Chew Gek Khim is characterized by her signature cheongsam and delicately coiffed hair and is on the list of the most powerful tycoons in Singapore.
She is the 29th richest person in Singapore with a net worth of at least $ 1.26 billion.
The billionaire was also the first woman in over a decade to win Singapore's Businessman of the Year in 2014.
In 2008, Chew single-handedly orchestrated the takeover and revitalization of a centuries-old tin smelting company once headed by her grandfather and OCBC magnate Tan Chin Tuan.
This is how the self-proclaimed "protected" child builds his billion dollar fortune.
The granddaughter of a major financial leader
Chew Gek Khim was born the granddaughter of one of Singapore's leading financial firms, Tan Chin Tuan.
Tan Chin Tuan and the old OCBC building on Chulia Street / Photo credit: Blue Skies / Pinterest
Tan was best known for his instrumental role in transforming Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) into one of Asia's leading financial institutions.
He was a key figure in the subsequent merger with Ho Hong Bank and Overseas Chinese Bank to form OCBC in 1932.
Tan quickly rose through the ranks to become a director of OCBC and played a pivotal role in the company's expansion for over 50 years.
He was also a noted philanthropist known for supporting lifelong education and donating over S $ 250,000 each year to the engineering exchange program at Nanyang Technological University.
Chew grew up in her family home on Cairnhill Road and shares a happy childhood that she had in abundance.
Despite her grandfather's status as one of Singapore's elite figures, she saw Tan as the father of the family and as the "patriarch" of the family.
Tan Chin Tuan Mansion, a historic building / Photo credit: Tan Chin Tuan Foundation
After graduating from the National University of Singapore, Chew earned a law degree and worked with Drew and Napier for three years before moving to her family's investment group, Tecity.
Sources say Chew was groomed as Tan's successor from an early age – a claim Chew denied in an interview with The Peak Magazine.
Chew never expected to continue her grandfather's legacy. But she fondly remembers Tan as an open-minded man known for his pragmatism and integrity.
In a Forbes article, Chew recalled how her grandfather reminded her of the difference between spending on aesthetics and investing by telling her that "diamonds don't pay dividends" while on a shopping spree.
Chew took over running her family business and spent much of her time at Tecity learning the ropes from her grandfather.
After being admonished to "ask too many questions," Chew took in the ins and outs of the business by observing and learning from the best.
Waging the trade war in the street
When Tan passed away in 2005, Chew became the de facto head of Tecity as Executive Chairman of the group.
It made its debut in one of Singapore's most famous trade wars over the Straits Trading Company.
According to Chew, her grandfather had always wanted the family to own at least one of the companies he ran under the OCBC portfolio.
At the time, the press also reported that the Tans were allegedly dissatisfied with OCBC's efforts to sell what they saw as key components of Tan Chin Tuan's legacy. Where Tan had acted as the company's “weapon”, another powerful family, the Lees, sat at their head.
Lee Seng Wee (left) and Lee Kong Chian (right) / Photo credit: Blue Skies / Singapore Management University
To date, the Lees continue to own the largest shares in OCBC and are on the Forbes list as the 23rd richest family in Singapore with a net worth of $ 1.41 billion.
Lee's founding father, Lee Kong Chian, a wealthy Singapore businessman who was once known as the "Rubber and Pineapple King" in Southeast Asia, was Chairman of the OCBC until his death in 1967. His position was taken over by his son Lee Seng Wee, who served as chairman until 2015.
In the late 2000s, OCBC began disposing of interests in non-core assets, including 43.33 percent in Raffles Hotel, 29.9 percent in Robinson & Co, and its entire stake in Raffles Investments, which amounted to 52.8 million S $ was limited to what Chew tried unsuccessfully to acquire.
Photo credit: The Fifth Person
The turning point came when the Tans submitted an offer for the Straits Trading Company (STC) under Tecity in January 2008, which led to a counter bid from Lee's investment holding Lee Latex.
At the time, the Lees owned 7 percent of the STC and controlled 33 percent of OCBC and Great Eastern. The Lees bid twice before Tecity released its final price in March 2008, valuing STC at around $ 1.7 billion.
Chew went away with an 89 percent majority stake in the company when OCBC agreed to sell its shares to Tecity. Chew was named Executive Chairman of the company until August 2009.
Revitalization of a 133 year old tin smelter
Since Chew took over as chairman of STC, the 133-year-old company has grown into a modern investment firm with diversified assets in real estate, hospitality, resources and investments in the Asia-Pacific region.
Originally a tin smelting company, STC was founded in 1887. The company was famous for producing Straits Tin, the purest quality tin in the world, and was responsible for two-thirds of Malaya's tin production.
When the British left Singapore after World War II, ownership of STC passed to local Malay Chinese investors, whose main shareholder was Tan Chin Tuan. Under his leadership, the value of the STC shareholder funds had risen by 1,502 percent.
In the picture:
Chairman of the Straits Trading Company and President of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce / Photo credit: NAS Online Archives
But when Chew took over, STC was in decline. Tin smelting operations largely ceased and the tin residues processed by the company were sold at low prices.
The decline of the tin smelting industry in the late 1980s and 1990s prompted STC to invest in other companies, typically in the real estate and hospitality industries.
Since 2008, Chew has developed a spirit of rapid reform that has made STC one of Singapore's top performing holdings.
Low-performing assets have been divested into new real estate, hospitality and commodities companies known as the STC Real Estate Ecosystem.
Straits Trading Company / Photo Credit: Emporis
Today STC has an 89.5 percent stake in Straits Real Estate, an investment company with real estate assets of over S $ 1.7 billion in China, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea.
Within its real estate division, STC also has a 21 percent stake in ARA Asset Management. The gross net worth is S $ 88 billion and is spread over 100 cities in 28 countries.
The conglomerate also has a 3.8 percent stake in Suntec REITs and a portfolio of various residential properties in Singapore.
STC owns 30 percent of Far East Hospitality Holdings as a joint venture with Far East Orchard Limited, one of Singapore's largest real estate developers. The company currently manages 10 brands with 14,000 managed rooms in seven countries.
In its resources division, STC owns 54.8 percent of Malaysia Smelting Corporation (MSC), the world's largest independent tin smelter, listed on the Bursa Malaysia and SGX.
STC on a roll
Tan Chin Tuan's granddaughter single-handedly converted an outdated tin smelting company into one of Singapore's most productive investment firms.
Despite the setbacks Covid-19 has wreaked on the real estate landscape, STC announced in August that it had just bought Bourne Business Park, near London, for over £ 76.7 million in cash in order to "potentially generate higher returns" to achieve.
Chew Gek Khim / Photo credit: Forbes
Straits Trading currently has a market capitalization of S $ 630.571 million. The company is flush with cash and assets, and the decade since acquiring Chew has been marked by a rapid overhaul of its structural integrity.
Chew, who most recently held 36 leadership positions, is known for her unconventional approach to business. The tycoon approaches their ventures with a practical, nonsensical expression that demands that every dollar be multiplied – even in their philanthropic endeavors.
If it's making money it makes perfect sense to me … some people will say it's unconventional, but to me it's not exactly conventional, but not illogical. "
– Chew Gek Khim, Executive Chairman of STC, in an interview with The Peak Magazine
Selected image source: Picuki / Women Entrepreneur Awards