From the archives: Not quite sayonara to an old friend

Mr Lim Kim San, who announced his stepping down as executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings on Monday, has a reputation for speaking his mind. In this media interview, he talked about his proudest and most painful moments, and how he became known as The Hangman in the company.

This story was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Nov 13, 2002.

The first thing on Mr Lim Kim San's agenda after he steps down as executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings next month is to buy himself another dog.

After spending more than six decades as a businessman, banker, minister, statutory board chairman and corporate chieftain, the 86-year-old is looking forward to spending some quality time with his menagerie of koi, talking birds and golden retrievers at home.

"I have to find ways to pass the time, on top of continuing the practice of having four of my children and their families who are in Singapore to dine with me at least once a week, and having my grandchildren drop by whenever they can," he says.

So how does it feel to be stepping down after spending his last 14 years helming the media giant?

He shrugs and says: "Of course you're sorry to say, well, not quite sayonara to an old friend but I will not see you so often."

In his new position as senior advisor, specially carved out by the SPH board of directors to retain his experience, he expects to report to work "almost every day" but with a reduction to his usual eight-to-nine-hour workday. The upside, he jests, is that he may now get to utilise his leave instead of accumulating it, as in the past.

Summing up his uncompromising work ethic, the long-time proponent of a "full day's work for a full day's pay" says: "For people my age, when we started working, we never had Sunday as a holiday. Our only holiday was the first three days of Chinese New Year. On the fourth day, we returned to work to open the door. So my training has been such that I look on everything that I do as if it is my own."

Throughout the hour-long interview, he is matter-of-fact about his decision to step aside and make way for SPH's new CEO, Mr Alan Chan, 49, and non-executive chairman, Mr Lim Chin Beng, 70.

"It is part of a process of self-renewal because things are moving at such a fast pace in the world that unless you have fresh blood who understands what is happening in the social, economic and technical world, you won't be able to catch up with it," he says.

Asked what effect his announcement will have on the stock market, he replies: "Nobody is indispensable."

In practical terms, how does he delineate his role as senior advisor in relation to the new CEO and chairman?

His new job, he says, is to "brief the CEO on what I know", ensure that he "phases into" his new job smoothly and reaches a "certain affinity" with the chairman.

But will he have the mandate to overrule them? "No, I would prefer not to," he says, aghast at the prospect.

"We are reasonable men. If we can't agree, then we have to refer it to the board or executive committee. No, no, I am not here to fight. I'm here to see that we progress."

BOTTOM-LINE WATCHER

But there was a time when he insisted on full-fledged executive powers. In 1988, he was invited to join SPH as chairman but flatly refused - unless the role was enlarged to that of executive chairman.

With both powers in hand, he swooped in and swiftly gained a reputation among journalists as The Hangman when he decisively axed at least a dozen top executives who did not measure up.

In 1988, he remembers SPH, created in 1984 by a merger of three companies, was making a dismal profit. Each entity had its own disparate culture, IT and accounting system. "It was like five horses drawing a carriage, each pulling in a different direction," he recalls.

Brandishing one of his management philosophies, he says: "When you go into an organisation, the first few decisions you make are very important."

To set the tone, he watched costs like a hawk, froze all appointments, foraged for new revenue streams and frowned on any wastage. By the end of the first financial year, which he acknowledges was "upsetting to most", the bottom line had perked up.

He also started a monthly meeting for the newspaper editors to get to know each other's cultures, views and experiences.

"Otherwise, the Chinese don't read what the Malays do or what they feel, and vice versa. And the English-educated and the Chinese-educated think differently and they have completely different cultures," he notes.

On Monday, looking back on his 14 years at SPH, he says his proudest achievement was being able to synergise all the elements, stop duplication and have "common system, especially in IT".

What the hard-nosed bottom-line watcher left unsaid is that in those years, he quadrupled the group's profit from $73.7 million in 1988 to $307.4 million for the year ended this August. He also transformed SPH into a premier multi-platform media organisation and the sixth-largest publicly-listed company in Singapore, with a market capitalisation of $7.3 billion.

But he admits there were painful decisions to make along the way, such as the shutting down of Project Eyeball last year.

"The lesson we learnt from that was: Never start too big. Start gradually. When you start big and put in a lot of capital and then find that it doesn't capture the public's imagination or it's ahead of its time, you lose a lot," he says, pausing as he remembers the difficult task of retrenching and redeploying the paper's staff.

VISCERAL SENSING

He remained unruffled throughout the interview except when it was suggested to him that one of his lasting legacies at SPH was introducing a strong shareholder culture, which went down less well with staff than the market.

Getting a little riled up, he addresses the room of reporters bluntly: "Before the shareholders get their dividends, you have already taken your share of that year's profit in your bonus, salary and stock options. So, you must not begrudge what I am paying the shareholders. It is theirs, only I kept it for them.

"So, don't say that I am looking after them better. You have to look after your shareholders as well as your staff, and I have done both."

The former industrialist, businessman, banker and politician is "undiplomatic" to a fault, he freely admits. "When I don't like you, I tell you so. If I don't like what you say, I tell you so," he says pointedly.

As for his management style, he refuses to comment beyond guffawing. "My PA will tell you in the early days, she used to say a prayer before she came in because I might be in a table-thumping and pencil-throwing mood."

The man detractors have called the Government's Media Watchdog, ironically, has no concept of self-censoring. Ask him about his favourite dish and he lists the politically incorrect "tiger meat and green turtle before it was banned".

He adds for amusement: "Well, I don't eat that much now but at one time, a cook of mine used to tell people, 'If you have no appetite, you watch the chairman eat'."

Occasionally, he drops self-effacing remarks such as: "Between my mole and whiskers, nobody has ever been able to take a good photograph of me."

But underneath the genial banter is a glint of a visceral sharpness. He is known to be able to size someone up intuitively with a single handshake - an attribute greatly cherished by his political comrade, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The old boy of Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College says he learnt how to make snap decisions on whether he could trust someone, through helping his father run his rubber, commodities, salt, sago and petrol business since he was 12.

He put his uncommonly good sense, results-oriented tenacity and knack for managing accounts and balance sheets to profitable use when he entered the sago production business. By 34, he was a millionaire.

He went on to carve out a successful banking career before he was inducted into politics in 1963. During his 17 years in the Cabinet, the tenacious troubleshooter was dispatched to head many ministries, from National Development, Finance, Defence, Education, Environment to Communications.

After he retired from politics in 1981, as chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority from 1979 till 1994, he steered it to become the world's busiest port, picking up the nickname Mr PSA.

Two years ago, his legendary business acumen and skills were honoured in the Lim Kim San Professorship in Business Policy, which was launched by the National University of Singapore.

Till today, he remains Chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisors, which scrutinises key budgets and appointments.

And he has remained a fighter to the end. Having run the gamut of careers, he says his most satisfying assignment to date was when he was named the first Chairman of the Housing and Development Board in 1959. In a few years, he built a record-breaking number of flats and broke the back of the housing problem here in the early 1960s.

It combined all his favourite elements - a tall challenge, guts and a brisk turnaround.

"First, you see the results of your work within 10 months. And, secondly, we showed the British that we could do just as well, if not better," he explains.

Perhaps that is why SM Lee paid him this tribute on his 80th birthday in 1996: "Whenever we needed somebody for an important position, one that required integrity and judgment, we have called upon him. He has tremendous spirit. He never gives up."

As he will have you know he does not intend to - until his duty at SPH is done.