Hubert Burda Media

Sam Goi

Singapore's most prominent billionaire, Sam Goi, will see a slew of his new endeavours bear fruition and more. 

Sam Goi

“So beautiful, isn't it?” Sam Goi asks, as he gestures towards the Kota Kinabalu sunset, a smattering of clouds dyed vermillion, wisps over here in ochre and there in teal. Minutes later and the sun would have dipped into the Sabah seas and Goi wastes no time in snapping away with his smartphone camera.
“It's like a fairyland, where the gods live,” exclaims the Forbes-listed billionaire, with an estimated networth of US$2.1 billion. “The environment is so nice. The air is so fresh. The location couldn't be any better.”
The fairyland in question is Sutera Harbour, a 17-year-old 154-hectare seafront property with two five-star waterfront hotels, a 27-hole golf course, a 104-berth marina and full country club facilities.
Indeed, these are skyscapes in a land with zero pollution and ample unobstructed space for Mother Nature to paint over in an unhurried manner. And Goi, 66, knows it, which was why in October 2013, when the property came into the market, he decided — in a mere span of two hours — to snap it up. By January 2014, he announced that he has acquired 77.5 percent stake in Sutera under GSH, his new company.
Real estate-wise, Goi started investing only as recent as 2003, mainly via land acquisition in China, tapping into the property boom in second- and third-tier cities. A GSH shareholder since 2007 (then known as JEL Corp), Goi pumped in $14 million to restructure the company in 2012, effectively becoming its largest shareholder. In 2014, Goi redesignated from non-executive to executive chairman, but not before selling his China-based property investment vehicle Yangzhou Junhe Real Estate Group to fully focus on GSH.
Through two of its wholly-owned subsidiaries — Ocean View Point and Ocean View Ventures — GSH has also acquired two separate land parcels totalling nearly 10 hectares within the Sutera Harbour property for development into two luxury condominiums: The Point@Sutera and The Vista@Sutera.
For his increasing presence in the Malaysian economy, Goi was conferred the PGDK (Panglima Gemilang Darjah Kinabalu) — which carries the title “Datuk” — last October by Sabah's Tun Juhar Datuk Haji Mahruddin on the occasion of the head of state's 61st birthday.
Meanwhile, in Kuala Lumpur, GSH has also acquired a 5,500-sq-m plot along Jalan Kia Peng for $51.17 million, with plans to develop it into a 40- to 50-storey luxury condominium with views of the Twin Towers. Another 28,000-sq-m site near Jalan Tun Razak is under negotiation. Back in Singapore, GSH has a 51 percent stake in the $550 million purchase of the landmark 28-storey Equity Plaza office building in Raffles Place.
While Tee Yih Jia — the frozen food business that Goi built his billion-dollar empire on — is still his base, Goi is now gearing to consolidate his business enterprise and throttle ahead with three business pillars: Food, healthcare and of course, property.
In spite of his continued success, the sagely quinquagenarian remains very much a compassionate gentleman. In fact, this interview was delayed momentarily because he had to pause for a phone call, to approve the artwork for an advertisement he wants to place in The Business Times. “You have to add in the line: ‘With Best Wishes from...',” he chided on the line. “And what about the new photo of Mr Chua? You have to change that. Can you WhatsApp me the latest version?”
As it turns out, he was planning to take up a full-page ad to congratulate his good friend, property magnate Chua Thian Poh — who entered the 2014 Forbes Singapore's 50 Richest list as a billionaire for the first time at number 23 — for a property launch.
After all, Chua had previously taken up a page in the same paper to felicitate him when Goi won his Businessman of the Year Award in 2013.
“When people are good to you, you must be good to them,” he says. “In life, whether you have wealth or not, that's your own business. Ultimately, we are all human beings — no difference in status.”
Congratulations on acquiring Sutera Harbour, your first property venture in Malaysia. Why Malaysia, given that your businesses in China, the US and Europe are much stronger?
