2017-Francis-Yeoh-Leadership-YTL

Even as a young man, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, Managing Director of YTL conglomerate, recognised the need to wrestle against his carnality, specifically, greed. In this photo, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh officiates the opening of the YTL Leadership Conference 2017. Photo via YTL Community Instagram page.

Mention YTL and Francis Yeoh comes to mind. Managing Director of the YTL Group of Companies since 1988, Francis has helped transform his family construction business into a multi-disciplinary conglomerate.

Comprising five listed entities, the YTL Group owns and manages regulated utilities and infrastructural assets in three continents. It has a combined market capitalisation of over US$9 billion and total assets of US$17 billion.

Ranked as “one of Asia’s most powerful and influential business personalities” by Fortune and Business Week, Francis is known for wearing his faith on his sleeves. He openly shares his beliefs both in public and in private. Having said this, Francis is not the pushy “tele-evangelist” kind. He is immensely sensitive towards the complex multi-cultural realities of our world. Not least of Malaysia, where he calls home. 

In this interview, he candidly shared details of his faith and highlighted biblical truths to illustrate views on leadership, stewardship and family.

He attributed all he has to God, as “coming from the hand of God”.

Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh at the official launch of the KLIA Ekspres train. Photo via YTL Community.

“I am not against making money – far from it. But we have to know what is real and what is not. We have to be able to tell the difference. Long-term thinking simply prevents us from making silly mistakes, chasing after the wrong priorities.” Tan Sri Francis Yeoh at the official launch of the KLIA Ekspres train in 2018. Photo via YTL Community.

He certainly did not hide his personal struggles as a believer. When asked what his one weakness in, his reply was telling. He admitted: “I have millions! I battle with them every day.” His unflinching and courageous testimony is apparent, revealing a deep sense of dependency on God. He claims that his wisdom comes from the Bible and from the daily habit of “consuming spiritual food first before all else”.

Francis married the late Rosaline Chan in 1982 and they have three sons and two daughters. We met up in his modestly-decorated office in Kuala Lumpur and he shared his story.

Q: Who or what influenced you most in your leadership development? Why?

I would say, God! Quite simply, God is light and all learning comes from Him. Every intuition, every bright idea. This is what it means to be “enlightened”. True enlightenment is only possible, when we know God, when He reveals Himself to us.

“Examine ourselves and we will be shocked by how motivated we are by greed.”

For example, after becoming a Christian at 16, it was quickly apparent to me that we give God very little credit for our bright ideas. We claim them for our own. Boast about them. Why is that?

Thoroughly examine ourselves and we will be shocked by how motivated we are by greed, especially for wealth. Our desires are twisted, deeply entrenched in a need to have more than what will satisfy. The Bible calls this “the way of mammon”. Even if we have a bright idea that is divinely inspired, it will be manipulated to serve greed, quite possibly towards evil intent.

The way of mammon is so much a part of all of us, it takes a whole lifetime to break its grip.

I called myself a Christian back then. I knew that meant I had to be thinking quite differently – God-centred, heavenly-minded, not as how the world thinks. In reality, many of my ideas remained morally unsound, well-disguised.

Just like the children of Israel in biblical times of Moses.

“The way of mammon is so much a part of all of us, it takes a whole lifetime to break its grip.”

Moses took his people out of Egypt and out of slavery. But throughout their journey in the wilderness, they could only moan and complain, showing little gratitude. They repeatedly spurned God’s goodwill. They were no longer slaves, yet they spoke and behaved like slaves. Put simply, Egypt was still with them and in them – in their nature and psyche. So it was with me!

Call it an epiphany.

Even as a young man, I felt my heart and mind had to change, and I went about working on my own greed. Very soon, I began to understand that if I could honestly credit God for everything, surrender to His will, I could be free from the shackles of greed.

Now you see why I often publicly attribute every good thing to God, and why I do not like drawing attention to myself.

We also need to be practical. It takes a whole lifetime to root mammon out of us. I have learned that the best way is to trust God – 100%! When we trust God, there is little room for greed. God hates greed. Yes, He will remind us of that.

“We merely take His bright ideas and capitalise on them.”

