Friday, August 22, 2008

Budget Hotel Boss Makes Rich List

Source : The Straits Times, August 22, 2008

Chief of Fragrance chain debuts on Forbes' S'pore list at No.24

BUDGET hotels and mid-range condominiums are hardly what one associates with the rich and famous.

But they proved the key to wealth for Mr Koh Wee Meng, the chief of Fragrance Group, which owns the chain of tourist-class Fragrance hotels, as well as boutique property developer Fragrance Land.

From far left: Kwek Leng Beng, Dr James Koh, Fragrance Hotel owner and Tan Boy Tee. -- THE STRAITS TIMES FILE PHOTOS

Mr Koh debuted on Forbes magazine's list of Singapore's richest people at No.24, propelled by a string of well-sold boutique condos and revenue from Fragrance's 18 hotels islandwide. But Fragrance - one of the few property companies that did better this year than last year - was an exception to the real estate riches rule.

Some other property bigwigs found their fortunes halved as the market slowed and stock prices tumbled. Upmarket developers such as SC Global's Simon Cheong and Ho Bee Group's Chua Thian Poh suffered especially from the downturn in the luxury homes segment.

Mr Cheong, who made his debut on the list last year, fell from 15th place to 22nd as his net worth fell from US$480 million (S$680 million) to US$245 million. Mr Chua slipped from 13th position last year to 20th this year after his fortune fell from US$500 million to US$260 million.

Mr Cheng Wai Keung, chairman of property and retail group Wing Tai Holdings, saw his wealth plunge to US$255 million from US$475 million last year after the company's stock fell 50 per cent.

Generally, the rankings released yesterday remained much the same as last year, particularly in the top spots.

Property magnate Ng Teng Fong, who heads Far East Organization, was named Singapore's richest man for the second year in a row. His fortune rose from US$6.7 billion last year to US$7 billion.

Mr Ng was again followed by the family of the late banker Khoo Teck Puat, who are worth US$6.1 billion, up from US$5.7billion last year.

United Overseas Bank chairman Wee Cho Yaw also kept his third spot with a family fortune valued at US$3.6 billion, from US$3.3 billion last year.

In fifth and seventh places are Singapore's newest billionaires: Mr Kuok Khoon Hong of Wilmar International and remisier-turned-investor Peter Lim.

Mr Kuok, who founded Wilmar as a tiny palm oil outfit and turned it into one of Asia's largest agribusinesses, saw his stock surge nearly a third in the last year due, in part, to soaring palm oil prices.

Mr Lim, coincidentally, also got rich off Wilmar. He bet on Mr Kuok's success with an early investment in the palm oil producer and is now reaping the benefits.

Commodities also launched Mr Sunny Verghese, the chief of cashew and cocoa trader Olam International, into the rich list for the first time. He debuted in 39th place with a fortune of US$125 million.

Another new entry was Mr Wong Fong Fui, the chief executive of Boustead Singapore, whose successful turnaround of one of Singapore's oldest companies echoes his own classic rags-to-riches story.

Forbes said Mr Wong was born into a poor family and worked as a tree tapper on a Malaysian rubber plantation when he was seven. He was accepted into a secondary school after he wrote an essay, with the following lines: 'I tap rubber trees. I see rubber trees in the morning. I see rubber trees in the evening. I see rubber trees every day, day in, day out. Rubber trees, rubber trees. I hate rubber trees.'

As always, shipping magnates sailed smoothly into the wealth rankings. In the top 20 alone were Labroy Marine's Tan Boy Tee, Yantai Raffles' Brian Chang, Pacific International Lines' Chang Yun Chung, Singapore Shipping Corp's Ow Chio Kiat and Ezra Holdings' Lee Kian Soo.

Notable dropouts this year include fashion entrepreneur-turned-high-end hotelier Christina Ong, wife of tycoon Ong Beng Seng. Her fortune was dragged down by the falling stock price of bag maker Mulberry, in which she has a stake.

After her removal, only three women remain on the list: Ms Olivia Lum, founder of water treatment firm Hyflux; Ms Vivian Chandran, the widow of energy firm Chemoil founder Robert Chandran; and Mrs Margaret Lien, the widow of banker Lien Ying Chow. The total net worth of the richest 40 remained at US$32 billion.

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