Two things. Number one, it's not only its buildings that I'm buying. If it's just that, I wouldn't consider it because GSH is a listed company and this is public money that we are talking about. It can't be that I like it, I buy it; I must buy for its value. And there is real value here in Sutera: A 27-hole golf course, it's close to the world's best dive sites and the property comes with unused land parcels to build condominiums.
Kota Kinabalu is like a blank slate, virgin territory, even better than Bali and Phuket, which can be too crowded. In a place like this, visitors from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea like to come here for holidays. Once they come, they will usually be back again.
In the first half of 2014, GSH's core business in trading and distribution saw losses of $0.2 million. Is the investment in Sutera, Equity and Jalan Kian Peng a strategy to give GSH a new surge in growth?
GSH's old style of doing business is not what I want. Its progress as a distributor was too slow for me, so I feel that there's no future. Real estate has more opportunity. So when I became executive chairman, I felt I had to do something for the shareholders, who must all believe in me and benefit from me.
Besides finding good leadership to manage at the top, we have to develop it up over five to 10 years. When you read our reports this year, it's not going to be very good because we won't be reaping the returns yet, you may see it earliest by year-end. We are now only sowing the seeds for our trees to sprout flowers and bear fruits. It's not time for harvest yet but I'm very confident.
Will you be leveraging on the so-called phenomenon of the Sam Goi Effect?
(Laughs) Wherever I buy, everybody follows, so it gives me a lot of pressure. Up till today, I still don't like what the press calls the “Sam Goi Effect”.
Today, all the banks are coming in and want to lend us money for this project. Now that I'm involved, everybody begins to think of it as a good project. Four other people have asked if they can come in as partners, I said no.
I think a lot of people are following and now [Sutera's condo projects are] getting alot of enquiries. If you convert all these into actual transactions (and I am confident all these are serious buyers), demand for both condominiums would have already exceeded supply. After all, its geographical location is priceless: The entire property oversees the open sea! It doesn't even take 10 minutes to get from the airport to here. To the city centre, it's only two minutes. In the future, Sutera Harbour will be a golden address and homeowners will be proud of living here. How many more of such spaces can you have in the world?
And if I'm right, what I'm building is not going to be enough to meet the potential demand; we can even afford to risk building as much as 10 times bigger! This type of environment software cannot be bought. Look at Shangri-la, why can they command such high prices? It's the Shangri-la Effect; it's in the branding.
I don't see things as they are now because I see the future.
People must have a lot of confidence in your sense of the future because in terms of disclosable transactions, the list counts Mah Bow Tan, Stephen Riady and Phillip Ng as some of GSH's top investors.
Frankly speaking, I agreed to become executive chairman because so many good friends in the business are very supportive of me. Some of them are also property investors. Shareholding is an emotion — when the feeling is good, everything is good. When the feeling is bad, everything is bad. It's not about any Sam Goi Effect or whatever Effect; the most important thing is that we should be able to give dividends and value to our shareholders. If it is all talk and no dividend, it's no use.
In a 2006 New York Times interview, you said that you “saw potential in the food business. It's very resilient to crisis. Even in bad times, people always eat”. Has your position changed, as it seems you are shifting your focus away from it?
It's not like this. The food business is still my core, but now, I want to do three things.
One is still food: The world's population is still growing, people may now feel that farming makes no money, but there will come a day (in two to three years) when agriculture will be the easiest way to make money. I can see its potential but food production has to be revolutionised: No longer will it be like in the old days where it is produced using unsustainable methods, which cause harm to the environment and the body system. Instead, we will enter into the era of health foods. My mantra will be “your health is my life” and if I am able to service everybody's health as though it is my own, I will succeed. I want to use the methods of tomorrow to improve on yesterday, so as to make products today. So now do you see why I bought [cocoa company] JB Foods, [condensed milk distributor] Etika and [mushroom supplier] Yamada? Because one by one, I will soon align them with my new vision. It's just that for the past six months, I have been too preoccupied with the acquisition of Sutera Harbour.
