Chapter X 

The First Meeting

It was at a Press Conference, sparsely attended by members of the Hongkong Press, that I first met Mr George Tan Soon Gin at his offices in Central Hongkong in the early days of his entry into the field of big business in Hongkong. 

It was soon after he had engineered the financial takeover of Mai Hon Enterprises Ltd in 1979. 

He had purchased that small, publicly listed company from the publicly listed Stelux Holdings Ltd, controlled, then, by Mr Wong Chue Meng. 

As the Americans would say, I took a shine to him, almost immediately. It was difficult not to like him. 

I was not alone in being mesmerised by his magic because most people, who met him in those days, could not help but be captivated by his winning ways. 

It was difficult not to like him because he exuded knowledge of his business, but in a modest manner, without a hint of ostentation; and, he permeated confidence in his ability to be able to execute his ideas, no matter what they were said to be. 

Mr George Tan Soon Gin seemed to have an hypnotic effect on nearly everybody around him. 

It was as though he were a magnet, drawing certain people to his core as is ferrous oxide drawn to loadstone. 

He once told me:  

‘If you have a $HK100 note and a $HK10 note, wrap up the $HK100 note in the $HK10 note. Don’t let people know how much money you have in your pocket. Be humble, publicly, but know your power, privately.’ 

Bankers, of course, loved to hear things of this nature because it suggested that here was a businessman who would not frit away money: In short, he gave the appearance of being a solid type of person who could be trusted to honour his financial commitments. 

Whether or not one admired this average-looking, ethnically Chinese businessman, one aspect about him could never be denied: He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. 

There was a paradox about Mr George Tan Soon Gin, however, in that he was extremely superstitious. 

At least, that is what he, always, maintained. 

He believed that the colour, apple green, was a good omen; and, that all major deals must be conducted on dates, which are deemed auspicious, favoured by the spirits within a pantheistic universe. 

I recall that, at a meeting at his plush offices in Wanchai, then, named Carrian Centre, he refused to sign the Memorandum of Acceptance  in respect of a $US150-million loan facility, claiming to the dozen or so merchant bankers, present to witness the signing, that the number, 150, was not a good number on that day. 

Whether or not Mr George Tan Soon Gin was playing a game with his bankers, one may never know, but I confirmed from him what happened next. 

He said that, while the syndicate of bankers was more than happy to drink bottles of his champagne and sample the canapés that he had had prepared by the restaurant division of Carrian Investments Ltd on the ground floor of Carrian Centre, he went into his private office and did a little research on the matter of the figure, 150, as it related to the day in question. 

He said that he returned to the boardroom and announced that the figure should be $US165 million and not $US150 million! 

The banking syndicate, to a man, agreed, almost immediately, and the figure was changed. 

The deal for $US165 million was done in some haste, just in case there would be another superstitious hiccough. 

Whether by design or accident, what Mr George Tan Soon Gin had managed to do was to obtain another $US15-million loan from this syndicate of bankers. 

Some people wondered whether or not he was really superstitious or that he used this as a ruse. 

Regardless, Mr George Tan Soon Gin charmed his bankers to fund his ever-hungry group of companies with loans, all the way up to $HK10 billion. 

The early history of this enigmatic man is riddled with anecdotes, but what was established was that he was an undischarged bankrupt in Singapore due to the failure of a construction company with which he had been associated. 

It was established that he had had a relationship with Mr Chung Ching Man, the owner of the old President Hotel which became the Hyatt Regency before it was demolished in order to convert it into a commercial complex. 

How close was the relationship between Mr Chung Ching Man and Mr George Tan Soon Gin may be gleaned by the fact that there was quite a number of dealings between entities, under the control of Mr George Tan Soon Gin and Mr Chung Ching Man, over the period of the 4 years that Carrian Investments Ltd was riding high in Hongkong. 

I had many meetings with Mr George Tan Soon Gin, but he never gave me many of the details of his past, other than he had come from Perak, a State of Western Malaysia. 

Having purchased sleepy Mai Hon Enterprises Ltd from Stelux Holdings Ltd in 1979 for a little less than $HK200 million, he used it as the nucleus for his entire operations in Hongkong. 