 

Whenever I have trusted God, especially doing business, I discovered that the businesses that came our way were simply awesome. It did not matter whether we were buying companies here in Malaysia or abroad, they were always ‘one in a trillion’ chances. Everything about them was perfect – place, timing, exchange rates, business climate, people. We concluded each of these deals knowing beyond doubt that God orchestrated everything.

Look at YTL’s track record. Our market capitalisation grew from US$10 million in 1968 to over US$9 billion today. Compounded 55%. Had you invested US$1 million with me in 1968, it would be worth US$160 million today. Only God can multiply in this way.

My family and I cannot humanly fathom how we could have done all this. So we do not try.

We have learned that humility teaches us to credit God for making all these opportunities possible. We merely take His bright ideas and capitalise on them. He gives the increase. He makes the impossible, possible. Always!

Q: Francis, how do you sustain yourself all these years, as you say, not to be sucked into the way of mammon? How do you keep this value?

I have said, trust God, attribute every good thing to Him. What this also means is that we must think long-term. When we do, victories are never in doubt.

I painted a bleak picture of the way of mammon – it is bleak! Worshipping mammon is simply banking on a short-term mindset. Has not our world suffered enough from a myopia of ‘short-termism’ We like instant gratification, quick fixes, quick results and quick gains.

Ask CEOs and CFOs if they are not affected by the ‘tyranny of quarterisation’. Look at the global financial crash in 2008. Every level of the financial sector was compromised. Financial companies, regulators who gave credit ratings to these companies, bankers, insurers, shareholders, lawyers, governments, homeowners – too many got into the act of chasing hot money. Few wanted to ask the right questions: Can homeowners pay for their homes? Do banks have enough to lend?

The challenge then, is to be good stewards of God and keep getting things right.

The truth is, some people did speak up. They got people thinking and debating how unsustainable the asset bubbles were, or how ‘hot’ the housing loan markets had become. But instead of listening to them, they were shunned, labelled ‘prophets of doom’. Not surprisingly, their airtime was restricted. After all, who did not want to own homes and make quick money? Who wanted to say no to hot money? The entire system fed this temptation.

I am not against making money – far from it. But we have to know what is real and what is not. We have to be able to tell the difference between the two. 

Long-term thinking simply prevents us from making silly mistakes, chasing after the wrong priorities. In business as in life, all of us could ill-afford to be short-sighted.

Do not just think for the next month of year. Go beyond that! Be courageous. Think for the next 10 years, invest for the next 100. Do not gamble your company’s wealth away to look good on the books for one quarter and then lose all the next, like so many who did, leading up to 2008. It defies common sense and is highly irresponsible.

God is not complicated. Our walk with Him is not meant to be complicated either.

Let me add: Perhaps the greatest “myopism” is assuming that our actions have little or no impact on others. I am always mindful that as Managing Director of YTL Group, my decisions affect not only my family, my staff, their families, their communities but also every area our businesses operate in. This thought alone could keep me up every night.

I am equally conscious of the fact that when we get things right, many people will be blessed. The challenge then, is to be good stewards of God and keep getting things right.

That is why we can never ignore the wisdom of thinking long term. Of course, we also cannot do without God’s help. Our lives are short-lived. He is eternal.

Q: What you share seems so simplistic that your wealth and growth in the company is because of your faith in God. Where does business acumen come into play?

God is not complicated. He is God. The clockmaker knows His clock. However intricate and unconventional some things are to us, they are pretty straightforward to God. God exudes simplicity!

Similarly, our walk with Him is not meant to be complicated either. When we trust Him fully, we will be guided and led by a far greater wisdom.

Yes, God has given us acumen. He made sure of it when He created us. There is a stealthy, intelligent system within each one of us. Put simply, He made all of us naturally smart. But the wise choose what is good.

The real test then is using our acumen for good, instead of feeding the greed in us.

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This article is an excerpt from the book Heart to Heart with Asian Leaders: Exclusive Interviews on Crisis, Comebacks and Character (ISBN: 9789814663946), published in 2015 by World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd. It is republished here with permission. The book is available for purchase here.

About the author

John Ng and Alvin Foo

John Ng is the Chief Passionary Officer of Meta Consulting. He leads radical transformational projects with top corporations. Alvin Foo was an award-winning journalist in a prominent Asian newspaper for nearly a decade, with extensive experience in business and sports writing and editing.