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Fortune: Meet Kuala Lumpur's Mr. Big [Ananda Krishnan]
By Eric Ellis

1/12/2001 2:34 am Sat channel=artcol.jhtml&doc_id=204900


Meet Kuala Lumpur's Mr. Big Krishnan's

Rolodex includes names like Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch.

FORTUNE, 12, By Eric Ellis

Here's a challenging brief for a CEO: Raise $735 million for a telecom company in an Islamic country ... after Sept. 11.

That's just what Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan has pulled off for his Maxis Communications. On Sept. 20 he secured Malaysia's largest corporate loan since Asia's 1997-98 financial crisis. And he did it not by pulling strings--a common route to success in Malaysia--but by winning the favor of big, conservative lenders from Japan, the Netherlands, and Canada.

The reclusive Krishnan, 62, hopes to make Maxis, Malaysia's top cellular operator, part of an elite multimedia conglomerate. In addition to Maxis--which he started with AT&T and British Telecom in 1995--Krishnan owns Malaysia's only satellite system and the world's largest Chinese-language movie library, as well as a national cable franchise. In April he bought out BT's and AT&T's stake in Maxis; now the company is bidding for Singapore's Mobile One, that country's second-largest cellular company. And when the investment landscape gets friendlier, Krishnan hopes to take the company public.

Krishnan has a track record to bank on. He was the developer of the Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings, and he opened them almost fully tenanted during the financial crisis of 1997. Four years and another economic downturn later, occupancy levels are still running at a respectable 75% to 80%. Last year he sold 10% of Measat 1, Malaysia's maiden satellite, to Microsoft; the sale price wasn't disclosed, but Krishnan associates say he got back his initial $300 million investment on that deal alone.

Those deals show savvy, but Krishnan has also had some very good luck. Tanjong, his publicly traded company, runs one of Malaysia's three national lotteries, and is successful even though the country's influential Muslim clerics preach against gambling. In August the government announced that it was cutting the levies that Tanjong had to pay on its lottery reserves by 60%. As a result, CIMB Securities in Kuala Lumpur expects Tanjong's profits to jump 50% in the next two years. Tanjong shares are up 20% since the announcement.

"No one knows why they got it," says an analyst in Warburg Dillon Read's Kuala Lumpur office. In Malaysia, capricious policymaking is the rule rather than the exception. Still, given Krishnan's close ties with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the lucrative tax break naturally provoked whispers of cronyism. Krishnan would not talk to FORTUNE for this article, but Tanjong officials note that they had long been lobbying for a reduction. Rival operators Berjaya and Magnum have responded by seeking their own tax breaks.

An ethnic Tamil in a country where Malays (58% of the population) dominate politically and the Chinese (26%) dominate economically, Krishnan has nevertheless developed truly stunning connections. He cut his dealmaking teeth in the 1970s as an oil trader with Petronas, the state oil company. Two decades later the firm agreed to be the Petronas Towers' anchor tenant. His Rolodex includes names like Jack Welch, Rupert Murdoch, and AIG's Maurice Greenberg, as well as rock star Sir Bob Geldof, with whom he mounted the Live Aid charity concert in 1985. And he has been friends with the Prime Minister since he watched over Mahathir's children when they attended college in the U.S., where Krishnan was living, in the 1970s.

Krishnan's recent run of good fortune has contrasted sharply with the decline of Malaysia's ethnic-Malay business elite, particularly one-time Mahathir favorite Halim Saad. Halim's Renong group--a politically connected conglomerate that was one of Asia's biggest companies in the mid-'90s--is $3 billion in debt, and Halim was ousted from the board in early October after the government took control of the company. "Being in business meant getting handouts and leg-ups all the time," says Dominic Armstrong, head of regional research for ABN AMRO. "But it has just been massive destruction of shareholder value." In contrast, Krishnan has built Maxis into a $3 billion business in six years.

As Malaysia recovers from one downturn and tries to stave off another, the last thing it needs is more big corporate failures. That's why the vote of confidence that international investors gave to Maxis is so important. "It's not so much Malaysia that you're backing, it's Ananda," says Armstrong. "He's a world-class businessman who happens to be Malaysian."