IOI Group founder Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng rose from humble beginnings to become a planter extraordinaire, says palm oil industry expert M.R. Chandran.
“He was born and brought up in an estate and did not go to college. But he was an astute businessman,” said Chandran, who had known Lee for three decades.
He said Lee had a hands-on approach, often being on the ground to check on his oil palm operations.
“He made sure every single field of operation is carried out as per the company SOPs and adhered to the best agricultural and manufacturing practices.
This is not surprising as Lee had once called the oil palm trees in the plantations his “girlfriends,” with each having its own characteristics.
“When I visit my estates, I will talk to them to encourage them to bloom and bear more fruits. Now, I don’t talk to them but I whisper to them!” he told The Star in an interview in 2017.
Lee had also said that oil palm was his “first love”, as he felt that the plant was sustainable, versatile, and “very useful” to the people due to its many uses.
He had grown up in a rubber estate in Jeram, Kuala Selangor where his father ran a small sundry shop.
Lee stopped his schooling at 11 to help supplement his family’s income by selling ice-cream.
At one point, he resumed studies but stopped at Senior Middle Three (equivalent to today’s Form Five).
He started his career in the plantation industry as a field supervisor on Jan 1, 1961.
Chandran described Lee as a “rare breed”.
“Through his calculated investments in plantation crops and properties, he had contributed much to the economy and the welfare of our society,” he said.
He found Lee to be a great conversationalist as well.
“He was also very gentlemanly and humble,” said Chandran.
Lee took over British-owned Dunlop Estates which comprised 13 estates, two palm oil mills and two rubber factories in 1989 and turned it into a profitable venture, he said.
“It was one of the best-managed plantation companies,” said Chandran, who is an adviser to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Today, IOI Corp Bhd has 90 oil palm estates in Malaysia and Indonesia with a land bank totaling 217,329ha, of which 174,081ha have been planted with oil palm.
According to the group’s website, about 65% of its oil palm plantation holdings are in Sabah and Sarawak, 25% in Peninsular Malaysia and the remaining 10% in Indonesia.
Chandran said that credit should be given to Lee for acquiring the Rotterdam-based Loders Croklaan, a specialty fat producer, in 2003 (for RM814mil from Unilever).
The acquisition gave IOI a presence in Europe and North America.
It also enhanced the group’s value chain, further integrating its operations from upstream to downstream.
“With that, IOI became a totally integrated player – it has the plantations, palm oil mills, palm refineries, palm kernel crushing facilities and oleo chemical plants for industry use,” said Chandran.
In September 2017, IOI Corp Bhd surprised the market when it announced the sale of 70% of Loders Croklaan for RM3.94bil cash to global agribusiness and food company Bunge Ltd.
He sold IOI’s 70% share to Bunge and retained 30%.
Chandran described it as Lee’s “classic” corporate move as this resulted in a substantial increase in cash reserves for the company.
In recognition of his contributions to the Malaysian palm oil industry, Lee was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in agriculture by Universiti Putra Malaysia.
He was also conferred with an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Universiti Malaya for his contributions to science and advocating related causes for the betterment of society.