A fresh-faced dreamer who can often be found pounding out heavy metal rhythms on his drum kit, Joo Kim Tiah, it’s fair to say, is a different kind of CEO. The son of TA Enterprise’s chairman Datuk Tony Tiah Thee Kian, one of Malaysia’s wealthiest men, Joo Kim says he has a fundamentally different approach to many of his peers.
“Most CEOs are very type A, dominant personalities. When they go out, they want to talk a lot. They don’t really listen. I’m the opposite. When I go out, I don’t want to talk; I like to listen. I’m inquisitive, I like to learn from other people more.”
Joo Kim is now CEO of TA Global, a TA Enterprise subsidiary and a premium lifestyle property company, which has developed large-scale luxury properties, including high-rise residential and upscale, mixed-use commercial projects. It has also managed a suite of five-star hotels from Sydney to Singapore and from Canada to China.
Joo Kim Tiah's road to the role
While many saw him as destined to take over his father’s company, Joo Kim has described himself as a rebellious youth. It took him a while to discover his true passion in the world of business. “I was an idiot when I was younger,” he laughs. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I wasn’t very mature. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just go to school, get some exposure to the business and see what happens.’ ”
At that stage, the family company was more concerned with the world of finance and retail stockbroking. “The financial business didn’t excite me as much, but I found I had a passion for real estate,” he explains. “We were still relatively young as a real estate company, so it allowed me to shape my own identity and create my own legacy as a real estate guy.”
Joo Kim completed degrees in Science (Management) and a Master of International Business at Oklahoma’s Oral Roberts and Sydney’s Macquarie University respectively, but emphatically says that on-the-job learning has taught him more.
“No university likes to hear this, but I don’t think it really teaches you much of the practicality of your work. There are a lot of things that school doesn’t teach you, that you can only learn by doing the work and being in the real world.”
In January 2016, he moved into the CEO position at TA Global and has helped shape
it as a real estate developer with an eye for ambitious and elegantly designed luxury projects. Joo Kim says his background gives him a very different focus from many competitors in the real estate sphere.
“I think a lot of developers are very profit-driven,” he explains. “They’re not trying to re-imagine the work; they’re focused on what will sell, what will have a strong profit margin. I grew up pretty comfortable, so my motivation is not just profit. Don’t get me wrong – money is important, but it’s not my motivation. It doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning.
“What makes me excited is the possibility of building memories and experiences
for people. The opportunity to build communities, shape the skyline, and really impact the way people live and experience their daily life – that’s what gets me excited.”
A design aficionado who firmly believes that great architecture can bring people together, Joo Kim has a passion for creating visually striking buildings and an understanding of the market realities and practicalities of real estate projects. “We can’t just build monuments,” he concedes. “We want to build things that people can enjoy, afford and be part of. Most of the time, I’m one of those people who believe that when you build something of quality, there will be tangible long-term advantages.”
Working on exciting projects and establishing a coherent style across a portfolio is important, Joo Kim says. TA Global will be looking for iconic and influential ventures, hand-picking boutique projects that have exciting potential, rather than settling for run-of-the-mill work. “Every development is going to be special,” Joo Kim enthuses. “It’s going to be bespoke. We try to raise the bar, to set a new standard in every development we do. I think that will create long-term value in our projects.”
Life as the young CEO of TA Global Berhad
Joo Kim moved into the CEO role at just 36, and says the challenges of being taken seriously by his much older industry counterparts were substantial. “There’s a little bit of politics that comes with that. There are going to be a lot of people who try to undermine you or control you because you’re young. People will think you’re not good enough.” But he won over the sceptics with his unrelenting work ethic. “You lead by working hard, and people will naturally follow you,” he says.
Yet, Joo Kim says there are also significant advantages that come with being an unusually youthful CEO. Recognising one’s own strengths and weaknesses is key to success, he says. “As a young person, you lack experience, but what you have is way more energy and more drive than anyone else. You need to work harder than everyone, and if you’re not an expert, you have to become an expert. It’s also good to soak up as much knowledge as you can from other people.
When you’re a younger CEO, you have to work more collaboratively. “I have a lot of weaknesses; don’t get me wrong. But my strength, I think, is that I have good vision. I have a naturally inquisitive mind and I always try to understand what’s going on in the world, why people are acting or reacting in a certain way.
My strength, I think, is that I have good vision. I have a naturally inquisitive mind.
