Since taking up the reins at Straits Trading in 2008, Chew Gek Khim has scarcely had any time for herself. It’s only been “fairly recently” that she’s indulged in the luxury of reading fiction (Australia-born author Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America is the latest) and attending plays and concerts.
This nugget hints at where Chew is in her business.
After wresting control of Straits Trading from the Lee family of OCBC Bank in a high-profile corporate battle, she became its executive chairman and instituted sweeping changes in a company formed 127 years ago in colonial Singapore. The public-listed Straits Trading, which is controlled by Chew’s family investment vehicle Tecity Group, has a market capitalisation of about $1.2 billion.
A lawyer by training, the 54-year-old is credited with overhauling a company with high-quality but low-yield assets, into one that is nimbler with interests in real estate, hospitality, and metals and minerals resources. New processes were put in place and fresh businesses set up.
In 2013, for instance, Straits Trading partnered ARA Asset Management to form Straits Real Estate with a capital commitment of up to $950 million for property investments. It also set up Far East Hospitality in a 30-70 joint venture with Far East Orchard. The result saw Straits Trading increasing the 3,000 rooms under its Rendezvous brand to more than 13,000 rooms in 80 properties across the Asia-Pacific.
Chew says: “We have built platforms and businesses and, with that, we need a few years to see the results of these new businesses that we’ve developed. So in a funny way, I have less running around to do and I need to be patient. While I’m still involved, it’s not something that you need to be running around and doing all the time.
“I do not have a recipe for success and, in truth, I do not think I have succeeded yet. All I have done at this stage is, with the help of many, to transform a venerable conglomerate into a more focused organisation that is able to better compete and adapt to changing market dynamics.”
For her efforts, she was named the Businessman of the Year at this year’s Singapore Business Awards, the first woman in 10 years and only the second woman in the awards’ history to be so bestowed. She also landed on Forbes’ list of Asia’s 50 power businesswomen last year.
“She is analytical and detailed in her approach to decision making, yet at the same time, she is able to harness her entrepreneurial spirit to ultimately derive an exceptional outcome or solution which is fair to all parties.”
John Lim, Group CEO, ARA Asset Management
Yet, her story would not be complete without her late grandfather, Tan Chin Tuan. He was one of Singapore’s most famous philanthropists and bankers, as well as a former chairman of Straits Trading. He also set up the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation in 1976 to help the poor and needy. Chew is its deputy chairman. She remembers him leading by example. For instance, he personally handed out red packets and donated meals to, sometimes even chose the menu for, the residents at the old Little Sisters of the Poor Home. That showed her the importance of giving responsibly and in a personal manner, and that giving “cannot be a chore”.
“The lesson there is that when you give, you must give with a personal element. You do it because on the other side is another human being.”
Which is why the mother of two tries to attend functions and activities organised by causes that she supports, “so you have a sense of what’s happening and it roots you in reality”. She adds: “It’s not just about giving a cheque and forgetting about it.”
“It’s not just about giving a cheque and forgetting about it.”
Chew Gek Khim, on philantrophy.
Among the foundation’s projects include the $20-million Tan Chin Tuan Centennial Fund for education and research at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which was formed by the Singapore Government matching dollar-for-dollar the foundation’s $10 million endowed gift to NTU in 2008. It has also set up the “More Than Words” initiative which connects storytellers, writers and arts practitioners to the less privileged; and Project Cheer which encourages young people to befriend the elderly and children.
She says: “The foundation was started by my grandfather and it was part of my ‘brief’ to make money and also to give it away responsibly. He believed that we are stewards of resources that have been entrusted to us, be it time, money or people. Such resources should be assiduously invested or cultivated to ensure they reap a maximum return or realise their maximum potential.
“Philanthropic success to me would be if society ends up a better place, because of what we have done.”