Mr. Kwek Leng Beng is the Executive Chairman of the Hong Leong Group of Companies in Singapore and also Executive Chairman of City Developments Limited (CDL), and Chairman and Managing Director of Hong Leong Finance Limited. He is the Chairman of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels plc (M&C), the listed hotel arm of Hong Leong Group. He was also Chairman of Hong Leong Asia until his retirement from its Board in January 2017.
Kwek has been involved actively in the Group since his joining in the early 1960s. He helped set up Hong Leong Finance, currently Singapore’s largest finance company and an SME Specialist, and in Hong Leong Holdings, developing private housing and enabling home buyers to realize their dreams. He later took over control of CDL, then a loss-making property firm transformed it into a major real estate and hotel powerhouse. Today, CDL is one of Singapore’s largest companies by market capitalization, its income-stable, and geographically-diversified portfolio totalling over 18 million square feet of floor area globally. It has built more than 40,000 housing units ranging from mid-to high-end. CDL possesses one of the largest land banks amongst Singapore private-sector developers and is one of the biggest commercial landlords in the city-state.
Kwek has distinguished himself in hotel ownership and management. From a single hotel in Singapore in 1971, he transformed the Group into a global hospitality player. Today, the Hong Leong Group, through its subsidiaries and sister companies, owns and operates more than 150 quality hotels with over 40,000 rooms in more than 20 countries. Its hotel arm, M&C, championed and pioneered by him, ranks among the world’s top 50 hotel groups with properties in key gateway cities and in prime locations such as Ginza in Tokyo, Knightsbridge in London, and Broadway in New York. At its peak, M&C achieved a net profit of £230.4 million in 2013. Through its associate and sister companies such as CDL Hospitality Trusts and First Sponsor Group, the Group has extended its European reach with recent acquisitions of hotels in Manchester, UK; Munich, Germany and the Netherlands, where the First Sponsor recently purchased 19 hotels.
Kwek saw the successful listing of Hong Leong Asia on the Singapore Exchange in 1998 and contributed to its growth from a leading integrated building materials supplier to its current standing as one of the region’s major manufacturing, trading and distribution players through its well-established businesses in China and Southeast Asia. Kwek was instrumental in leading the Group in its quantum leap into the manufacturing and distribution industries in China in the early 2000s with the Group’s acquisition of key companies specializing in the manufacturing of home appliances such as refrigerators, freezers, and diesel engines.
In the 1980s, Kwek was appointed to a high-level Government economic committee tasked to help Singapore get back on track, after a property crash depressed the economy. Together with other developers, he helped reform the property sector. One action was the introduction of a “Project Account” that would protect buyers with rules to restrict developers’ use of monies collected from buyers for other projects and purposes other than for the project they paid for. Prior to this, there was no dedicated Project Account and developers could use money collected from buyers for one project and use the monies for other projects or purposes. This left property buyers exposed without any recourse if the developer ran into any financial trouble and could not complete the housing project.
In 1994, he assumed chairmanship of Hong Leong Group from his late father and Hong Leong Group founder, Kwek Hong Png, after helping helm the group for several years earlier. In the early 1990s, Kwek ventured beyond the property sector and the geographic confines of Singapore with rapid purchases of hotel properties – Macklowe Hotel (now Millennium Broadway), Millenium Hilton New York – both in the Big Apple – and Gloucester Hotel in London; during this period, he also acquired two hotel chains comprising 13 hotels in New Zealand, a move that led the Group to eventually be the country’s biggest hotel owner-operator with 26 hotels.
In 1995, his purchase of the iconic hotel The Plaza New York from Donald Trump with Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia catapulted him to the forefront of international business pages. Soon after, he clinched the Copthorne Hotels chain for £219 million. By the end of the decade, with the new millennium beckoning, the Group strengthened its global presence with acquisitions in the US, where he snapped up a hotel chain comprising 28 hotels and North Asia, the Millennium Seoul Hilton was acquired. By 1996, M&C shares began trading on the London Stock Exchange, the first Singapore-controlled company to be listed on the London bourse, thus placing Singapore on the global hotel’s map. Prudent financial management and the eschewing of heavy bank lending proved a correct course to take when a series of global economic and political crises hit the world in the new century – the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the 2000 dot.com crisis, 911 terror attacks of 2001, the SARS crisis of 2003 and the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the last being the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of 1929.
Kwek has continued to expand his hotel portfolio. In 2014, M&C boosted its global presence with three acquisitions in a span of seven months – the Boscolo Palace Roma, which has since been renamed Grand Hotel Palace, marking the Group’s first foray into Italy; 2014 was also the year M&C opened in Japan, marking a definitive milestone for the Group, with new build Millennium Mitsui Garden in Ginza. In 2016, the first M&C flag in Tbilisi, Georgia flew with a managed hotel there. Soon after, M&C announced expansion plans in the Middle East, with the Group adding another 12 hotels to the Group’s existing operating portfolio of 27 hotels there in the following year. M&C hotels in that region include M Hotel Makkah in Mecca and Grand Millennium Muscat in Oman.
In 2016, Kwek introduced a new hotel brand targeted at millennials – M Social. The brand debuted in Singapore. There are plans to roll out M Social hotels in Auckland, New York and Silicon Valley, London, Seoul, and Paris. CDL has diversified its business in recent years. Building on its track record of over 50 years in real estate development, investment and management, the company has developed growth platforms in five key international markets – China, UK, US, Japan and Australia.
Not a stranger to shaking up the industry, Kwek launched CDL Hospitality Trusts in 2006, the first listed hospitality REIT in Asia (excluding Japan). He has continued to launch innovative products over the years. In 2008, CDL issued Singapore’s first Sukuk or Islamic financing and in 2017, CDL became the first Singapore company to issue Green Bonds.
Today, Kwek sits on the flagship of a multi-billion empire worth over S$40 billion in diversified premium assets worldwide. The Hong Leong Group he leads has a staff strength of over 30,000 in property, hotels, financial services and manufacturing enterprises in 26 countries across the Asia- Pacific, the Middle East, Europe and North America.
Kwek has been a Member of the INSEAD East Asia Council since its inception in 2003. In addition, Kwek is an honorary patron of REDAS (Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore), the official representative body for the local real estate industry.