Power Lunch: Tan Sri Vincent Tan Shares Life Lessons With The Visionary Members Of Lead Women

Determined to succeed

As far as power lunches go, this was an ideal meeting of minds. On one hand were the organisers – Lead Women – a homegrown enterprise focused on raising top female board directors. And on the other was business magnate Tan Sri Vincent Tan, sharing pearls of wisdom and self-belief that have helped him build the Berjaya business empire. Held at the Bukit Kiara Equestrian and Country Resort, this luncheon was chaired by Datin Sunita Mei-Lin Rajakumar, herself a highly regarded corporate figure and venture capitalist.

As you might expect of a self-made man, Tan Sri Tan did away with formalities and invited guests to present questions and opinions as they pleased. Here, a pertinent query of Tan Sri’s view of women in leadership led to a memorable story. Currently the owner of four football clubs (Cardiff City FC, Los Angeles FC, KV Kortrijk in Belgium and FK Sarajevo), he tells how a string of bad results led to the sacking of his Bosnian club’s general leadership and his appointment of an unlikely successor.

On Appointing Talent Without Prejudice

One of my representatives reported that a young girl who first arrived as a volunteer was clearly passionate about the club and its football. After meeting and hearing her ideas, I decided to name her as the first female CEO in the whole of Europe. She had a sports law background but she was only 28 years old. This triggered the club’s board members to threaten to resign and all the fans wrote me nasty letters. I feel everyone should follow their convictions and two individuals left. She did a tremendous job cleaning out the club and today, FK Sarajevo is on track to be crowned season champions.

On Persistence

One of the earliest and happiest moments came when McDonald’s confirmed my appointment as their partner. I first wrote to them at age 21, when I was selling life insurance with AIA as an agency manager (he first joined AIA at 19 years old). I sent them information on Malaysia every week until they said, “Mr Tan, please stop writing to us,”.

I persisted for seven years and when they opened McDonald’s in Singapore in 1981, I was invited to the grand opening. Later they asked if I could show them around Kuala Lumpur. So I gave them a tour and after many rounds of answering their questions, just before they left they said yes, I would be their partner. It was my first big break and such a great and happy occasion for me. I never thought they would choose me because there were bigger players in town.

On Picking Winning Investments

I don’t have a fixed methodology. Usually people present their ideas and then we talk. But a lot of it is gut-feel. We’ve invested in many start-ups and faced numerous problems, but overall I rely on my instincts. For example, in 2000 I bought 7-11 Malaysia from Antah Holdings. When it was offered to us the price was 80 million ringgit – no bargaining, not even one cent discount and they only had profits of around RM200,000 a year. All our accountants and financiers said it was a bad idea. So I decided to buy it privately. That year I had sold Digi – which is my biggest regret – so I had some money and paid the asking price. For sure our finance experts will crunch the numbers but you can never tell how these things really turn out. All I know if that you can’t give up too soon. For instance we have a data mining business in the Phillippines. All the original founders left because they couldn’t make it work. So we brought in a whole new team and we’re still pursuing what we believe in.

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