Stewardship at the heart of Yeoh family's work at Malaysian conglomerate YTL

Stewardship at the heart of Yeoh family's work at Malaysian conglomerate YTL

Francis Yeoh, the flamboyant, God-fearing YTL Corporation boss, is a scene-stealing figure. So much so, the fact that there are more than 20 members other Yeoh family members working at the Malaysian conglomerate passes under the radar.

But none of the many Yeohs at YTL, including Francis' own five children, count themselves as shoo-ins as the company's next leader. As Jacob Yeoh, Francis' second-eldest, explains, working at the family business has never been about ego.

"At a very young age we were told that you are all just family stewards of the YTL brand and the YTL name, but your ultimate role is to pass it on to the next generation," Jacob says. "It's never really for yourselves, so we never really had an ego trip to be amazing or be more amazing than the generation before us."

YTL stands for Yeoh Tiong Lay, the eponymous company Francis' father founded in 1955. Starting out in construction, it is now a global player in the power generation, infrastructure, hotels, property and telecommunications sectors, with five listed arms.

Francis, who has frequently attributed his success to his religious faith, has been the chief executive YTL since 1988. His eldest child, Ruth Yeoh, is YTL's other CEO, as well as executive director of YTL Singapore, director of YTL-SV Carbon and what she describes as the group's chief environmental officer.

An architect by training, Ruth joined the family business in 2005 and runs the company's sustainability committee, where the executives set targets to lower the group's carbon footprint.

"This generation, we borrow it from the next generation," Ruth told CNBC's Pauline Chiou in a joint interview with Francis in Singapore recently.

"Being a parent myself, I've got to think of the fifth generation, and I'd love them to know the species that I know in this lifetime. Nature, wildlife as I know it now, I wouldn't want it to disappear within the next few years.

Stewardship at the heart of Yeoh family's work at Malaysian conglomerate YTL

Jacob, meanwhile, is deputy CEO at YTL Communications, the group's newest venture. An electrical engineering graduate, Jacob's first job was actually in construction, the foundation of the family business.

"I was there for six months learning the ropes from a lot of our veterans, people who've been with us for over 30 years so I got a lot of my grounding from the construction background," Jacob told CNBC in an interview in Kuala Lumpur. "Then we got this license to build that WiMax [4G] infrastructure."

YTL launched the Yes 4G wireless broadband network across Malaysia in 2010.

Jacob's brother Joseph is vice president of YTL Hotels & Properties and YTL Land & Development. One of his major projects was overseeing the renovation of the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur.

Speaking to CNBC in the Malaysian capital on March 31, as he prepared for a gala dinner to relaunch the hotel, Joseph says being part of the founding family was no protection from hard work at YTL.

"I think it is very easy, especially being family members to, for lack of a better word perhaps, abuse your power or to have a false sense of security," he says.

"I think that's where expectation pressure helps you to push your boundaries and to realise how hard one has to work, for example, in the hospitality industry...I love hospitality because it is almost an inverse pyramid because the management almost takes a back seat."

Aside from the Ritz-Carlton, Joseph's portfolio includes the 5,000 rooms that YTL Hotels operates globally, including the heritage Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur and the Gainsborough Hotel in the UK

The two youngest Yeoh siblings - Joshua and Rebekah - work in the cement business and finance operations respectively. According to their father Francis, all five children ended up in their respective roles by following their natural inclinations.

As Jacob says, "It's actually really fantastic because I get to work with all my siblings, with all my cousins, who are specialists in their own rights."

Expertise is something the Yeoh patriarch has required of all the family members at YTL. As he told the Wall Street Journal back in 2009, "I had to set a very high bar for members of our family. I insisted on an honors degree in engineering or similar degrees related to our industry. I didn't want any molly-coddled sibling coming in. I didn't want nepotism, cronyism and all that stuff.

Likewise, when it comes time for the vibrant Francis to step aside, it may not be one or more of his children that take over leadership of YTL.

"The next round they could be the same format, in this format," the 61-year-old says. "But, basically, most of our CEOs around the world are not from the family...We've got the best in class, non-family CEOs already, and they in turn train some of our next generation to hopefully be the next CEOs."

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