolio is in Singapore, but of late he has invested in Japan properties, buying several within the past year. He dismisses the London, UK market as oo speculative, and China, a previous favourite, has also taken a backseat after he cashed out on his earlier investments.

He says half-seriously that there is another reason for not moving: "I've stayed there since the early 1990s, I've grown professionally, I've been successful as a business person, my family has been good, there is some fengshui effect. In fact, some of my people said 'Don't sell it, boss. If you move, CapitaLand may be affected!'"

Superstition, but perhaps not entirely without reason. When Mr Liew became CapitaLand CEO in the year 2000, following the merger of the former Pidemco Land and listed DBS Land, the group's market capitalisation was $8.9 billion.

Twelve years later when he stepped down, the market capitalisation was $44.5 billion.

"So I created $35 billion of wealth to shareholders," he says with some pride. Among these shareholders are his former CapitaLand colleagues. At one point several years ago, there were about 600 millionaires in the group, all made wealthy by their share options.

The steep rise in CapitaLand's share price in its earlier years also helped create a very loyal following among retail investors. CapitaLand's share price peaked at $8.60 in end-April 2007.

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