Second, is healthcare [Editor's note: Goi previously dabbled in the now-privatised China Healthcare which has since been divested of]. Think of your health as the numeral “one” and any dollar amount you make as the numeral “zero”. Let's say you make 10 billion, that's 10 zeroes. But without your health, that means without the numeral “one” in front, all you have are zeroes — there's no point in that. So health is very important. As GSH continues to grow, this is what will be developed on. So you see, my businesses are all linked.
Third, is property. As for other industries, I won't consider already.
This new strategy is very similar to the “3S” food business principle you meted out in 2006.
New York Times asked me back then, how did you become successful? I said 3S! Is it $$$ — money, money, money, they asked? I said no. The first S, you start Small. Second, you Specialise. Third, build a Strong Brand. It is the same strategy here. I want everybody to come and appreciate our condos and hotels.
How do you attract them? First, the environment, which we already have. Second, the service, which we are lacking but will improve on. What we are doing for our hotels will not be for mass tourism. We value quality, not quantity. This should be a place where you feel as though you're home, where service staff are trained to recognise and call every single guest by name.
Third, the facilities: The rooms, the lights, furniture, golf course, 12 lanes of bowling alley — 12! Even a major shopping centre doesn't get as good as this — three badminton courts (all of Malaysia's top players train here). Tennis and squash courts too. A cinema. The gym is huge. A marina (if you want to sail, you inevitably have to come to my harbour). Restaurants — Indian, Western, Chinese, local — I will revamp them and since I'm already in the food business, that shouldn't be a problem. In time to come, Sutera will become a city that never sleeps.
This area is also lacking in children's facilities so I intend to build a water theme park — there are too many golf courses already.
And have you seen the seafood restaurants here in Kota Kinabalu? Fantastic food, amazing variety, but they're not very clean. I also envision an entire street of seafood eateries and another street of bars and watering holes, and so on. All streets merge as one and I can create a lifestyle hub — I can turn it all around! I can attract the young. Can you imagine the rise in the land value? I will never sell this property! Success is in our hands.
In whatever you do, you must have confidence. Be brave and focus! Give others the confidence that your vision will become a reality.
Last September, China's CCTV honoured you in a programme during the Mid-Autumn Festival, documenting your success in the food business.
I wasn't expecting them to talk to me for so long, but the show went on for a good half-hour. My work is my hobby, so even if I have to work until one, 2am, I'm not tired. Now I have a second hobby and that is to use my money to help others. God has given me so many blessings and my family is already provided for. My successes are not solely based on my own ability; it's also due to the right combination of time, place and dynamics. You also need luck to be successful. Since I have been so lucky, why not share the luck with more people, and get even luckier? In life, we must yi ren wei ben, you must orientate yourself according to the people around you, treat your staff well so that they can help you succeed.
Do you ever regret dropping out of Dunman Secondary School in your younger days? Would things have been different?
I never regret anything, because you must accept the facts. There's no point regretting what happened yesterday but we must learn from yesterday's mistakes so we can make tomorrow greater.
Of course I wished my English was better, maybe. Previously, when I spoke, people laughed at me but I didn't allow myself to be scared. Now I don't care whether you laugh or not, I'd just talk. So at last year's Businessman of the Year Award (organised by The Business Times) ceremony, I spoke in English before I delivered the second part of my speech in Mandarin.
It was an emotional evening for you (you'd shed tears), I heard.
Because my father had just passed away then. It made me feel that money didn't mean anything. Feelings are more important. Friends and family are close to me not because of my money. We can't use the limited time in our lifetime to do unlimited things. That's impossible! You and me coming into this world is a coincidence, but leaving this life is an inevitability. We can only strive to use our heart, passions and compassion accumulated over the years to compensate for our mortality.
Our nation turns 50 this year. Any reflections?
The government wanted to award me an SG50 prize this year. I said, no need. I am Sam Goi, so SG50 is just nice, also can stand for “Sam Goi”. Five is also my lucky number — even my car licence plate number is all fives. This year is going to be a very lucky year.