Last week, I was in Singapore for a short holiday. I went to Kinokuniya and there was “Strictly Business”, an autobiography written on Kwek Leng Beng. 

From a Malaysian perspective, I’m sure we’re familiar with Quek Leng Chan, the businessman who had co-founded the Hong Leong Group. Both Quek and Kwek are first cousins. In this book, Kwek candidly shares his beginnings, ascension to building a global real estate company, and mistakes made along the way. To me, I found it to be entertaining and a suitable business read. 

Here, I’ll share some of my takeaways from this book: 

1. Learning the Ropes

Kwek had a financial head start in life. He studied law and began working for his father as a management executive in the 1960s. In that period, Hong Leong was trading building and construction materials. Kwek soon ran Hong Leong Finance and bought over City Development Ltd. Hong Leong Finance provides financing: SME loan, corporate finance and personal loans to retail & corporate customers across Singapore. City Development develops residential properties. 

So, by looking at Kwek’s expertise in: 

  • Law
  • Finance
  • Trading of building and construction materials
  • Property development 

It’s natural for Kwek to move into hotel ownership. Kwek had built his first hotel in 1970. Subsequently, Kwek grew his portfolio slowly to 6 hotels in 1989. It was a learning curve. Then, the Hong Leong Group decided to make hotels as its key segment and began to expand its hospitality portfolio aggressively in the 1990s. 

2. Kwek: A Value Investor in Hotels. 

Here, I’d like to take you back in time to 1990. 

Just 10 years prior, Japan was booming. Real estates were bought at crazily high prices. There was a mania going on and it came down crashing in 1989-1990. At this time, Donald Trump, a real estate magnate, was on the verge of bankruptcy due to the 1990 real estate crash. It is exactly during this moment …

Kwek was loaded with cash. 

This is because he has listed CDL Hotels with his six hotels in Hong Kong in 1989 and raised money. But remember: Kwek is an experienced financier and he isn’t just going out to “buy, buy and buy”. Kwek hit the ground running, studying and
spotting prime hotels in the largest cities of the world: New York, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul. The book listed down 5 criterias to his investments. But personally, my favourite criteria is profitability and cash flow. 

Kwek prefers to buy hotels that are profitable and cash flow productive. He also looks at a hotel’s profitability based on a per square foot basis and as well as his ability to maximise such with his expertise as a developer. This would allow him to calculate his investment yield in all these hotels. According to the author, the minimum first-year yield (before accounting debts) must be >10% per annum. If not, Kwek would dismiss the investment. 

The most efficient method to attain >10% per annum is to invest in these hotels is to buy them when they are undervalued. In 10 years, Kwek planted CDL to be among the biggest investors and owners of hotels around the world.

3. My Takeaways 

Today, at 83, Kwek remains the Chairman of CDL and Hong Leong Finance. They are listed companies on the SGX. In 2023, CDL has S$ 33 billion in total assets. It consists of offices, industrial, retail, and hospitality properties located across 29 nations worldwide. Hong Leong Finance is Singapore’s largest finance company, which has S$ 15 billion in total assets in 2023. 

Despite the big numbers presented, the principles laid out from this book could be applied to business, management and investment. To me, my personal gains from this book (as an investor) are as follows: 

1. Be hands-on. I study and do my own due diligence when finding investments. 

2. Know the world. There is no need to limit investing in Malaysia. Presently, it’s more possible and cheaper to build a diversified global portfolio. Hence, we can look beyond and keep on exploring opportunities around the world. 

3. When investing, look at the bottom line, not the headline. Kwek is pragmatic. He considers the profitability of a hotel before investing. This is in contrast to all who tend to buy and sell assets (stocks or properties) based on what is hot on a myriad of social media platforms. 

4. Seize when the world sneezes. Kwek is known to hunt for bargains in times of recession, depression and despair. In the 1980s, when the world boomed, Kwek didn’t expand. He had expanded his hotel portfolio aggressively in the early 90s when the market was at the bottom. 

5. Do not over-leverage. Despite Kwek’s ability to expand via credit, Kwek would remain financially-cautious. This had paid handsomely as his companies namely Hong Leong Finance and CDL could ride through storms, like the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997/98, Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and COVID-19 and survive. 


The above is just a tip of the iceberg. This book compiles many business stories, insights and lessons that are easy-to-read, fun, and entertaining. I would say my favourite chapter would be the one on “When Trump met Kwek”. The chapter is one that details the story behind Kwek’s purchase of the Plaza, the crown jewel, the primest and the most “Atas” hotel in New York City from Donald Trump. 

You sure don’t want to miss the action. 

You can grab a copy: 

Strictly Business: The Kwek Leng Beng Story

If you have read this book, let me know your thoughts on it below:

Ian Tai
Ian Tai

Financial Content Machine. Dividend Investor. Produced 500+ Financial Articles featured in in Malaysia and the Fifth Person, Value Invest Asia, and Small Cap Asia in Singapore. Regular Host and Presenter of a Weekly Financial Webinar with Co-Founded, an online membership site that empowers retail investors to build a stock portfolio that pays rising dividends year after year in Malaysia and Singapore.

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