Saviours of the Planet

Last week the hamburger chain was saved from bankruptcy by two investors with a glittering array of assets. Hilary Clarke and Dan Gledhill chart the careers of Ong Beng Seng and Prince Al Waleed

When Robert Earl, British founder of the ailing Planet Hollywood chain, was faced with a horde of creditors clamouring for their money back, he knew where to turn. Sure enough, those old muckers - Prince Al Waleed of Saudi Arabia and Singapore's Ong Beng Seng - came up with $10m each, to match a similar amount from Earl's family trust, and the burger bar chain was saved from collapse. It was life or death for Earl, but all in a day's work for two exotic billionaires who have probably become the world's most prolific investors.

Ong, for one, is laughing all the way to the bank. Only last year, as Planet Hollywood began reporting heavy losses, he sold down his stake in the company from 21 per cent to 12 per cent, for a cool $45m profit.

But that's Ong, one of the shrewdest investors in the world. He is, as one close associate called him, "a trader" - a financial wheeler and dealer.

Two years ago, the future wasn't looking too good for Ong, whose assets spread from his Singapore-based property empire, Hotel Properties, to the global franchises of Armani Exchange, the network established by Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani.

As the Asian economies went down, newspapers were awash with rumours that Ong was also close to financial collapse. That was because the publicity- shy Ong had embarked on an asset- shedding spree, selling first his private jet and then such prestigious assets as his shares in Donna Karen Japan and his 50 per cent stake in the Four Seasons Hotel in London to long-standing business partner Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The rumours got worse, spreading from Ong's financial health to his physical health, causing shares in Hotel Properties to plunge. That forced the 53-year-old businessman to give a rare interview, and resume an old smoking habit.

"I'm beginning to realise I'm not a very popular person," he told a press corps in Singapore. "But I provide some buzz in this town. I also begin to realise that the way I conduct my business and my life gives a lot of people issues to contend with."

Indeed it does. "If there is a big party in town, with famous people coming, then you can be sure it is Ong who will be hosting it," said one Singapore-based analyst.

Still, the interview was a rare sign of soul searching for the man who, along with his wife Christina, once owned half the franchises in Bond Street. He still owns London's trendy Metropolitan and Halkin hotels.

In fact, he turned the Asian slump to his advantage. By selling assets, he amassed cash ready to buy up others at rock-bottom prices. Today, shares in his main company, Hotel Properties, are almost at the same level as before the Asian crisis.

Despite his acute business acumen, Ong is not a self-made man. He was born into money in Malaysia, moving with his family to Singapore when he was four years old. His first business venture was in shipping insurance where he began to make his fortune.

Probably the best business deal he ever made was when he married into more money. His wife's father, Peter Fu Yun Siak, founded the Kuo International trading group in Singapore, which started off trading in timber and wax before moving into oil. Ong joined the group in1975 and quickly established himself as a fearless trader. The two men founded Hotel Properties together, their first purchase being the Singapore Hilton, now worth an estimated 10 times what they originally paid for it. The mega-bucks started to roll in.

Despite his media-shyness and casual image, Ong enjoys the opportunities presented by his fashion and Planet Hollywood connections. He socialises with a host of celebrities and has made a fortune trading off the names of some of the world's top fashion designers.

He has also managed to gather around him a loyal group of business associates. Robert Earl, who has been a partner for 11 years, is one. Another is Prince Al Waleed, who also has a stake in Hotel Properties.

Ong is also a big investor in Canary Riverside Developments, which, along with Canary Wharf Ltd and another state-run Singapore company, is soon to open a new luxury hotel and apartment complex in London's Docklands.

His wife is even more glamorous. Said to be aloof and chic, she set about building a fashion empire because she needed something to do, according to Singapore press reports.

While the Armani Exchange has been making huge profits for the Ongs, the Asian crisis forced them to sell many of their fashion franchises, including Bulgari and Donna Karen. That hasn't phased Ong, though. Using a football analogy, he said that while people have been used to seeing him as a striker, sometimes he has to defend.

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