A conversation with Robert Kuok

Robert Kuok’s memoirs have been published this week in Malaysia and six extracts have been published in The South China Morning Post. The first can be found here. The book is not yet available on Amazon

Born in October 1923 in Johor Baru Malaysia, Robert Kuok (or RK as he is known) is a major figure in the world of sugar and has been nicknamed “The King of Sugar”. He has been an extraordinarily successful businessman and apart from sugar and commodities (Wilmar), he is best known as the founder of the Shangri La Hotel chain. Like many successful Asian businessmen, he is media-shy and rarely gives interviews.

I had the honour and the pleasure to converse with RK over three days in 2015. I published a small part of our conversation in my book The Sugar Casino. The Financial Times in turn published some extracts. If you haven’t yet read my book The Sugar Casino (shame on you), here is a taster:

RK welcomed me and apologised for his terrible cold and cough. He had caught it on a recent trip to London where he had been visiting the latest addition to his hotel chain, the Shangri La in the Shard Building. I started by trying to explain my book project but he seemed distracted by his telephone.

“I see I have four messages but I don’t know if they are important”, he said. “Ah yes, last night’s sugar market close.”

“You are not still trading the sugar market?” I asked, astonished.

“I watch the market every day” he replied. “I started in 1955 and this “topping up” takes seconds; if I stop I can never get on to it again. I still trade the sugar market for my claret money; so that I can afford Petrus 1989. Otherwise you would be mad to buy it. But if you are winning at the sugar casino; then why not continue? And the days I lose money, I look sadly at my wine and I tell myself, “Tonight you don’t deserve it”. I open the bottle and drink only one glass as a punishment to myself for trading badly.”

I did a quick sum in my head. RK had started in the Rice Department with Mitsubishi in 1942, the year the Japanese Army occupied Singapore and Malaya. That meant that he had been in the commodity markets for 72 years and trading sugar for 60 years; that had to be a record. I shared my mental arithmetic with him and he smiled.

“Have the markets changed much since you first started?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “The change has mainly been the speed of information dissemination or gathering, but you have to adapt to that. So my trading volume today is one per cent of what it was. I used to trade 4,000 lots (200,000 tons) in one go; now I trade 40 lots (2,000 tons). Today I am 40 lots long, but my trading pays for the Petrus!” he said with a laugh.

“In early autumn 1963 the sugar market went against you and you almost went broke,” I prompted.

“I had enough cash, thank God, to meet margins. In the autumn of 1963 Hurricane Flora hit Cuba and the market rallied; I was saved. August that year was very difficult. But somehow I can always manage. I was 40 years old and at my best. Although it worried me I never felt like jumping off a building. Still, the position was large for me, maybe 250,000 tons of sugar, part physical sugar and part futures – a huge position for me. Anyway the market turned around. I took some profit and then more profit.”

“How did you know when to take profits?” I asked. “I find the biggest difficulty about trading is knowing when to take profits”.

“Not knowing when to take a profit is the Achilles’ heel for a trader. Take profits! Don’t wait. If you have a profit you have to take it. If you wait it will be your downfall. Also, have the wisdom to realise that you can’t take it in one go or you destroy the market for the balance. If you are a big trader it takes ten, twenty, thirty days to unload, depending on how big your footstep is.

“If you are a big trader you had better start even if you are in minus territory if the market is going up. You are long and you have been suffering: a big minus, a small minus, and then a negligible minus. At that point start liquidating. Even if you sell only 3% you still have 97% to go. You have to shed weight. Waiting to take profits is dangerous.

“What about taking losses?” I asked.

“Well,” RK replied with a sigh. “It is wonderful to take losses when you have profits under your belt. So you need some luck to build up some profits first. You have to start on the right leg. And everything, including quantity must be according to your size.

“In 1963 I took a big position,” he continued. “I was very confident. I felt that sugar was worth more than it was.

“But you know with sugar there is always over production. It is like my hotel business. I don’t know why I go into feast and famine businesses. As soon as you make money in hotels every Dick, Tom and Harry builds a hotel and then there is oversupply. And then you all cry for seven to eight years before you start to make a bit of money.

“The early 1960s were wonderful for me in the sugar market. I was hunting in a lake just teeming with salmon trout. There were only three or five predators; these sharks could eat their fill. I would swim past them and they weren’t even interested in me. Today you go to the same lake: there are giant crocodiles, giant sharks. There is not enough fish to feed these giant predators. You have to think twice before swimming in the lake.

“A lot of traders are arrogant”, I ventured. “They have big positions and have to convince themselves that they are right and therefore have to convince other people that they are right.”

“You have to be humble because you are never always right. You don’t need to convince anyone. You can trade as a very humble man.”

“Is speculation and risk taking an integral part of all life?” I asked.

“An emphatic yes!” RK replied. “When you get into your car and leave your home you are taking a risk. In the modern world there is no back-to-back trading where you can make a simple margin on a physical sugar transaction. Those days are long gone. Those opportunities when they come are like golfing holes in one. I have been playing golf since 1947 and I have never scored a hole in one. So where there is no back to back trading it means you have to lift a leg: you have to sell before you buy or buy before you sell. You have to take a risk. But you can still make good money trading.”

“Are you a businessman who started as a trader or are you a trader who applied your trading skills to business?” I asked.

“I have been asking myself that question for the past 50 years. Let’s take soccer as a parallel. You can train someone to play football but you never produce a Pele, a Ronaldo or a Messi. You have to have natural verve. We are not born equal. You either have that attribute in you, call it genius if you like, but of course different degrees of genius, and then circumstance or fate gives you the playground to exercise your skills. If you are born in the wrong community and your parents force you into the armed forces, well then how do you become a trader? But traders are born, not taught.”

“Footballers often have particular styles, as do traders”, I prompted. “What is your style?”

“When you play poker the secret is to never let the other players guess your next move. I can play a contrarian game but I can also flow with the current. I even involve superstition. In my early days I would look at a fellow trader to see if he had a lucky glow on his forehead. If he did I would spend more time with him that day.”

“Commodity trading is based on trust,” I said. “You have to start a relationship offering trust. But what do you do when someone abuses that trust?”

“Well that is just too bad. You just have to cut your losses; you have no other choice. If you want, you can keep that person as a friend but do so at arm’s length; no more business dealings. But it is better to just cut the cord and part company. If you bear a grudge you are just hurting yourself; you are not hurting the other person. It is like throwing good money after bad. Keep your wits, keep your humour and if you are a good man, luck will come your way again. You will see another opportunity and you will grasp it. I have always believed that.

“But business is about taking and not just giving. I came up the hard school. In an arena where no holds are barred you have to win. Giving is for my charity side.

“I have a simple motto in life: everything single material thing that I have in life can be traded. It is for sale. It is a question of, when, where, to whom and price. The first three are more important. If you like a person the price becomes unimportant.

“Business is quite a game but at the end you want to use your money to help those that need help. We have a very good charitable foundation that is opening the darkened skies above a little more than thirty poor and backward villages in China and adding.”

“Finally, Robert,” I asked. “What advice would you give to someone starting out in business today?

“I would tell them to go east and make their fortune. What you are seeing in China is still only the beginning.”


Author: Jonathan

After 37 years as a commodity trader and analyst, Jonathan Kingsman is now the editor of commodityconversations.com. Jonathan is married with four grown up children and lives in Lausanne Switzerland. He is the Editor of The Sugar Trading Manual and author of The Sugar Casino, Commodity Conversations and Godstone, his first novel.

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