WHEN YOU HAVE A BOARD OF CHAIRMEN, NOTHING MOVES1982
This was exactly what happened to Highlands & Lowlands Berhad in the early 80s.
High & Low, as it was known to its fans, must have been one of the most envied companies then. It had a paid-up capital of about RM150 million, a big one during those days. But what made High & Low very exceptional were its formidable cash hordes and its highly visible landbank in the
. RM250 million of
its shareholders’ funds of RM500 million was operationally superfluous. It was
in the form of cash and mostly placed with banks as fixed deposits to earn
interests. During times when the prices of rubber and palm oil were low, High
& Low could still hand out good dividends all the same – thanks to the
interest incomes. Klang
Ten of High & Low’s twenty estates were in Selangor. Some of these were right in the
and became the
obvious target of the authorities when they wanted land for “public” purpose.
Shah Alam was in fact carved out from three of its Klang
Valley estates: Sungei Renggam, Bukit
Jelutong/Rasak and Midlands. So were Kuala Lumpur’s , the adjacent
Malaysian Air Force Headquarters and Selangor’s State Sports Complex. Subang
High & Low sold some of the land also. An example is the 1,500-or-so-acre property at the junction of Jalan Damansara and Jalan Kepong, once known as Edinburgh Estate. Today the township that has taken shape there is called Taman Maluri.
In spite of all these, High & Low was and still is the biggest owner of land with real estate potential in the
You do not see High & Low’s signboards anymore because the company is now a
member of the Guthrie group. But Bukit Jelutong/Rasak, Midlands (now Shah
Alam), Subang, Emerald (now Zamrud), Klang Valley Highlands
(now Bukit Tinggi), Vallambrosa (now Kapar) and Elmina are High & Low’s and
if you know where they are, you will agree with me that they are real-estate
With its resources, High & Low could have taken over a bank or two if it had wanted to. (There was no ownership restriction then. Moreover, you could count with the fingers in your hands the number of local banks that had bigger net worth than High & Low’s at that time.) There were indeed many take-over opportunities: many listed companies were on the block; prime properties across the Causeway were also not expensive; many estates were being sold cheaply because of depressed commodity prices, etc. But all High & Low could manage was the acquisition of a small 1,000-acre oil palm estate in a very remote corner of Perak before the company was itself taken over by Guthrie in 1985.
Why was it so?
High & Low had a board of chairmen, not directors!
* * * * *
I was High & Low’s manager of corporate planning. It was essentially a one-man show, discounting my secretary and driver.
The first task I set for myself was the preparation of a corporate diversification plan, and thinking that property development would be an obvious starting point, I mapped out a framework with which High & Low could systematically realize the real estate potential of its vast landbank in the
. The executive committee and the
board duly accepted the recommendation. But after that it was paper after
paper, and review after review. Nothing moved. Klang Valley
I also approached merchant bankers, stock brokers, investment authorities, venture capital companies, overseas manufacturers and friends for business leads and possible joint ventures. Initially we were deluged with offers, but soon people saw through us. We were just wasting their time.
Decision-making in High & Low was a mind-boggling process. The board comprised Dr Syed Mahmood, who was the chairman, the late Tun Ismail Mohd Ali, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin, Raja Tan Sri M Alias, the late Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, Tunku Shariman, Datuk Syed Kechik, Charles Letts, Tengku Robert Hamzah and the late Yeoh Chin Hin. Every one of them was a company chairman in his own right.
On day-to-day operational matters, there were two general managers – one looking after Plantations and the other, Finance and Administration. There was no chief executive. The general managers had little authority and most matters were referred to the directors. But few at that level had time for High & Low. What the board did was to entrust the authority to an executive committee made up of Dr Syed Mahmood, the late Tun Ismail, the late Tan Sri Lee and Raja Tan Sri M Alias which would meet once in about two months. All proposals and decisions required of the executive committee had to be formally prepared in a prescribed format and submitted to the company secretary a week or so before the committee met. It was the prerogative of the executive committee either to make a decision or to refer the recommendation to the board.
A proposal could win approval one day and had it withdrawn the following day. Very frustrating indeed!
When you had a board of chairmen, meetings were usually a free-for-all affair. At their level, it was natural that everybody had a big ego. Some were quite petty also. I should not forget to mention their prejudices too – you have to believe me!
