From being the son of a fisherman in Sarawak to a Harvard graduate developing iconic global properties, Teo Ah Khing is now undertaking the largest integrated project the Caribbean has ever seen.

Soon after St Lucia’s Prime Minister (PM) Allen Chastanet took office in June 2016, one of the earliest projects sanctioned by the government was an integrated lifestyle resort called Pearl of the Caribbean. This was no ordinary project, but a US$2.6 billion mega development that would be the most audacious undertaking the small island of St Lucia has ever witnessed.

Sprawled over 1,000 acres next to St Lucia’s soon-to-be remodelled airport, it will consist of a state-of-the-art horse racing track that can house over 1,000 horses, hotels, a marina, shopping mall, a casino and other leisure and entertainment facilities.

It is no small feat to convince a government to adopt a project that exceeds the country’s annual GDP of US$1.9 billion so quickly. The man who achieved this is Teo Ah Khing, founder of real estate and construction company, TAK Group and Desert Star Holdings, the master planner of Pearl of the Caribbean.

Teo Ah Khing was picked by PM Mahathir Mohamad to build the federal administrative capital of Putrajaya.

Humble Beginnings

Born in August 1960 in Sarawak, Malaysia, Teo was virtually unknown to most people in St Lucia before his project. The youngest of 10 siblings, he was the son of a fisherman who emigrated to Malaysia from Fujian province in China. His mother was a housewife.

Teo’s early days were hard and money was scarce. His father soon realised that a fisherman’s erratic earnings would be insufficient to feed his large family, and moved into trading vehicle spare parts and fixing tyres. The economy was starting to boom and his business achieved some measure of success, enough to be able to send his youngest son to Australia for undergraduate studies at the University of New South Wales.

Teo was the only sibling afforded a university education, and he did his family proud by topping his class in architecture. Upon graduation, Teo married his classmate, Ivy and they spent the next few years working as architects in Australia.

Having aced his graduate studies, Teo was confident enough to apply to Harvard University and pursue a Master’s Degree in Urban Design. He moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts while Ivy got a job in Boston.

Despite initial struggles, by the end of his two-year course, Teo was awarded two Letters of Recommendation: one for being an ‘Outstanding Student’ and another for contributing his services to the faculty as a teaching assistant.

Teo’s father passed on when he was at university in Australia, but it was a moment of great pride for his mother to attend his Harvard graduation ceremony in the presence of the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, the guest-of-honour and fellow Harvard alumni.

While Teo’s father did mostly blue-collared jobs, he had an artistic flair and was a skilled, self-taught calligrapher, characteristics Teo believes he inherited. He also explained that he chose an urban design course to design cities from scratch because at that time, Asia was a region identified as the fastest growing in the world but offered no such discipline for such studies.

Teo pictured with his family at his Harvard graduation ceremony, where he was given a Letter of Recommendation for being an ‘Outstanding Student’.

Mentored By The Best

At Harvard, Teo was fortunate to be tutored by world-class lecturers such as Moshe Safdie, who designed the iconic Marina Bay Sands and Jewel Changi Airport, and I M Pei, who designed the Louvre Museum in Paris. Teo commented, “An architect’s life is like an artist. The one consistent goal of our work is to create something timeless.”

Learning well from his master tutors, and inspired by the skyscrapers he saw in New York City, Teo started designing townships in Bandar Seri Alam in Johor and his home town of Sarawak in the 1990s. Describing his design philosophy as ‘timeless and organic’, Teo believes he needs to work with natural elements to align and blend with nature.

His efforts to optimise land contours and preserve the environment impressed then Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad, who picked him to build a new federal administrative capital called Putrajaya, that would also house the Prime Minister’s office. The project was an immense accomplishment for Teo’s fledgling three-year-old company and drew much acclaim, including from then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who commissioned Teo to build a massive military headquarters and township in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Developing The Middle East

After Pakistan, Teo was involved in iconic mega projects in Dubai, working as advisor to Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum. Master developer Nakheel Properties engaged Teo to create the iconic Palm Islands; three offshore artificial islands, Palm Jumeirah, Deira Island and Palm Jebel Ali, on the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“Before I officially became the advisor to Sheikh Mohammed, he had about 100 km of seafront and waterfront. When we left Dubai seven years later, it was 350 km of waterfront. Per square foot of land in the desert is probably worth US$2, but per square foot of land facing the water is worth US$250. We create wealth. We are retained because we can create wealth,” Teo states.

Apart from the Palm Islands, another notable project pioneered by Teo was a solar water desalination system to extract ground water for thousands of camels in the desert. The water filtration system involved drilling pipes 40-100 m into the ground and using solar energy to pump the water up.

It was through Sheikh Mohammed that Teo submitted his proposal for the Meydan Racecourse, a project that had been brewing for the last five years, and was selected to build his largest and most challenging project to date: a 100,000-capacity horse racing complex, with hotel, restaurants, a convention centre, royal enclosure and 1.6 km long grandstand with an IMAX theatre to capture camera finishes for the races. The US$3 billion undertaking involved up to 20,000 workers who toiled round the clock in 65 degrees of heat to complete the project in 920 days. The racecourse had to be finished in time for the Dubai World Cup in 2010, where the Queen of England and other VIPs from around the world would be present.

