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Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian – Corporate Giant and Gentleman Extraordinaire

Musings on Fascinating People

By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen

For a giant in the corporate world, the CEO of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (“KLK”) Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian, who has every right to impose his presence wherever he goes, comes across as disarmingly modest.

A corporate icon that Ipoh can claim as its own, and hailed as a true-blue planter by many of his peers in the palm oil industry, Oi Hian is a gentle man who speaks softly, treads carefully but stands on his principles in guiding the homegrown KLK group to greater heights. Under Lee’s stewardship, coupled with the solid foundation laid down by his late father Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, KLK  is a plantation giant and today is regarded by the corporate world as a blue chip company with a reputation for sturdy management and strong earnings, with interest in various industries all over the world.

Passion for Agriculture

His corporate achievements are manifold and anyone today can easily update themselves on all of them including being listed amongst the top 20 wealthiest families in Malaysia, by just going into the World Wide Web.

Oi Hian’s passion for agriculture started from childhood. As a young boy, he would tag along when his father visited the rubber estates. After graduating from University of Malaya with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (First Class Honours) degree in 1974, Lee joined KLK as an executive in the marketing division for a year before furthering his studies at the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. There, he obtained his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in 1977.

A Legacy Continued

Oi Hian joined KLK in 1979 as Head of Production Control Division, was appointed the Managing Director in 1988 and eventually as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer from 1993 when his father Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, Founder Chairman of KLK passed away after a short illness.

After being mentored by his father for 15 years, Oi Hian continued to build on  diversification programmes including moving from rubber into oil palm cultivation which he helped to launch with his father earlier. He made the landmark decision to venture into oil palm cultivation in Indonesia in 1994, first in Belitung Island then in Riau. Later acquisitions brought the Group’s land bank to 250,000 ha and this is expected to grow further with forays into Papua New Guinea and Liberia.

As a result thereof, the Group’s Indonesian plantations is approximately the same size as that of its Malaysian plantations. KLK’s Indonesian operations are now a major contributor to the Group’s profits.

KLK’s investment in Indonesia is set to expand further with the setting up of its first oleochemical plant in Dumai. Oi Hian is credited for spearheading the venturing of the KLK Group into the oleochemicals business. Today the KLK Oleo Group has a global presence in Malaysia, China, Switzerland, Netherlands and Germany.

Being an advocate of good business ethics and best practices in corporate governance, Oi Hian relinquished his role as chairman in 2008 but remains as CEO of KLK till today.

Service and Awards

In spite of professional commitments, Oi Hian found time to serve the plantations industry and society in various capacities, namely in the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, the Malaysian Estate Owners’ Association, the Malaysian Oil Palm Growers Council, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and the Malaysian Cocoa Board. He is also Chairman of the Board of Governors of St Michael’s Institution, Ipoh, his alma mater, and Board Member of the Royal Perak Golf Club Berhad.

His many awards are too numerous to be listed here. Two significant ones stand out. He was conferred the Honorary Doctor of Science degree in recognition of his significant contributions to the palm oil industry and for his active philanthropic role by Wawasan Open University and also the Palm Oil Industry Leadership Award 2012, by  the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

The Private Man

Enough said about the Oi Hian the corporate giant. What of the man, the private person behind the success?

When asked what he considered his biggest achievements so far, he said, “My family, the closeness we have amongst my four children and my wife Sandra. That also includes my larger family of my siblings and my mother who is in her late 80s.”

“And professionally I am proud of the fact that I have helped to enhance what my father has built up,” he added.

Role Models

On the role models he has admired, he mentions the late Brother Paul who was headmaster of St Michael’s Institution, his alma mater. “He was so full of love, compassion and was always ready to help others”, said Oi Hian. “And as for professional role models, I would say Tan Sri Robert Kuok and of course the main icon in my life, my father, Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng.”

“My father was strongly principled. I learnt from him that your word is your bond, and the values of honesty and integrity are deeply ingrained in me. Its a pity that these  values are devalued today as the lust for money and material things has caused a decline in these basic values. I credit my wife Sandra for inculcating these values in our children and I apply these values in my organisation,” he affirmed.

“I also admired the amazing wisdom inherent in my father and his great interpersonal skills. He could handle difficult situations with ease and make all parties feel comfortable with the outcome. As a result he established deep and lasting friendships with many people. I don’t think I can even come close to emulating my father but I do my best to remember the example he set for me during the short 15 years that I worked under his tutelage,” he added modestly.

“Let’s Bring Back Basic Human Values”

Oi Hian laments the erosion of solid institutions like the Judicial and Educational systems in Malaysia, a phenomenon he has observed over time and often for the sake of expediency. “Malaysia is my home and I intend to continue living here. The decline of basic values in pursuit of material gain creates sadness in me and when this process is exacerbated by corruption not only throughout the bureaucracy but also often in the corridors of power, the decline of Malaysia’s position on the world stage bodes ill for the future. We must shore up our institutions to bring back basic human values of integrity and honesty in order to reclaim our reputation in the eyes of the world.”

 

Wishes

On what he wishes for his children, three of whom work for KLK, Oi Hian has this to say, “I want my children to develop their own unique gifts. I apply no pressure on them and the fact that three of them work for KLK is of their own volition. All I wish is for them to derive satisfaction from their work and to be happy in whatever they choose to do. They were born Malaysian and feel Malaysian and they were all educated here in Chinese Government Schools, only leaving for the UK for A Levels after their Form 5. So their choosing to come back to work in Malaysia is very gratifying for me as a father.”

Advice for Young Entrepreneurs

As for advice to young entrepreneurs just starting out on their careers, Oi Hian advocates that they must have a deep interest and belief in what they do, have a detailed understanding of their business, be innovative, and most importantly to be persistent. They must also realise that sacrifices may need to be made along the way and that even in the face of failure, to take heart that they made the effort. He does, however, lament the trend amongst the younger generation to expect quick success and be the big boss without putting in the time to ‘get their feet wet’, learning from the bottom rung before moving up the corporate ladder.

Ipoh Echo wishes Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian much success in his stand for bringing back basic human values of integrity and honesty to his beloved country of Malaysia.

As for advocating putting in time and effort for young people to achieve their aspirations; listen up younger folks, here is a role model for you.

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See Foon

SeeFoon Chan-Koppen has been writing a food column called Musings on Food in the Ipoh Echo since 2009. It is widely read both in print as well as online which receives more than 1 million hits a month. Her forte is in communications, having honed her skills after graduating from the University of Singapore where she worked for the Straits Times Group and was a food critic for the New Nation. Her knowledge of food and cooking come from more than 30 years in the hotel industry based in Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong and subsequently Kuala Lumpur. During this time, she has travelled all over the world and eaten at the best and worst restaurants. She is totally intimate with the subtleties and nuances of most cuisines of the world having been involved in opening over 50 hotels throughout the Asia/Pacific region and China where she helped to conceptualize Food and Beverage themes and critiqued on food quality. SeeFoon calls herself a global citizen and now chooses the serenity and friendliness of Ipoh to the bright lights of the many cities she has lived in. She also loves the food in Ipoh and is passionate about telling the world about it.

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