Oei's sister emerges to carve her own niche
Sat, Jan 30, 2010
The Business Times

By Jamie Lee

THE brother has hogged the headlines all these years, and now it is the sister's turn to make a splash.

Oei Siu Hua, the younger sister of mega investor Oei Hong Leong, this week took control of Top Global - where her eldest child and only son Hano Maeloa, 41, is executive director.

The relatively unknown company now plans to push into the property markets of Singapore, China and Indonesia.

'This is a very clean and straight-forward company,' Ms Oei told BT. 'My purpose is just to look for the opportunity,' added the 60-year-old, who is also known as Sukmawati Widjaja and has been a Singaporean - like her brother - for some seven years. Her name has slipped the radar here until now, because the keen property investor has mostly made her mark in Indonesia.

For about 40 years now, the confident businesswoman who walks with a quick stride has been managing the Widjaja family business - the powerful Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas Group - with her siblings.

The match between Ms Oei, a business heavyweight, and a company valued at under $20 million by the market with a misnomer of a name like Top Global, may seem incongruous. But it also explains why opportunity, a word she repeated several times, has some weight coming from this veteran.

And the Widjaja backing could come into the picture, as Ms Oei is open to having Top Global work on projects with Sinar Mas, Indonesia's largest oil palm grower, and one of the region's largest paper and property players. 'Depending on the situation . . . we could work together,' she said.

Her focus is now on property and her strategy is simple: you can make a tidy sum from building a roof over people's heads.

'When we first made money, it was all from property,' said Ms Oei, referring to her family. 'You see all over the world, the tycoons make (money) from property. Everybody needs housing.'

And the property business feels like second nature to Ms Oei and her family. Besides working on Sinar Mas projects such as the Westin hotel on Shanghai's The Bund, she has invested in properties in the United States, such as those along the Pasadena Hill turn in Los Angeles.

The US investments were all sold 'in good timing' 10 years ago, said Ms Oei.

The family is also invested in a sizeable private equity fund that looks at buying equity stakes in Asia of either properties in the region or in property companies at their pre-IPO stage, so as to get a sweet return when they exit some three to five years later.

But Ms Oei is not content with holding just 10-20 per cent stakes in various property investments through the fund.

'We've been doing this a lot but I feel like I can do myself this because we are the developers. Why must I put money with people?' said Ms Oei. 'We're very lucky in property.'

Top Global, which has completed its first condominium project - known as The Top Residence in Sengkang - plans to dispose its assets relating to the construction business to focus on property, said Mr Maeloa.

The company's move into property was kickstarted by Mr Maeloa and his friend and current CEO Yap Siean Sin - who is an architect by training.

Approached by Mr Yap in 2007 to invest in the company, he became a substantial shareholder for a year, holding as much as 20 per cent at one point, before selling out in 2008 and joining the company as an executive director.

Now sharing his goal, his mother - who had not been a shareholder of the firm before - put $16.8 million on the table to buy a 59.83 per cent stake in the company this week.

Half of the near-60 per cent stake was bought from The Ascend Funds PCC, which was looking to exit the firm, said Ms Oei.

She stopped short at the specifics of her plans due to an ongoing general offer that was triggered after she bought more than 30 per cent of the company in a single sitting.

'I actually like to talk,' she said, while apologising for her restraint. 'I want to tell you a lot, but I must be careful.'

She could only point to the demand that could come from Indonesia, a country that is poised for strong economic growth this year and anchored by a political stability not seen in years.

She also mentions, nearing the end of the interview, that she has 'a lot of friends' who could emerge as strategic investors.

This would be especially important when the Catalist-listed company moves to the main board once it hits the required profit numbers, said Ms Oei.

Her next step is to seek a board seat at the next shareholders' meeting, with her eyes set on a leadership position, before switching to high gear.

'I have this entrepreneurial blood,' said Ms Oei. 'I like the competition, I like the challenge.'

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Business: Oei's sister emerges to carve her own niche