Goh Cheng Liang is one of Singapore’s best-known and least-celebrated tycoons. He has neither featured in any rich lists nor ever talked to the press, save for a one-off interview in 1997. Yet some of Singapore’s most prominent landmarks, like the high profile hospital Mt. Elizabeth and the Liang Court shopping mall at Clarke Quay, have been built by this reclusive businessman.
Goh never went to school. He was born to a poor family in a one-room tenement in 1928, one of four siblings. As a boy, he sold fishing nets and worked in a hardware store, learning business skills that were to shape his destiny. In 1949, when the British were auctioning off surplus stocks from World War II, Goh bought all the barrels of rotten paint for a song. With a Chinese dictionary of chemicals in hand, he went about mixing solvents, pigments and chemicals to make his own brand of paints called Pigeon. The following year, the Korean war broke out and an import ban landed Goh a whopping profit windfall.
Business was booming when an opportunity to tie up with Nippon Paint of Japan surfaced. Goh took the plunge with a 60-40 holding in a joint venture called the Nipsea Management Group. From nothing rose a paints conglomerate whose Nippon brand is today a household name in Asia. The Nippon brand now sells in 15 countries outside of Japan with some 15,000 employees and factories in 30 locations. Its annual turnover stands at $2.6 billion. Son Goh Hup Jin oversees the company run by professional managers.
Goh’s career has been the gritty journey of an entrepreneur. He never missed an opportunity to create, build and sell businesses to unlock their value. Over the years, he invested some of his profits from the paint business into property by building shopping malls, hotels, serviced residences, as well as a retail distribution business with Japanese partners, a contract manufacturing electronics business, specialty packaging, logistics, a food manufacturing operation in America and even a mining company in China! When his U.S.-educated son, Hup Jin, set about professionalizing some of the group companies and taking them public, Goh carved a parallel private empire with his longtime partners and employees under Yenom Industries. It owns serviced residences, gold courses, marinas, hotels and housing developments in Gulf Habour and elsewhere.
Over the years, Goh has been selling his stake in the publicly listed companies. He sold his 59% holding in Liang Court for $175 million to Pidemco Land in 1999. The $1 billion electronics service maker Omni Industries was sold to Celestica of Canada in 2001. Mt. Elizabeth was sold off, too. More recently, along with Crown Holdings of the U.S., he is taking listed Superior Multi-Packaging private.
Goh has come full circle, retracing his steps to his core competency in paints. Early this year, he made a $751 million bid for an additional 30% stake in Tokyo-listed parent Nippon, but quickly retreated in favor of growing the Asian business. He still makes news, though more for his generous endowments to scholarship funds, cancer research and education through the Goh Foundation, rather than his business moves.
See Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires List HERE.
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