Entering Malaysia in a big way

PETALING JAYA, Aug 12 (Bernama) – Qi Group, the Hong Kong-based global e-commerce company headed by entrepreneur Datuk Vijay Eswaran, is eyeing strategically-located properties in Malaysia in the leisure, hospitality and health-related industries including setting up affordable specialist hospitals in what is seen as a homecoming for the self-made multi-millionaire.

This, together with the group’s purchase of a RM60 million building in Section 8 here as its regional headquarters and ambitious plans for the Endau-Rompin resort, marks its commitment and entry into Malaysia in a big way.

The regional headquarters here would consolidate its operations in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, he told Bernama in an interview today.

Vijay, who has carved out a name for himself among renowned Hong Kong financial circles more than a decade ago, said as a conglomerate with a global reach, the group will continue to look for choice properties in Thailand, Mauritius, Maldives and Kenya besides Malaysia to expand its leisure and hospitality businesses.

Nevertheless, the current focus is on moving to Malaysia in a big way and building up a track record with financial institutions.

“We could have purchased the HQ building outright ourselves from our funds. But we went through the process of getting 60 per cent financing to build up our financial credibility and rapport locally,” he said.

Starting out in 1998 as an e-commerce outfit, the Qi Group has grown into a multinational conglomerate with six key businesses — telecommunications, lifestyle and leisure, luxury and collectibles, training and conference management, property development, and a global retail and direct sales business — with subsidiaries in 30 countries.

Vijay said the group’s continuing and increased presence in Malaysia was also underpinned by a firm belief in the country’s economic potential and the need to build up its local persona.

A massive venture Qi is undertaking in Malaysia is the Endau-Rompin resort project in Pahang covering 200 acres (about 80 hectares) at a development cost of US$250 million.

Grand plans are in store for the resort over the long-term which will showcase a marina, mixed development, villas, a boutique hotel, as well as cultural and heritage centre when it is operational in five years’ time, he said.

It was purchased for US$28.1 million (RM70 million) initially.

The group is also setting up five private specialist hospitals in the next three years with an investment of RM18-RM20 million each providing affordable medical services in various fields such as surgery, dermatology, emergency operations, general clinic, etc.

But the catch here is that affordability would come about from the hospitals being located outside urban centers such as Banting for which land has already been acquired.

The four-storey hospital with 40-60 beds is expected to be fully operational is two years’ time. Other potential sites for such hospitals include Kluang and Kuantan.

He said: “We are banking on the affordability of medical tourism in Malaysia which is a powerful incentive to lure tourists as Malaysia is a lot cheaper than Singapore. It fits into our tourism strategy.”

Vijay also revealed that the company was working with the Pahang government to rebuild Istana Pekan, which was a classic palace, built without a single nail or cement being used, and sitting on the premises of the royal palace grounds.

“Malaysia is not playing up our culture and heritage as much as we should like Bali and Thailand (and) more so with the distinctly different culture between Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan and the west coast,” said Vijay.

Vijay, who hails from Terengganu, is passionate about spicing up the state’s culture and heritage with classical east coast Malay architecture which would offer tourists from all over the world a secondary story and not just the usual sun, sea and sand.

Once the resort is operational in five years’ time which he describes as more of a labour of love, the group also has plans to develop the legendary lake of Tasik Chini, which would add on to the 100 million-year old Endau-Rompin heritage forest area.

“We are going to preserve the mangrove swamp and backwaters on our property and build cabins on stilts so that we can preserve the ecological balance of the project,” he said.

Asked on the returns from these investments, he said what was going to be profitable was the resort itself which can be patronised by the group’s captive tourist market from its Vacation Club which has six million customers worldwide in its database.

Already, the diversified company is bringing in a whole bunch of tourists worldwide to Malaysia, Thailand, Bali and the Middle East.

To tap into that potential, the group was on the lookout for an urban hotel in Kuala Lumpur which can be a stopover for them to spend a couple of days for shopping and thereon choose to hop on to Endau-Rompin and Tasik Chini for a feel of culture.

To this end, he said the group was negotiating with two hotels, “but we may not acquire both. One is right down in Jalan Sultan Ismail in KL and another in PJ, which is stone’s throw away from Amcorp Mall” which houses Qi’s current operations.

“We are also eyeing resort properties in Mauritius, Kenya for safaris, and an island in the Maldives to add to our expansion plans,” he said.

In Thailand’s island paradise of Koh Samui where it owns the Prana Resort, he said the group was already building its second upscale hotel along the island’s Boh Put beach.

The groundbreaking for the second resort in Koh Samui is set for this month.

Vijay also revealed that the group “definitely has its eyes open for properties in Sabah and Sarawak, probably an island off Sandakan as well as in Balik Pulau in Penang.”

As to whether there would be a cap to this process (of acquiring properties), he said there was none as it’s a matter of “finding the right location and acquiring properties to meet our needs.”

When asked on the funding needs against a backdrop of such ambitious plans and acquisitions, he lamented that “it has been both our boon and bane.”

Elaborating, he said that never needing to seek external funding was a boon as funding from within the group makes life easier as everything was internal.

But it was a bane because “we have never been able to build up strong financial relations with banks as a result of which they don’t know who we are.”

That is why “we are changing our strategy to negotiate with banks for loans and hire purchase agreements rather than traditionally buying outright,” he said.

“The PJ headquarters has given us a good base as far as our credit worthiness is concerned,” said Vijay.

The company’s employees have started moving into their new headquarters in PJ8 here. It would initially house its financial, administrative, information technology and backroom audit operations to be followed by other external functions.

They include graphic works in Thailand, copyrighting (Philippines), call centres (split between Philippines and Malaysia), legal as well as travel and vacations (Singapore).

“Department by department is being consolidated because we are pretty far and quite widespread and our staff here of over 400 people now from a mere 80 five years ago will support our global operations,” he said, clearly reaffirming that Qi is in Malaysia for the long haul.

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