Telecom tycoon a reclusive man with grand ambitions

Mr Teoh started off by selling computer hardware in Sydney in 1986, shortly after he migrated from Malaysia. TPG gradually merged with or bought a range of Internet, phone and infrastructure firms.
Mr Teoh started off by selling computer hardware in Sydney in 1986, shortly after he migrated from Malaysia. TPG gradually merged with or bought a range of Internet, phone and infrastructure firms.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

TPG founder set to venture into S'pore with a record of providing low-cost, reliable service

He is one of Australia's wealthiest people, but it was not until 2015 that the public finally saw a clear photograph of the famously reclusive Malaysia-born communications tycoon David Teoh.

Described as the nation's most secretive billionaire, Mr Teoh is founder and chairman of TPG Telecom, a A$6 billion (S$6.3 billion) Internet and mobile phone service provider.

When his picture was captured in September 2015 by a photographer who waited outside his house for three days, the image made the front page of the Australian Financial Review.

But Mr Teoh's personal shyness is somewhat at odds with his grandiose ambitions.

The company is now set to expand into Singapore after winning a spectrum bid to become the country's fourth mobile provider.

SINGULAR FOCUS

There is nobody in the industry who has such a low profile. It is his personality but it is also about keeping his head down and concentrating on the business.

MR PAUL BUDDE, an independent telecommunications analyst, on communications tycoon David Teoh.

According to experts in Australia, TPG's strong track record in entering established markets and its reputation as a low-cost provider suggest the venture could pay off.

Analysts believe Singapore is set to be a "testing ground" for the firm to gain experience in operating mobile infrastructure. The company is believed to want to become Australia's fourth mobile network provider, alongside Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

"They (TPG) are typically a cherry-picker - they look at where the interesting opportunities are in the market and go for it," independent telecommunications analyst Paul Budde told The Sunday Times.

"Price is always his (Mr Teoh's) biggest thing. It's not customer service or a better network - it has to be price."

Most analysts say that Mr Teoh's remarkable run of success - and TPG's reputation for running tight, reliable operations while keeping costs low - will stand the firm in good stead as it ventures into Singapore. The firm started as a small computer hardware seller in Sydney in 1986, shortly after Mr Teoh migrated from Malaysia.

It shifted into providing Internet services in the early 2000s and has gradually merged with or bought a range of Internet, phone and infrastructure firms. It currently offers mobile services in Australia, using Vodafone's underlying network.

Mr Budde said TPG was adept at delivering extremely competitive prices but its customer service was relatively poor, a common failing in the Australian telecommunications sector. The firm was one of the most cost-effective telecommunication companies in the developed world, he said.

"If Mr Teoh is entering Singapore, it is because he thinks he has seen a cost-effective way to compete and is able to be price-competitive," he said.

According to a survey of mobile phone users in 2015 by consumer organisation Choice, TPG was rated higher than most competitors for value for money and call clarity but rated relatively poorly for network coverage.

The magazine survey on Internet service providers also found TPG had strong value for money but was rated poorly for customer service.

In the past five years, TPG's share price has skyrocketed from A$1.30 in December 2011 to a high of A$12.93 in July last year.

The shares, now at less than A$7, fell after a profit downgrade in September, partly due to the roll-out of the government-owned national high-speed broadband network, which has high fees and lower profit margins than fixed-line broadband.

However, most analysts in Australia believe the company is in good shape and are optimistic about its expansion into Singapore.

The firm plans to start delivering services next year and aims for a market share of 5 or 6 per cent.

A research paper by financial services firm Morgan Stanley on Dec 14 said TPG's Singapore venture carried an "acceptable" level of risk.

"Any move into international markets, which are already developed and competitive, naturally brings higher risk, but it's important to keep in mind TPG's strong operational track record," the firm said.

Most analysts noted that TPG's planned outlay on the Singapore venture of up to A$400 million was relatively small. The firm has long sought to boost its mobile phone business in Australia.

An analyst for share analysis website Intelligent Investor, Mr Gaurav Sodhi, said Singapore offered TPG a chance to "learn how to run a mobile business in a jurisdiction with limited competition, a dense population and small geography".

"This isn't designed to fulfil delusions of grandeur or to build an empire: Singapore is a test tube," he wrote on Dec 20.

"TPG has ambitions to operate an Australian mobile business and already owns some local spectrum but it has no physical infrastructure or experience in running a full-scale mobile operation."

Mr Teoh's aversion to publicity has made headlines in Australia but it has only seemed to strengthen his reputation as a measured business leader who is not a wild risk-taker but a hands-on, well-respected forward thinker.

"There is nobody in the industry who has such a low profile," said Mr Budde. "It is his personality but it is also about keeping his head down and concentrating on the business."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Telecom tycoon a reclusive man with grand ambitions'. Print Edition | Subscribe