In the course of bringing in Chinese labour for this project, Teo realised there was limited dealings between UAE and China with only 4,000 Chinese living in the entire Middle East. Chinese government officials who viewed the racecourse also saw its potential in China, and Teo was invited to Tianjin for a similar project.

An Equestrian Vision

In 2012, Teo started the China Horse Club (CHC), positioned as Asia’s premier lifestyle, business and thoroughbred racing club. It costs US$1 million each to join and has attracted 200 members to date. In addition to high end networking opportunities for its members to meet business leaders and those in the thoroughbred industry, the club currently owns close to 1,000 horses for racing, breeding and trading. Club profits are as high as 26% and are shared among members. To date, CHC has participated in the world’s most prestigious derbies and won over 450 races in 13 countries.

Teo views the demand for horses in China to be almost insatiable and far outstripping supply. This is partially because China is unable to import horses directly from the US in bulk due to restrictions and strict protocols. Weather-wise, North America and China are similar. During the winter, horse owners in America send their horses, by the thousands, to the south in Florida for training. More than half will be sold in Florida. Because of transportation cost, owners prefer to sell the horses and buy new ones.

Teo sees a large opportunity in this trend to create a marketplace in a third country trans-shipment hub. St Lucia in the Caribbean ticked off on all the boxes, located just 3.5 hours by flight from Miami, Florida. He plans to achieve this with the Pearl of the Caribbean project and hopes to transform the island by creating a sustainable horse breeding industry.

Teo’s China Horse Club is known for winning the coveted 2014 Epsom Derby, the sport’s most prestigious prize.

Economic Equilibrium

“With St Lucia, we are using the horse industry as a catalyst, and as the lowest point of entry for labourers. There is no need for them to go to high school or university for the jobs we will offer. Once they are off the streets and the unemployment rate drops, we would have reached an equilibrium. And this is just one industry – add in hotels, cruise terminals etc and hopefully in 25 years, a mini Singapore can emerge in St Lucia. That is our aim. We might have retired by then, but we hope to leave a legacy, something that is sustainable.”

Teo is putting together everything he has learned so far into this project, and sees it as special because of its sustainable practical design and infusion of Caribbean culture. “We had to convince the political masters that we are not there to colonise but to provide assistance.”

Pearl of the Caribbean is arguably the largest project in the Caribbean. Its gross development value is already more than doubled to at US$6.5 billion. It will take 15 years to be fully developed and will be rolled out in parcels of US$300 million to $400 million each. The early launch will have three phases with a total value of close to $1 billion.

A cornerstone for raising capital to fund the project without incurring debt is the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP). Through this, investors can buy a hotel unit for US$300,000 and receive citizenship rights for their entire family, in addition to complimentary night stays of two to four weeks per year and annual rental returns averaging 5%.

Swiss Education

To make the CIP even more attractive, Teo is seeking Cabinet approval to launch an education-based CIP option that would bring down the age criteria to 15 years from 18 years for children to apply for a passport of their own. In this regard, he has tied up with an education partner to set up training colleges and hotels in St Lucia in collaboration with École hôtelière de Lausanne, a hospitality management school in Switzerland widely regarded as being among the best in the world.

A St Lucia passport is highly attractive because it allows the holder to travel to over 108 countries compared to a Chinese or Indonesian passport that allows visa free access to only 50 and 47 countries respectively. More importantly, a St Lucian passport opens access to universities around the world as there are currently no quotas for St Lucians.

Teo believes that the CIP and CIP Education schemes will not only attract foreign investors but also create more opportunities and employment for St Lucians. His aim is to reduce unemployment rates from 26% to 15%, 10% and 5% year- on-year.

“St Lucia has a workforce of only 30,000. Pearl of the Caribbean can create 8,000 more jobs for the unemployed. For a small country with a small population, it is easier to turn things around,” says Teo.

Pearl of the Caribbean is progressing ahead of schedule with its inaugural race planned for 13 December 2019, St Lucia’s National Day. Trading partners from China and the US as well as world-famous jockeys and trainers from Australia, France, US and investors will be invited. John Warren, Chairman of China Horse Club’s International Advisory Council and Racing Advisor to HM Queen Elizabeth II, convinced Her Majesty to allow Pearl of the Caribbean horse club the affix of ‘Royal’, and it will now be named the Royal St Lucia Turf Club.

Despite his impeccable track record for completing iconic projects the world over, and owning a club with assets believed to be well over US$100 billion, Teo remains low profile and grounded. “Making money is not the ultimate goal in my life. If St Lucia can be an example to be emulated by others, I think we have done something meaningful in our career. We are helping a country. I think that is a notable achievement.”

With the success of China Horse Club, Teo is now a prominent figure in horse racing and will bring his expertise to St Lucia.

This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 52 - July 2019

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