The private life of Robert Kuok
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The private life of Robert Kuok

Robert Kuok's conglomerate empire was built on political astuteness, an Asia-wide network of contacts and a willingness to take risks. Its 73-year-old presiding genius is inclined to keep a low profile and operate as if he was still heading a private company. Funding needs and a reshaping of the business with succession in mind have, however, forced greater dependence on public equity. Jonathan Kandell reports.

More on Robert KuokThe long march out of Asia

Legendary Malaysian-Chinese tycoon Robert Kuok keeps a low profile when it comes to press interviews. Malaysian TV scooped one in 1994 but it was two years before it was broadcast and subsequent requests have been brushed aside. Kuok's handlers believe there is nothing wrong with keeping their 73-year-old boss under wraps. They point out that he built his empire through vision, tenacity, risk-taking and guanxi ­ the connections that ease business transactions. A high public profile is neither necessary nor desirable. "Mystique helps," says Joanne Watkins, one of his chief PR aides. "It creates great curiosity about him."

What did come over in the TV interview was Kuok's aversion to pompous or romantic descriptions of his business career. Asked reverently about his "sense of mission" as a great entrepreneur, he bluntly replied that "the most important thing was to make money". And what was the secret of successful business leadership? "Like Genghis Khan in his best days, you have to share the spoils of victory," he replied.

Over the last half-century, Kuok has diversified from a base of commodities trading into beverages, industrial manufacturing, real estate, shipping, investment and insurance, the media and ­ perhaps most visibly ­ hotels.

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