Monday, June 12, 2017

A Felda without Ungku, No wonder!!!

The public spat between Felda Global Ventures (FGV)’s chairman and CEO that is being played out may not be as gripping as the other SCC (state controlled corporates) in Malaysia. However, it does reflect the sad state of the affairs we are seeing in some quarters of the country today.

I do not know the two protagonists well enough to make any meaningful comment on the story that is breaking out now. If you want the superficial version, you can get it from one of the country’s mainstream dailies; and if you want the “dig-deeper” version, then Malaysiakini has got a good write-up on it.

But one thing is certainly true: the Felda (Federal Land Development Authority of Malaysia) today is a far cry from what it was during Raja Alias’s time. When FGV got listed and its CEO was bold enough to call himself a Dr So-and-so, even though his PhD was from a degree mill, you knew something was definitely not right. After all, success and failure of organisations hinge on the leader. And was he the key decision-maker in FGV? It appears that there was another supremo he had to answer to. His boss’s record has not been that exemplary either.

No wonder!

Felda, which holds the biggest stake in FGV, is an organisation that I had always looked up to during Raja Alias’s time. He was then, and even until today, reverently addressed as “Ungku” since he is a descendant of a branch of royal lineage in Negeri Sembilan. (He is also a real Tan Sri. You know what I mean with the bold highlight on the Tan Sri title, don’t you?)

I first came to know Ungku when he was an “executive” director of Highlands & Lowlands, whose first chairman was none other than Sir Frank Swettenham. The company, though a relatively small plantation house, had had the biggest cash hoard in any public listed company of the day, thanks to the compensations it often received out of the government’s acquisitions of its estates in fast urbanizing Selangor. (Its estates in the Klang Valley and around Port Dickson made everybody salivate! Shah Alam was basically carved out of its estates!) It was fondly called High & Low; shareholders loved the good dividends it paid out year after year. The company was controlled by four main shareholders: (a) Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), which is the body set up by the Federal Government to spearhead the country’s affirmative action to bring up Malay equities in corporate Malaysia, (b) Pernas, another “affirmative action” body but with “sogo-shosha” missions, (c) Kuala Lumpur Kepong, which was controlled by the late rubber baron Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, and (d) Felda, which everybody is talking about today. (The background behind the setting up of Felda is also well documented. For starters, one van visit Wikipedia. There is not much more I can contribute.)

After High & Low was acquired by Kumpulan Guthrie and knowing that I would be sidelined in a bigger organisation, he was kind enough to offer me to head the IT unit of the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC); I did not take up the offer, since it would appear – to my narrow mindedness at that time – that I was accepting a lesser position. After I actually quit Kumpulan Guthrie and found that I was not able to make any headway elsewhere, Ungku came to the rescue again and made me a senior manager in Corporate Planning at MISC. But the overly ambitious me soon was enticed to join Tan Sri Frank Tsao’s IMC office in Kuala Lumpur.

My stint at High & Low and MISC gave me the opportunity to know Ungku’s leadership at close quarters.

I had to present papers to High & Low’s Board at its Executive Committee meetings from time to time. It was chaired by Syed Mahmood Syed Hussain. The other members were the late Tun Ismail Ali, the chairman of PNB then, the late Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng and Ungku. The chairman had little power. The members were there to protect their turf. What could a young “corporate planner” do in a world that was dominated by these three corporate and business titans? No decision was usually the best decision – when a proposal from lesser mortals like us were discussed.

But one man was always different. He was Ungku. I could see that he genuinely really wanted High & Low to grow! The others were more interested in form rather than substance.

Ungku read all management and board papers. He didn’t leave to the managers and functional directors to struggle to present during meetings. He would usually help lay out the case and then invite the officer involved to take on from there. This removed anxiety and allowed spontaneity and confidence on the part of the officer to make his presentation coherent and comprehensive. Good decisions were therefore made.

Because Felda was so well run, it generated huge cash surpluses year after year. Under the direction of Ungku, it took up substantial stakes in many public listed companies besides High & Low and MISC. Ungku was the chairman of Boustead by virtue of Felda’s stake there and a director of the largest bank in the country namely Malayan Banking, amongst many others.

A visit to his office would tell you how frugal the man was. His regular office was at Felda’s headquarters. His room was frighteningly spartan. At the appointed time, he would emerge from his office to meet his guest. Simple tea and light cakes would usually be offered. After a few pleasantries, it was all work-related talk or discussions.

Ungku’s office is on the first floor of the building nearest to the guard house. Apparently, he would always be amongst the earliest to clock in. I was told that he would sometimes appear at his office’s balcony at 8am, which was when Felda would begin its day officially. How dare one come late?

My colleague at High & Low, Hussein Jalil, who later became the managing director of Boustead had this to reminisce: He had just been posted to a new Felda scheme in the remote corner of Muar in Johor. On a certain Sunday, he decided to take his Land Rover for a round of the scheme, since there was nothing better for him to do. Sometime into his rounds, he spotted another Land Rover at the far end, he decided to “intercept”. To his “horror”, the driver of the other Land Rover was none other than the chairman himself! (Lady Luck certainly smiled at Hussein! His career was all well paved from then.)

Officers taking things easy just before the end of the day beware! On a rainy day, a chap thought it was time to take it easy since 4:30pm was just minutes away. He rested his two legs on the working desk and spread out the newspapers of the day to read. A gentle knock, but it was too late for him to retract his limps. The chairman was right in front of him! “Continue reading,” the chairman said calmly as he walked away. That must be the biggest regret he had ever had in his whole life!

Even though Felda was an affirmative organisation, which means it was founded to advance the wellbeing of Bumiputras in the country, Ungku did not hesitate to promote non-Malays to key ranks. Friends like Yong Moh Lim, Edmund Liew and a certain Mr Singh can testify to that.

He was also prepared to promote people who did not have “papers”. My mentor at High & Low Tuan Sayed Mohammed is a case in point. He started in Felda’s Audit Department and rose to become a senior officer in Felda before being sent to High & Low to be one of the two general managers there to manage plantation operation. When High & Low was taken over by Guthrie, Sayed lost his job, but was soon brought back to the Felda fold even though he was already past his retiring age.


I saw with my own eyes how aboveboard Ungku was. I was tasked with launching MISC Haulage and had to purchase a few hundred prime movers (the truck that hauls containers). Each would cost a few hundred thousand Ringgit. Ungku left it entirely to my team to evaluate and make recommendations. At no time did he interfere and try to influence anything!
Visiting him during Hari Raya is another humbling experience. Big shots or mall fry, everyone is welcome. The festival’s goodies are laid out for all to sample. Ungku would move from table to table to make guests comfortable. No one is left out in the cold.

These are just some of the snapshots of the great man. I have not in my career come across any greater entrepreneur-manager.

What is happening to Felda and FGV today must be heart for Ungku!!!


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