I had the opportunity to “defend” my papers in the executive committee meetings. I was, however, rarely given a chance to do so at the board level. Our kind Cik Halimatus, High & Low’s company secretary, would come to see me after each board meeting. “Hard work down the drain, I suppose?” I would ask. If there was good news, she would give me a big smile. Otherwise, she would always console me by saying, “Mr. Lim, I don’t know why they are always like that…” The reason could be anything, ranging from patronizing reservations voiced by one of the directors out of his personal prejudices to a typographical error in your paper, or to outright proxy intrigues between the different interest groups in the boardroom (none of High & Low’s big shareholders, namely Permodalan Nasional Berhad, Felda (Federal Land Development Authority), Kuala Lumpur-Kepong, and PERNAS was in a position to exercise full control of the board) or to, guess what, the unfavourable mood of the late Tun Ismail, who was really the first amongst equals there. But what was particularly frustrating was the fact that one had to live with the type of ignorance displayed by some of the leading captains of the corporate world of the day.
Maybe I was naive; the stakes were too big for me to understand. Maybe they were just play-acting?
* * * * *
YOUNG MAN, I AM SPEAKING FROM MY EXPERIENCE, YOU KNOW!
High & Low’s Midlands Estate sat visibly along the
Kuala Lumpur-Klang Highway.
However, its size kept shrinking, thanks to the rapid pace of urbanization in
the . Even after the completion of the
Klang Valley Federal Highway
and the finalization of the Shah Alam municipal boundary, Midlands
Sometime in 1980, High & Low received a land acquisition notice from the state government of Selangor. A piece of land in
Midlands had been identified for some public purpose. The land, measuring
about 84 acres, is a developer’s dream. Its southern front is close to the Federal Highway. On
its right, it has Shah Alam as its immediate neighbours…
The public purpose the state government had in mind turned out to be the extension of the adjacent Shah Alam municipality. High & Low was renting two floors at Wisma Budiman for its head-office use. When it was known that the land was intended for the extension of the municipality, the board decided that the company should approach the government to rescind the acquisition order. After all, High & Low had the resources to help develop Shah Alam.
“Sir, may I have your order please?” After the waiter had completed taking the ladies’ orders, I was the first to be given the honour.
“Vodka lime.” I suddenly realised everyone was looking scornfully at me. How indiscreet of me. “The Korean 747 has just been shot down over the
. Don’t you know that we should
boycott everything Russian?” Sakhalin Peninsula
Next was the late Aziz (the other High & Low GM)’s turn. “Coke.”
What? Coke for this occasion? I thought he liked something else.
Tuan Sayed, how about you? Can’t be Coke I suppose.
“Coke, please.” Coming from Sayed’s mouth, it was unbelievable.
Had I committed an unforgivable sin in front of Tun and Dr Syed?
Everyone knows Dr Syed does not drink. It did not surprise me when he asked for water.
When it was the late Tun’s turn, he asked for what he desired, no more, no less. And I know it was no fruit juice.
* * * * *
I was comparing notes on the late Tun with someone the other day.
He updated me with this story:
There was this board meeting. Tun had excused himself to go to the loo.
Without him, no major decision could be made. Everybody was happy as they could stretch themselves a little. Soon the boardroom was full of life.
Ten minutes passed, no sign of Tun, good! We can continue talking or do some catching up.
Half an hour later, still no sign of Tun. Maybe Tun has a bad stomach.
One hour later, how come ah? Something must be wrong
A search and rescue team was promptly dispatched to the executive restroom.
No trace of Tun either.
Quick, call the house.
“Yes, Tun is in.”
Apparently, after easing himself, Tun headed for home straight. He had forgotten that the board meeting had yet to be adjourned!
* * * * *
ACCOUNTANT – DOESN’T THE WORD SOUND LIKE “I-COUNT-TEN”?
High & Low owned 26,400 shares in H&C Latex, a very small holding indeed, compared to Harrisons Malaysia (now Golden Hope)’s how-many-million shares.
Why so good a price? Wasn’t the investment carried in the books of High & Low as RM29,370.35 or RM1.11 per share only?
I went back to the records.
The answer was there.
When High & Low was “Malaysianised”, values in Pound Sterling had to be converted into Ringgit. Someone in the accountant’s office forgot to multiply the figure by 7.5, which was the exchange rate then.
But it meant a difference of RM1,652,573.65.
Peanuts to High & Low, but it was hell of a substantial oversight by any standard.
* * * * *
 High & Low’s shares were traded in KL and
It was one of the bluest of the blue chips of the day. London