THE EDGE Property Excellence Awards 2013: Dare to take risks and innovate

The Edge Outstanding Property Personality Award 2013: Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah

"I AM a confident man," says Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, founder and executive chairman of Sunway Bhd.  Cheah is the recipient of The Edge Malaysia Outstanding Property Personality Award 2013.

It’s hard for many to dispute that statement. After all, it takes a lot of confidence to follow through on a vision that many were sceptical about.

One of Malaysia’s biggest success stories, Sunway started off as a tin mining company in 1974. Today, the group encompasses 12 business divisions — property, construction, hospitality, retail, leisure, commercial, trading and manufacturing, building materials, quarry, healthcare, education and real estate investment trust (REIT). It has businesses in more than 40 locations worldwide.

Over the years, Sunway’s property development and construction businesses have become a force to be reckoned with in the industry, and it is one of the top five property-construction companies listed on Bursa Malaysia. It has a landbank of close to 2,800 acres with a potential gross development value (GDV) of RM22 billion and total assets of more than RM7 billion. It has delivered more than 20,000 properties with a GDV of over RM20 billion.

Cheah, who hailed from Pusing in Perak, knew from a young age that he wanted to be a businessman. After graduating from Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, he worked as an accountant at a motor assembly plant but it wasn’t long before he grew restless.

I aspire to inspire before I expire. These are my returns to society. I’m colour blind and religion blind. As long as you have the brains, you can come to me. I hope to inspire more rich Malaysian businesspeople to give back. - Cheah

“Being a person who cannot sit still, I wanted to do my own business. Then, along came this 500-acre opportunity,” says Cheah.

The 500-acre opportunity was an almost mined out tin mining land, which is now Sunway Resort City (SRC). An additional 300 acres was acquired later. Seeing the potential, especially its strategic location, he acquired the land.

“I come from a tin mining family so I have some knowledge of tin mining. I got a good deal. I bought it for RM300,000 and paid for it for over three years. But it was a difficult site as it was a wasteland,” shares Cheah, who had always had a dream to build a township.

He managed to make it work and started mining for tin and sand, which gave the company a bit of a head start in cash flow. Later, the company went into financial leasing. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Cheah shut down the tin mine and set about turning his vision into reality.

“I knew tin mining was a short-term business. We have to dare to diversify and that is what I did. We went through a difficult period during the recession in the mid-1980s. I managed to turn around the company but tin prices fell right down. It was no longer viable to do tin mining.

“My forefathers came from China. They were poor and came here to seek opportunities. They were adventurous and had pioneering spirits. Maybe I inherited some of their spirit and traits. I dare to take risks and innovate, to do things differently,” says Cheah.

Cheah started construction of the first residential project in Bandar Sunway in 1987 and the first phase was completed in 1989. The single-storey terraced houses were sold for RM65,000 then. Today, they can command up to RM1 million.

Also in 1987, the blueprint for SRC was formalised through an architectural competition jointly organised with the Malaysian Institute of Architects. Five years later, Sunway Lagoon, Malaysia’s first international standard water theme park, opened its doors, followed by the completion of Menara Sunway a year later.

“When I started this township, the first thing I did was shift Sunway College from Petaling Jaya to SRC. There were so many sceptics and to many people, it was a faraway tin mine. By having the college here, parents sending their kids to school could see what was happening in SRC. Even my own directors thought I was mad, putting so much money into this,” shares Cheah.

He persevered, opening Sunway Resort Hotel and Spa and the Sunway Pyramid mall in 1996 and 1997 respectively. In 1998, Monash University Malaysia was opened, followed by Sunway Medical Centre in 1999. The diversity of the offerings allowed people to “live, play, work, learn and get treated”, and built a strong community.

And as we know now, SRC did become a big success and Sunway went on to scale greater heights.

A set of values
Integrity and honesty are important values to Cheah. These values, he says, have seen him through some tough times during the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Financial leasing was a disaster for me. I nearly went bust in 1986 during the recession. It’s fortunate that the banks supported me. Otherwise I would have been gone. For four to five years, we did nothing but nurse our wounds.”

In 1998, Cheah says the company owed the bank about RM2 billion.

“If I were a crook, I would have sold off my assets and ran away, which some did. I had banks knocking at my door, creditors demanding money and I had staff to pay. Yet all my borrowings from the banks were given with no charge and no security. They trust me that much.

“I went to see the banks and I told them, ‘Let’s sit down and see how you can help me restructure. I’ll see how best to move forward and make sure you get your money back.’ I paid back every sen without any discount from the banks. That’s why our name is strong. Money can’t buy honesty, integrity and reputation. When building a business, we must be credible, have good integrity and be honest with our customers and ourselves. It takes time and you don’t want to abuse that trust,” he shares.

Cheah values hard work. He recalls working from six in the morning to midnight every day in the early days of Sunway. Even today, Cheah still walks the grounds of SRC to make sure everything is running as it should. Sometimes, he can be seen picking up litter!

“Hard work is crucial for success but these days, a lot of the Gen Y do not see it this way because they have had a better start in life. Parents give them a lot of money. We didn’t have that, so we had to work hard. Life is too easy for them, they don’t have the hunger,” he says.

To inspire before expiring

Cheah is a firm believer in giving back and has become a respected philanthropist. He was on the list of Forbes Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy in 2009. Education is something he holds close to his heart.

Cheah, who calls himself a true-blue Malaysian, set up the Sunway Education Trust in 1997. In March 2010, Cheah set up the not-for-profit Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JFC), which was modelled after the legacy John Harvard created for Harvard University in the US some 360 years ago. JFC is the largest social enterprise in the country and is a first in the field of private education.

The ownership and equity rights of the Sunway Education Group’s learning institutions — Sunway University, Monash University Malaysia, Jeffrey School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sunway College, Sunway TES, Sunway International School and others, valued at more than RM720 million — have officially and legally been transferred to the foundation. It continues the mandate of the Sunway Education Trust. To date, both entities have awarded more than RM132 million in scholarships to over 16,000 students.

Monash University Malaysia is jointly owned by JFC and Monash University.

“I aspire to inspire before I expire. These are my returns to society. I’m colour blind and religion blind. As long as you have the brains, you can come to me. I hope to inspire more rich Malaysian businesspeople to give back. It’s not easy. Sometimes asking for money from some of these people is like taking blood from them,” Cheah laughs.

His need to give back to society is driven by his love for the country and hope for the future generation.

“Hopefully the younger generation will be able to excel and bring Malaysia up to compete with the world. I think if we all get our act together and organise ourselves well, we can do it.

“I like to see things being built, completed and managed well. To get young people to do that, I have to show an example. Hard work, diligence and honesty, driving yourself to do more to achieve more are the examples I can put forward to them,” says Cheah.

While he has taken a step back from work, don’t expect him to retire anytime soon.

“When my friends retired, I told them not to retire from life. When you find yourself no longer busy after living a busy life, you start to shrink and then you die. That’s a fact of life. We can retire from work a little but we must keep our brains working. We must never retire from life,” says Cheah.

“I tell myself I have to keep going. I leave the details to the younger people while I look at the business from a strategic point of view. I enjoy what I’m doing — building more for this country and building good family places that encourage good values.”

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 14, 2013.

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