EYE ON THE ECONOMY

Temasek building icons to pay it forward

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The zoo is the place to study Temasek Holdings' new business strategy - that harks back to its beginnings.

Big-ticket deals have been the calling card of Temasek Holdings but a shift in strategy could be under way and you only have to go to the zoo to see it.

The zoo might not be the most obvious place one can think of to observe the operations of one of the corporate world's biggest beasts. But, in fact, the investment firm's latest undertaking illustrates how its game plan is evolving.

The high-profile deal involves Temasek partnering the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to develop the Mandai area, which includes the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari and Jurong Bird Park.

It makes perfect sense on one level: Temasek holds a majority stake in Wildlife Reserves, the entity that owns the attractions, so that alone should give it first dibs on any future development.

But look further and the firm's new strategy begins to emerge.

The zoo makeover is not an obvious "Temasek investment" that will generate returns in the next few years but one that will require a long time to come to fruition. It will, after all, take over a decade to develop the entire area.

While the investment giant is still making the big-ticket deals that have marked much of its 40-year history, there is a newer emphasis, less perhaps on immediate returns and more on building businesses for long-term gains.

In some respects it is a return to Temasek's early days when it was a builder of national champions like Singapore Airlines.

Back to the beginning

THAT aspect may have diminished over time as these portfolio companies, such as Singapore Airlines and SingTel, have grown in the decades to become established businesses. In recent years, the firm has been more associated with managing and investing funds - but 2015 could well be the year that the business-builder aspect reasserts itself.

This emphasis on creating for the long term could be seen in 2013 when Temasek announced it was setting up the Enterprise Development Group, headed by former high-flying corporate lawyer Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara.

The group's remit is to reprise Temasek's early role as a builder of businesses and seed the next generation of enterprises.

One of its initiatives involved establishing Pavilion Energy, which focuses on clean energy and liquefied natural gas. Singapore is keen on LNG as it tries to diversify away from its reliance on oil.

The Enterprise Development Group has also formed Heliconia Capital to invest in promising small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), including those in Singapore. One of its investments has been in the home-grown FNA Group, which owns chocolate retailer The Cocoa Trees, whose shops are dotted around Singapore.

While FNA Group is currently dwarfed by the likes of SIA, for example, this does not mean it cannot be a world-class player in the future.

Another sign of this broader emphasis comes in the form of the proposed merger of two of JTC's entities - Ascendas Group and Jurong International - with Temasek units Surbana International Consultants and Singbridge Group. The four entities, which focus on urban development, townships and business parks, will come together and form one of the largest planning behemoths in Asia to tap the regional trend of urbanisation.

Long-term bets

WHILE these ventures aim to be profitable, they are long term in nature, with neither the costs nor the benefits as clearly defined as with the purchase of a stake in a company.

Many observers view Temasek as an investor keeping a watchful eye on stakes in companies such as SIA or Keppel Corp. Others may hold the view that it is a savvy operator that identifies an opportunity such as taking a slice of Alibaba before its listing.

But Temasek was a builder of national champions when it first started over 40 years ago and there seems no reason why it should not pursue the same line now.

Take the merger of the JTC and Temasek units. Operating singly, each unit might compete with each other for contracts and possibly lose out on potential jobs and the pooling of resources that comes from being part of a larger entity.

And with the Mandai makeover, tendering out the project to a private company might invite criticism that the firm might not understand all the issues involved and would be interested only in a concept that maximises profit in the shortest possible time.

As Dr Victoria Barbary, director of London-based research house Sovereign Wealth Centre, puts it: "Over time, people have been used to thinking of Temasek as an investor overseas. But (as with the merger of JTC and Temasek units) it is in a way returning to its roots."

These activities do not mean that investing is taking a back seat at Temasek, which has built a portfolio worth $223 billion.

Its spending last year ranged from a mega US$5.7 billion (S$7.6 billion) investment in Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing's AS Watson to securing a stake in Dutch insurer NN Group.

It also purchased a holding in Lazada, an e-commerce company that operates in South-east Asia, and a minority stake in BK Brasil, the master franchisee of Burger King in Brazil.

Temasek first and foremost is an investor, which means that the deals it undertakes must always make financial sense.

But apart from being an investor, another of Temasek's roles is to be a steward. Chairman Lim Boon Heng referred to this at the firm's 40th anniversary dinner last year, noting that "this spirit of doing things today, with tomorrow very clearly in our minds, also describes the ethos of Temasek".

"It forms our values and culture as a long-term investor, as a forward-looking institution and, most of all, as a trusted steward."

This means helping the community, including a developing Asia. Temasek's philanthropic arm Temasek Cares helps needy children, among various other activities.

Mr Lim had also said: "Growth should not come at the expense of sustainability - protection of our environment can and should go hand in hand with development, jobs and prosperity."

Leading the project at Mandai, for example, would illustrate how Temasek can play these roles. It allows Temasek to oversee the impact on the environment, while crafting a concept that is both commercially sustainable as well as meaningful for future generations.

Taking on the Mandai project may go some way in addressing the criticism that has been levelled at Temasek, such as that it focuses only on overseas deals that mean little to Singaporeans or it crowds out private enterprise.

In fact, in 2010, Temasek was invited by STB to explore concepts after limited market response from 2007. Within Temasek, there were reportedly some doubts initially about the project but the younger members of the team managed to convince senior management that it was a worthwhile venture to undertake.

Temasek seems to be more conscious of wanting to provide a form of "patient capital", where it doesn't hurry companies for immediate returns but rather nurtures them to become national champions.

It has, fortunately, the flexibility to adopt a 20-year or even 30-year horizon on some of these investments. This gives it the luxury of supporting projects that may deliver returns only in the long run, but can provide social returns and help develop Singapore's economy meanwhile.

So while Temasek helming the Mandai makeover may be news today and appear like a new strategy, it's not deviating from its investment mandate. It is also building communities and businesses, which is paying it forward for Singapore.

sushyan@sph.com.sg