Power Players

Why one billionaire says there's 'no way' he'll list his education business on the stock market

Jeffrey Cheah, founder and chairman of Sunway Group, a Malaysian conglomerate.

Malaysia's multi-pronged real estate business Sunway Group has three public listings to its name.

But what you'll never find listed on any stock exchange is its education arm.

That's despite Sunway Education's links to well-known institutions like Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute and Australia's Monash University.

"Right from the beginning, I had my mind set that no way I'm going to list the company," said Sunway Group founder and chairman, Jeffrey Cheah.

As the sixth child in a large family whose father — the sole breadwinner — drove trucks, Cheah came from a humble background. He grew up in the small rural town of Pusing, Malaysia, and he saw the effects of poverty on families and on the education of children.

Cheah's fortunes started to change when he seized the opportunity to pursue a business degree in Australia.

Today, the 73-year-old is one of the richest men in Malaysia, with a net worth of $1.3 billion, according to Forbes.

He is known for the building of mega townships and for being a strong advocate of transforming livelihoods through education.

About a decade ago, an investment banker approached Cheah with an offer to take the company public on a stock exchange. Cheah turned the banker down.

"So sorry, I've made up my mind," he recalls saying at the time. "This is what I want to return back to society. I want to put it in a foundation, structure the thing in a proper manner and in perpetuity. Hopefully, it will be my good legacy."

While not listing the education unit means turning away from potentially huge amount of funding, Cheah said the upside of his decision means the business will not be profit-driven. He won't be held to the demands of shareholders.

Instead, management will do whatever is best in the school's academic and research interests, he told Christine Tan at CNBC's Managing Asia: Sustainable Entrepreneurship conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 21.

Cheah said his overriding principle is that the businesses must do no societal harm — which is why he has never dabbled in anything involved with gambling or smoking, he said.

In fact, he turned down offers from overseas to set up casinos in Sunway's inaugural township in Greater Kuala Lumpur.

He had witnessed fellow townspeople addicted to gambling, he recalled — and compromising their children's education as a result.

"I told my people many a time, we will not go into businesses that hurt society," said Cheah.

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