Y.Y. Wong Owns 76 Companies And He's Still Hungry

Singapore's Y.Y. Wong is one of Asia's supersalesmen. In a region where state corporations or private land empires dominate the economy, the 50-year-old chairman of Wywy Group boasts one of the largest non-real estate conglomerates. Founded by Wong just 19 years ago, his $900 million group of 76 companies is a powerhouse in marketing and distribution.

Wong's ambitions extend far beyond his native Singapore. He is pushing to become a major regional player in telecommunications, family entertainment, and finance. To do it, he is forming strategic alliances with multinationals, including Motorola Inc. and Hong-kong & Shanghai Banking Corp. At the same time, he is helping to Westernize Asia's emerging middle classes, by feeding their growing appetites for everything from cellular phones to American food. Wong has "a great sense of timing," says David A. Keller, a vice-president at Motorola Asia Pacific Ltd.

Wong wants to cash in on the demand for telecommunications infrastructure. Five years ago, Wywy became a distributor for Motorola cellular phones and pagers. Now, it is part of a consortium bidding to become the second mobile phone and paging operator in Singapore. Besides Motorola, other partners include Japan's DDI, AirTouch International, and Orchard Parade Holdings, a Singapore property group of which Wong is a board member. Wong says that several American and Japanese banks want to help finance the $150 million deal.

Wywy is also linking up with Orchard and Motorola to become a cellular digital operator in Pakistan. And Wong recently became chairman of a new joint-venture advisory firm with a subsidiary of Hongkong & Shanghai Banking to identify new opportunities.

Wong has been quick to cultivate businesses that cater to the millions of newly prosperous Asian families. With Sega Enterprises Inc., he will open in 1997 the first of three indoor high-tech theme parks with virtual-reality and interactive rides. Already, there are 50 Wywy Wonderspace Family Entertainment Centers, filled with video games and interactive simulators, around the region. Wong plans to invest an additional $200 million over the next two years for another 100 centers. "I want to create the McDonald's of entertainment," he says.

When it comes to restaurants, though, Wong has other American models in mind. In 1992, he bought the Asian franchise for Dallas-based Chili's, which serves American-style ribs, and intends to open 50 in 10 Asian countries over the next 5 years.

GLASS CEILING. Like many other Asian tycoons, Wong relied on connections to get his company started. At age 26, he became the first Singaporean director at Borneo Co., a British trading company. But he says his boss told him that a Chinese couldn't get promoted to the company's main board of directors. That prompted Wong to set out on his own. He got some aid from executives of Fuji Film, who had worked with Wong at Borneo. They helped him get a credit line of $178,000 from Bank of Tokyo, which allowed him to start Wywy as a distributor of copy machines.

As he built his empire, Wong suffered blows at home. His eldest son, Meng Ee, came down with a degenerative eye disease at 11 that blinded him. But Wong, a born-again charismatic Christian, says his faith helped him encourage his son, who will soon graduate from Stirling University in Scotland with a degree in Japanese and law.

One of Wong's toughest challenges has been building a knowledgeable--and loyal--staff. Most Singaporean graduates first try to land a job with the government. If they fail, they try for the banks, then the multinationals. "Homegrown companies get the bottom of the barrel," says Wong. Yet his attempts to build a solid workforce seem to be working. "The typical sales representative [at Wywy] really understands the products," says Motorola's Keller. "And there's no under-the-table dealing with anyone in the market."

As he goes for deal after deal, Wong may be overextending himself. He was recently named chairman of the executive committee at Singapore beverage group Yeo Hiap Seng in an effort to rescue a company rocked by poor investments and family squabbling. And despite all of his plans, Wong says Wywy won't need to raise cash through Singapore's equity markets. "I own 100% of the shares," he boasts. Wong says he can fund his expansion plans through strong cash flow and some bank loans. For now, Wong is betting he can succeed as a salesman without selling his company.

The World Of Y.Y. Wong

AGE: 50

HOME: Singapore

EDUCATION: Penn State, Harvard

TITLE: Founder, owner, and chairman of Wywy Group, a privately held conglomerate

BUSINESSES: High-tech chain stores, entertainment centers, American-style restaurants; annual sales, $900 million

PLANS: Expand into telecommunications, family entertainment, and finance


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