Kampong Boy Made Good

Lim How Teck (BAcc 1975)

lim_how_teck_croppedGrowing up poor gave Mr Lim How Teck a hunger for success that propelled him from senior accountant of the national shipping giant Neptune Orient Line (NOL), to the Group Chief Financial Officer and prime mover of NOL’s acquisition of American President Line (APL), its much bigger rival.

A competitive childhood
Mr Lim, now the Chairman of Certis Cisco, grew up in a kampong in Whampoa, where the rent for the house was S$7 a month. His father had come to Singapore from Swatow (Shantou) in China with only a bundle of clothes and a green umbrella. To feed his family of eight children, he became a salesman selling Singer sewing machines.

Mr Lim remembers having a crowded childhood with his seven siblings. He also had to contend with his cousins for the attention of his mother, as she had 15 brothers and sisters.

It was a competitive environment to grow up in, as food was not plentiful. Being slow meant losing out to the faster children. This early lesson instilled the importance of making quick decisions. “From the viewpoint of corporate strategy, you become a hunter, not a farmer,” said Mr Lim.

Unafraid to go after the big catch
It was his hunting instinct that propelled NOL to acquire the much bigger APL in 1997. This audacious move catapulted NOL from the 17th largest company in the world, to the fifth largest.

Given that APL was twice the size of NOL at the time, it may have seemed to be a foolhardy move. But Mr Lim, the hunter, realized that NOL had to act because “you either grow big or you won’t survive.” As the Group Chief Financial Officer, he believed that the purchase of APL gave NOL economies of scale that lowered its cost per unit.

The newly enlarged NOL sailed into choppy waters during the Asian Financial Crisis, but Mr Lim stayed at the helm. At one point, he led the company when its CEO was asked to step down in 2003. He left two years later in 2005 after having a difference of opinion with the new CEO of NOL, concluding a 26-year shipping career.

Exploring new waters
At only 55, he wanted to do more than just play golf, he wanted to find new opportunities to apply his skills and experience as a board member for a major company.

He didn’t have to wait long, as he was made Chairman of Tuas Power in 2005. At Tuas Power, he challenged the company to increase its profits by 50 percent in his first year. By waving carrots and wielding the stick, he succeeded in getting the company to reach its targets. In his second year, he increased profits by another 30 percent, and within six years, profits had quadrupled.

Obtaining an academic foundation at Victoria School
His instincts may have come from his kampong childhood, but he credits his school years with teaching him far more than academics. After attending secondary school at Victoria School (VS), he spent three years at the University of Singapore (NUS) where he obtained a Bachelor of Accountancy in 1975.

He speaks fondly of the time he spent at VS. He remembers how VS school boys had certain advantages over those at Raffles Institution (RI), even though they were seen as being second best compared to them. He also believed that they were better all-around students as they enjoyed sports, developed a can-do spirit, and did not seek to be perfectionists. “When you are at the top school on the other hand, you end up being afraid of making mistakes,” says Mr Lim.

He was so loyal to VS that he stayed there for his pre-university education, even though his grades were good enough to transfer to RI.

More than just study
After VS, he completed National Service and then attended NUS, choosing the Accountancy Program because it was a three-year course that led to a professional degree.University life was more than just books for him as he immersed himself in sports, joining inter-year competitions in basketball, badminton, and football.

In class, he was one of the few students who constantly spoke up and asked questions. Being bold in the classroom taught him to think on his feet, a skill he believes greatly benefitted him in the corporate world.

Living life at his own pace
Mr Lim now sits on the board of 14 companies, five of which are publicly listed. He is able to juggle his obligations by ensuring that the companies he chooses to serve with do not have the same reporting season, which allows him to space out board meetings.

He also has plenty of time to pursue his other interests, which include fast cars and good food. He owns both a Maserati and a Jaguar XJ Supersport, which he takes for drives in Malaysia. “I like the power,” Mr Lim admits with a grin. When it comes to food, his philosophy is to “live to eat, not eat to live,” but he checks in often with his doctor to make sure his numbers are good.

Taking time to give back
Fast cars and good food are long delayed pleasures after a lifetime of hard work in the cut-throat corporate world. He feels strongly that he can do even more today with pro bono work for meaningful causes. He serves on the Sailors’ Society, a group that helps distressed sailors from around the world, as well as serving on the board of the Foundation for Development Cooperation, a research organization that funds promising research into micro finance.

He has unconventional advice from his long years of service in the corporate sector, which is to embrace your mistakes. Mr Lim explains that if you don’t make mistakes, you’ll end up being too cautious and miss out on business opportunities. He stresses that there should be no stigma surrounding mistakes, and that nobody can be “perfect.” “That should be the mentality you need to have if you want to take on the world,” advises Mr Lim.

To learn more about Lim How Teck, click on the following link: mms://live-vip-49.nus.edu.sg/ALL_NMG/0000271d/80/00/25/26.wmv

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