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Outsider CEOs in family firms

Singapore-listed City Developments (CDL), which has been run by the founding Kwek family for the past 50 years, recently surprised the market by appointing Grant Kelley as its first CEO. Director of Robert Half, Stella Tang, said more family-controlled firms could take CDL's lead.

SINGAPORE: Singapore-listed City Developments (CDL) recently surprised the market by appointing Grant Kelley as its first CEO.

Mr Kelley, hired from private equity fund Apollo Global Management, will be the first outsider to head the business, which has been run by the founding Kwek family for the past 50 years.

Human resources experts said the push for an outsider CEO is usually driven by business or governance needs, and they expect more of such appointments to follow.

Last week, CDL appointed Australian Grant Kelley to a newly created CEO post.

He will assume the position from February 17.

It was the first time in CDL's history that someone from outside the Kwek family has been chosen to head the business.

And director of Robert Half, Stella Tang, said more family-controlled firms could take CDL's lead.

She elaborated: "Singapore will increasingly see family-run companies appointing external people to run their family business, because most of the time it's hard to find somebody internally who'd actually be interested or passionate about the job the same way as they are. And especially if the company is listed, you will find that people will actually want the company to look into the best person for the job."

With increasing pressure to expand outside the limited Singapore market, experts said there will be greater demand for external managers with international experience.

In CDL's case, it has said that bringing on Mr Kelley will help the firm capitalise on growth markets overseas, in line with its plans to be less Singapore-centric.

That is seen as a strong signal to shareholders that the firm is planning for the long-term.

Joanne Chua, associate director of Robert Walters, said: "If you look at companies that have expanded beyond the shores of Singapore, or those that are listed on the stock exchange, I think to a great extent, they have done a good job in ensuring that there is objectivity in governance. However, if you look at the smaller Singapore firms, I think the delineation between ownership and management functions is still very much blurred."

Among the 30 stocks on Singapore STI, only a handful is still run by their founders, or their founders' family.

Some of these include Singapore's third largest lender United Overseas Bank, resort operator Genting Singapore, as well as commodity firms Golden-Agri Resources and Wilmar. 

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