Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Would you have known then that palm oil will make you a millionaire/billionaire?

Palm Oil Pal
Jessica Tan

Stockbroker Peter Lim knows that most investment tips are suspect--unless they come from a man whose last name is Kuok.

In 1991 stockbroker Peter Lim invested $10 million in a palm oil startup. At the time he didn't know much about the commodity. "If you gave me a coconut and a palm oil nut, I wouldn't have been able to differentiate between the two," he recalls.

But he knew a lot about the guy who was starting the company. Kuok Khoon Hong used to be a stockbroking client and had since become his friend. "From the moment I first spoke to him, I thought: 'This man is really very clever. I'd better follow him because he can make a lot of money for me,'" Lim says.

Kuok is also the nephew of Malaysian businessman Robert Kuok, who by then was already one of Asia's most highly regarded billionaires, nicknamed Sugar King for a series of coups in the commodities markets in the 1960s. Before striking out on his own, the younger Kuok had worked for his uncle.

Thanks to his bet on Kuok, Lim, 55, is a billionaire, worth $1.1 billion and ranked No. 7 among Singapore's 40 Richest. Plus he is still an investor in one of Singapore's hottest stocks: the tiny palm oil outfit has become $18 billion (market cap) Wilmar International, one of Asia's largest agribusinesses. It has been on fire lately thanks to rising palm oil prices and its high-profile merger with Robert Kuok's palm plantation, edible oils and grain groups. The stock has more than tripled since its debut on the Singapore exchange in August 2006.

Lim isn't the only one to get rich off Wilmar. The younger Kuok (Wilmar's CEO) is worth $1.3 billion, ranked 5 in Singapore's top 40. His cofounder, Indonesian Martua Sitorus, is worth $1.9 billion. Kuok's uncle added $2.4 billion to his net worth in the past year, thanks largely to Wilmar. But Lim is the luckiest. "Throughout [its] initial stage I never knew what was happening. Everyday I would ask Mr. Kuok what was happening," recalls Lim, "and he would say, 'Don't worry.'"

Now he's happy--and living the high life. He has "many cars," including Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis, which he parks in the basement of an 11-story condominium block he owns not far from Orchard Road. He lives there with his second wife--an actress--his mother and two teenage children. Other luxuries include a yacht and private jet. Lim believes that his fortune is due to destiny. "It's not possible for someone to go make a billion dollars--it's when things just fall into place," he says. "So I think it's fate."

The son of a fishmonger, Lim has come a long way from the small flat he shared with his parents, seven siblings and an uncle. His hard childhood motivated him. He went to the top schools in Singapore and studied accounting and finance at the University of Western Australia in Perth, where he held several part-time jobs as a waiter and taxi driver to pay for his tuition.

After graduating, Lim worked briefly as an accountant before starting out as a stockbroker. He eventually became known as the Remisier (Singapore term for stockbroker) King, servicing wealthy Indonesians and Singaporeans in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it was Kuok who returned the service and by 1996 Lim stopped handling other people's money to become a full-time investor and to take care of personal matters. (He was going through a divorce that dragged on until 2001.)

Today he has 20 people, including former bankers and a nuclear physicist, tracking his investments and giving him daily stock updates. While his nearly 5% stake in Wilmar is his most valuable, worth almost $900 million, he also has stakes in fashion retailer FJ Benjamin, investment firm Rowsley Ltd. and brewery restaurant Brewerkz.

It will be difficult to match his Wilmar success. He's hunting for new investments, hoping to take advantage of the current downturn. He likes health care, mining and renewable energy, but what he really wants is another Kuok. "At the end of the day the key component is the person," he says. "You may target the right company, but if you've chosen the wrong person, you'll get a headache."