Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, one of the most recognisable names in Malaysian property, attributes his success to the support of a strong team who has been with him for a long time.
“What I am today is all because of my team,” he declares. “Because I came from a small little village, and I’m not a very smart person, I always tell myself one thing the only way to get ahead is to have people around me who are smarter than I am,” he shares.
Over the years, Liew has cultivated a core team which include Dato' Voon Tin Yow, Dato’ Chang Khim Wah, Datuk Teow Leong Seng, Teow, and Datuk Heah Kok Boon. They supported him as he built SP Setia Bhd into one of Malaysia’s foremost property developers and when he left the company and formed EcoWorld, they followed him, along with some 300 others.
“We’ve been together for such a long time, we know each other very well. If I’m away, they will cover 'for me'. If they’re away, I will cover 'for them',” he says.
This core team is the one driving EcoWorld today, says Liew. “Because of my previous experiences, I’ve become more like a mentor, a person who guides them and points them in the right direction. My two CEOs, Dato’ Chang Khim Wah and Datuk Teow Leong Seng, have a strong team behind them. So what you see today in EcoWorld, whether EcoWorld Malaysia or EcoWorld International, is all driven by my two CEOs,” he says, adding that Teow and Chang have been with him for 20 years.
When asked how one retains good people for so long, Liew says: “I think human beings basically want satisfaction; they want recognition. Give them respect respect in what they do, respect as an individual, recognise their efforts and give them all the credit due and of course pay them well. If you don’t pay them well, no matter how well you treat them, they won’t stay with you. Earn their respect and pay them correctly and they’ll stay with you for a long time.”
Having judged two EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year (WEOY) Awards and was chief judge of the Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge for two years, Liew has interviewed many entrepreneurs budding entrepreneurs with less than three years in business for the latter, and accomplished entrepreneurs for the former. Comparing the two groups of entrepreneurs, he concludes that both share the passion and conviction to succeed.
He notes that while the entrepreneur is the key person with the idea, the energy and the drive, “without his loyal defenders around him, that person would never have succeeded. And we as entrepreneurs must always respect and pay our dues to those who follow us. They are the ones that make our dreams come true.”
Liew cautions against letting success turn one egoistic, losing the sense of reality. He came across several “very egoistic” contestants while judging the EY WEOY awards, which saw the participation of 53 countries.
“Reality check is how you manage yourself. Some entrepreneurs would reach a point where they become very egoistic and only realise that when they fail. My advice to people is to always rejuvenate. How do you, in your company, always have ideas stream coming through? How do you create a culture where people give you new ideas? You as an owner must also make sure that when a new idea come through, don’t kill it!” he says.
Liew seems to place more value in being humble than having an inflated opinion of oneself. “I always believe that I’m the stupidest guy in the room. When I go to London, I tell my staff that I’m the stupidest guy in the room, tell me what to do. Based on the experience you have, you will know what is a good idea and what is a bad idea,” he says.
EcoWorld has under Liew and his seasoned team expanded aggressively, not just in Malaysia but also abroad. They reckoned that it would be easiest to operate in countries with a legal system similar to Malaysia’s laws based on the English Common Law. “Laws that we understand, operate under, and quickly adapt ourselves to. That means England, Australia, Singapore and hopefully in the future, Canada.”
Liew believes that if the business had just stayed in Malaysia, it will just be a local brand. Being in the UK and Australia had made EcoWorld a global property developer, “not only in terms of branding, but also in terms of learning. We have become a much better developer”.
“I learn a lot when I visit my sites in London and Australia, because we may be in the same business, but our practices are different. They have very high standards. So as a developer here, my team right now is changing, adapting. What we want to be is not just a Malaysian developer, but a global developer with global standards,” he says.
Liew had never had any business other than property development. He believes that it is because of this singular focus that when he had to start all over again under EcoWorld following the hostile takeover of SP Setia, the continuity was there. “We’re able to pick it up very quickly. What we’re doing at EcoWorld today, it had taken us 20 years to do at Setia, but today, we’re doing it over three years. Because of what we’ve learnt, we’re able to shorten that learning curve, the process.”
Talking Heads: Creating conversations around Malaysians who have successfully gone global – Produced by the Economic Transformation Programme.