Within 2 years and some months after the acquisition of this publicly listed company, he had changed its name to Carrian Investments Ltd and the assets of the company had ballooned from about $HK700 million to more than $HK7 billion. 

That, however, was just the beginning. 

Before a captivated Hongkong investing public, which looked on in awe at the way in which Mr George Tan Soon Gin operated, he had struck a deal with The Hongkong Land Company Ltd, as it was then known. 

Having acquired control of a private company, named Perak Pioneer Ltd, Mr George Tan Soon Gin engineered one of the largest property deals in Hongkong’s history: He purchased Gammon House, at the edge of the Central Business District, for about $HK1 billion. 

Gammon House is, today, known as Bank of America Tower. 

Nobody quite understood, at the time, however, from where Mr George Tan Soon Gin was getting his bucket loads of cash, used to fund his expansion plans, notwithstanding the loans from international and local banks. 

When I asked him as to the source of his funding, he would only state that his friends and investors in Malaysia, Singapore, The Philippines, etc, would not want their names known and, as such, he could not tell me. 

He said:  

‘Is it important to know their names? Isn’t it enough that they are willing to invest in Hongkong? Just don’t concern yourself about money. When there is a need for more money, it will be made available.’ 

I suggested to him that people like to know with whom they are investing and that was one of the reasons that the names of the individuals on a board of directors are given in annual report. 

He never responded to this remark except to smile wryly. 

With Gammon House under his belt, the chairmen of the 4 stock exchanges of the British Crown Colony of Hongkong started to pay careful attention to Mr George Tan Soon Gin, viewing him as something of the latest visionary. 

They proved to be correct. 

Within 7 months of the shock announcement that Mr George Tan Soon Gin had purchased Gammon House for $HK1 billion, it was made known that Perak Pioneer Ltd, the company into which the building had been injected, had sold the entire commercial building for about $HK1.70 billion.  

The return on Mr George Tan Soon Gin’s seemingly daring acquisition of this commercial building had been, within a period of just 7 months, 70 percent. 

There was no looking back after this whirlwind victory on the Hongkong property market by this relative newcomer to the Hongkong business scene. 

Retail and merchant bankers, property people of all kinds, accounting firms, solicitors’ firms and a host of other people, all of whom wanted to jump aboard the George Tan Soon Gin’s bandwagon, lined up in order to get a piece of his action. 

Within 3 years of Mr George Tan Soon Gin’s ascension to the throne as Hongkong’s Number One businessman, The Carrian Group of Companies was employing some 33,000 people in Hongkong, alone, and had grown to include:

  1. Grand Marine Holdings Ltd, publicly listed in Hongkong, owning and operating a total of 52 vessels, representing about 1.40 million deadweight tonnes, with a further 15, newbuildings on order – Net Book Value: $HK2 billion;

  2. Carrian Coach Services Ltd, a subsidiary of Grand Marine Holdings Ltd, owning and operating 200, air-conditioned coaches, 55 hire cars, and 450 Hongkong and Kowloon taxis – Book Cost: $HK129 million;

  3. China Underwriters Life and General Insurance Company Ltd, publicly listed in Hongkong, having once been owned by Ayala Corporation of Manila, one of the largest companies in that country. This company was acquired by Carrian Investments Ltd in 1981 to the extent of 46.50 percent of its Issued and Fully Paid-Up Share Capital for a total consideration of $HK230 million;

  4. A land-bank in Hongkong, Singapore, The Philippines and California, all of which belonged to Carrian Investments Ltd. This land-bank comprised one million square feet of residential space, 4.20 million square feet of commercial space, and about 2.50 million square feet of industrial space – Market Value: $HK4 billion; and,

  5. Union Bank of Hongkong Ltd, a publicly listed company of which Carrian Investments Ltd held a 28-percent stake – Book Cost: $HK250 million.   

The above, $HK6.60-billion worth of assets, worldwide, is not comprehensive, but it is a fairly good indication as to the diversity of Mr George Tan Soon Gin’s interests, at the time. 

And it had taken place in just 3 years, from a base of about $HK200 million, invested in the sleepy publicly listed company: Mai Hon Enterprises Ltd.