KUALA LUMPUR - For much of the last two decades, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh Sock Ping, the eldest of seven children, was favoured by his father to play the lead role in the transformation of YTL Group from a mid-tier construction group into one of Malaysia's most diversified conglomerates.
But the death last month of Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, 87, Mr Yeoh's father and the group's founder, is stirring debate on how the children will deal with the leadership issue now confronting the group, which has interests in construction, power generation, property development, manufacturing and telecommunications in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Britain.
The private family-owned Yeoh Tiong Lay and Sons Holdings controls a commanding 52 per cent interest in the listed flagship YTL Corp, and bankers noted that the equity holdings are roughly spread out evenly among members of the Yeoh clan, giving no single party a dominant position.
"The old man held the family management together. Whether the rest will agree to Francis continuing in the lead role, or if there could be devolution, is going to be the next big challenge," said the chief executive officer of a local bank, who has enjoyed a long business relationship with the Yeoh family.
The 63-year-old Mr Yeoh, who did not respond to queries on how the group will move forward following his father's death, is currently the managing director of YTL Corp, which employs 20 members of the Yeoh family - many of them head various business divisions.
Leadership succession issues at family-owned groups, particularly involving ethnic Chinese businesses, are seldom discussed openly and have played out across Asia with varying results.
While some companies have navigated the process through well-planned management handovers, be they to family heirs or to professional executives, others, especially corporate concerns stricken by the sudden loss of their founders, have struggled due to family infighting.
In Malaysia, the issue of corporate succession is taking special attention because several of the country's top business groups are confronted with inheritance court battles.
Gaming conglomerate Genting Group, which is the operator of the Resorts World integrated resort in Singapore, and Hap Seng Consolidated, a diversified plantation and property development company based in Sabah, are locked in bitter court battles over ownership between rival family factions.
Separately, the reluctance of first-generation tycoons to deal squarely with the prospect of handing over control has added a layer of uncertainty to the future prospects of several of Malaysia's large businesses that generally attract a strong following among local and foreign investors.
Among them is the Hong Leong Group, which is headed by hard-charging tycoon Quek Leng Chan. A senior Hong Leong executive, who works closely with Tan Sri Quek, said the 76-year-old tycoon, who does not speak to the media, remains very hands-on and has yet to indicate whether he will hand over the reins to his two brothers, who are involved in his corporate empire, or his two sons.
"The succession challenge facing many Malaysian corporates is a major parameter guiding our investment decisions," said Mr Jason Chong, CEO of Manulife Asset Management in Kuala Lumpur. He added that the reluctance of domineering owners to loosen their grip and empower their likely heirs only dulls investor sentiment.
Nowhere is the succession issue more vexing for local and foreign investors than in Public Bank, Malaysia's highly profitable and blue-chip financial institution controlled by Tan Sri Teh Hong Piow.
Mr Teh, 87, owns 23.5 per cent of the country's third-largest lender by assets, and his two children have shown no interest in running the business. Currently, the most likely successor is Datuk Chang Kat Kiam, deputy to Mr Teh's long-time confidant, managing director and CEO, Tan Sri Tay Ah Lek, 74.
Foreign investors, who own roughly 30 per cent of the publicly listed entity's stock because of its strong dividend payouts, are generally nervous about the prospects for Public Bank when Mr Teh leaves the scene, because his departure could presage shareholder changes at the financial institution.
Ownership rules that govern Malaysian financial institutions cap individual shareholding at 10 per cent, but Mr Teh is among the few owners of Malaysian banks who enjoys a special dispensation from the requirement because he held his commanding interest in Public Bank before the new rules were introduced in 1989.
That special privilege is likely to expire when Mr Teh exits as the controlling shareholder, bankers said.
There is speculation that Malaysia's central bank, which generally frowns on individuals controlling financial institutions, may force the trust entity, which owns Mr Teh's interest, to pare down its holdings in the bank to below 10 per cent, a move that could make Public Bank a takeover target.