“I’m also very passionate. I love design and creating experiences; those are my strengths. I’m strong in those things. And I think I’m good at leading a team, and giving them the vision and confidence. I can get a team motivated, get them to buy into and work for our goal.”
His deep curiosity has proven particularly useful in figuring out what makes a real estate development shine. While his peers may be content to kick back in a cocktail bar, Joo Kim will be trying to figure out why the bar is buzzing while others on the same street are dead.
He is a subscriber to the idea that a successful project in any field, be it hospitality or commercial office space, will have lessons that are applicable for his real estate development work. “I will be like: ‘Dude, can you please tell me about your business?’ ” he says. “I always want to know how things work so I can learn more.”
When he is scouting a new area for a development, he will study financial reports and economic forecasts, but he also says it is vital to talk to bar patrons, taxi drivers,
local police officers, and anyone who has a feel for what is happening in the community. “I try to understand what consumers are gravitating towards. If you understand your target market, then you can come up with a product that they like.”
Trump Tower: lessons learned
The project Joo Kim is most associated with so far is the Trump International Hotel and Tower, Vancouver. This was construction on a grand scale. A 63-storey twisting tower designed by architect Arthur Erickson, it became the second-tallest building in the city.
Its construction history was complicated, however, and the building became the centre of immense media interest and protest, which only heightened when its branding partner, Donald Trump, started his presidential campaign. Local politicians attempted to stop the building going ahead and campaigned to have the Trump name removed from the Vancouver skyline.
Joo Kim says he learned an incredible amount from the high-profile and often stressful project. “Some of it I sort of decided or designed on the fly and it became a coordination nightmare that resulted in a lot of changed orders and variations in cost. I still kept it under control, but that would be the first thing that I learned.
“The other main thing I learned is that we need to pace ourselves. That kind of project is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to go through different phases: there are different types of work that you have to do at different stages of the process.”
Joo Kim says he has developed a more strategic approach in the aftermath of the Trump Tower project. “Now I don’t get too hung up on any one thing. I understand that it’s
a process, and I don’t get too stressed out about anything because you need to focus on the task ahead. That’s all you need to do.”
Over and above the various logistical and construction challenges, the backlash against Joo Kim took a personal toll. “That’s stuff that most people don’t really go through,” he remembers. “Dealing with – I hate to say it – controversy or backlash from certain people, people sending me mean tweets, threatening me. It was just odd.
“I’d never experienced it before and I didn’t really know how to deal with it at that point in time. I just tried to remain focused and not get distracted by any of it. I had to understand that I had a task that I needed to accomplish, and I was determined to just remain focused on that.”
Heavy metal drummer
Inevitably dressed in an immaculately tailored suit with a dapper pocket square, Joo Kim nonetheless has sides to his character that don’t fit neatly into the corporate mould. He enjoys heavy-metal drumming and finds the sheer energy of the music empowering. “It’s freaky, I know,” he admits.
“But sometimes we forget that work is not everything and that we need to have other things in our life that take our mind off things. I think having a hobby is good, something that you’re passionate about and enjoy.
“I like drumming because it goes very well with my personality. Drumming takes tons of practice, and when you’re drumming, you cannot think of other things. You need to focus on hitting on time, getting the repetitions right. I like it because it teaches me the things I need to do to be successful in everything else I need to be in life.”
I like drumming … it teaches me the things I need to do to be successful in everything else I need to be in life.
The punishing discipline of drumming is also an aspect that appeals to Joo Kim. Getting the complicated rhythms of heavy metal down takes hours upon hours of practice. “Sometimes when you’re practising, it’s boring as heck,” he admits. “But you put in the time, and finally you realise, ‘Oh, man, I’m so good now!’ It becomes second nature.”
Joo Kim is also an avid basketball fan, preferring to follow the storylines of individual players rather than any team. The up-and-down career of Stephon Marbury is one that struck a chord with him. After his time in the sport’s pinnacle competition, the NBA, came to a premature end, Marbury was widely seen as a difficult personality and a wasted talent.
Yet, his story had an unexpected second act when he moved to China and became such a successful and respected figure in the league that locals built a statue in his honour. “I don’t know him; it’s just a story I followed, but I’m very happy for him,” Joo Kim says.
“Sometimes it’s good to see a person reinvent themselves. Through the course of a life there’s going to be highs and lows, but at the end of the day you end on the good. You know what I’m saying?”