Cover Joanne Kua

The 34-year-old Malaysian wasn't sure if she wanted a career in the family's insurance business but all that has changed, and she now knows what it takes to create a legacy

The eldest of Malaysian entrepreneur Kua Sian Kooi’s four children, Joanne Kua grew up seeing her father’s passion for the insurance business he had built from scratch. The economics graduate clearly has a head for numbers as well, but a career in the family business “was never written in stone”, she tells us during a visit to Singapore earlier this year.

After getting a master’s degree in management and risk regulation from the London School of Economics, she joined Deutsche Bank’s London office, working in the Credit Risk Management department. The year was 2007, which was the peak of investment banking. “Everyone was having a fantastic time,” Kua remembers. There is a rueful tinge to this recollection, of course, because the global financial crisis would throw markets into turmoil just a year later.

When the great recession hit, “everything became doom and gloom”, says Kua. But she decided to stay at the bank for over two more years, because she realised the crisis was also a good learning opportunity.

Returning to Malaysia and diversifying the family business

That astute assessment says a lot about this business leader’s grounded attitude towards her work. Kua returned to Malaysia in 2010 and led the sale of her family business’ Malaysian insurance unit. Now known as KSK Group, it still operates insurance businesses in Indonesia and Thailand, and has diversified by launching KSK Land, a property development subsidiary. Kua is the group’s CEO, and KSK Land’s managing director. Her father remains the group’s executive chairman.

Kua cuts a petite figure and looks much younger than her 34 years. She is fully aware of the first impression she might leave, not just on business associates, but on her own team.

“You have to earn people’s respect,” she acknowledges. “I don’t take anything for granted. I make sure I roll up my sleeves, put in the hard work, and walk the ground. We are nothing without our people, and there is something I can learn from everyone.”

Next year, KSK Land will complete its first project, 8 Conlay, and bringing that to fruition has been a huge learning experience as well. The luxury mixed-use development in the heart of Kuala Lumpur comprises two residential towers with interiors designed by global studio Yoo, as well as a five-star hotel under the Kempinski brand. The latter is Europe’s oldest luxury hotelier, and will also service the property’s residential units.

See also: How Genting Group's Loui Lim Is Rocking The Boat

Launching 8 Conlay

Indeed, 8 Conlay has “crystallised KSK Land’s DNA for us”, says Kua. “We don’t think of development as simply building a shell and delivering that to the customer. We call ourselves a ‘lifestyle developer’, and that means really thinking about how our customers would like to live, work and play in these spaces.”

That sense of empathy is particularly crucial when it comes to developing projects in Asia, because the region’s buyers are “among the most fast-changing segments in the world”, Kua notes. Their expectations and habits have been conditioned by the rapid pace of technological developments in this part of the world, which means she’s always trying to think years ahead of the curve.

The idea of a smart home, for example, wasn’t a norm when they started conceptualising 8 Conlay, but buyers will have that technology available to them when they collect their keys next year.

See also: Naza’s Diana Nasimuddin On Food, Family & Her Famous Last Name

Looking far into the future, after all, is second nature for the stewards of family businesses. Says Kua: “For a business to last for generations, we have to create a foundation and structure where people can grow and adapt as times change. Creating a legacy is about building an engine that keeps moving forward, even when you are not around anymore.”

ICYMI: Like Father, Like Daughter: Tunku Dato' Yaacob Khyra And Tunku Elana Khyra

This story originally appeared in Singapore Tatler.

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.