Fifth billionaire emerges from Malaysia's glove-making industry

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia has long been a place where vast fortunes have been amassed over time. The Kuoks, Tehs and Queks are custodians of palm oil, property and banking empires that stretch back decades.

That was until Covid-19, when the country's low-key rubber industry - or more precisely, glove making - became one of the hottest on the planet.

Mr Wong Teek Son, who co-founded Singapore-listed Riverstone Holdings in the 1980s after working as a research chemist, last month became the fifth billionaire in Malaysia from manufacturing gloves.

He is now worth US$1.2 billion (S$1.64 billion) as shares of his company rallied almost sixfold from a low in March, thanks to growing demand for protective products during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Riverstone spokesman declined to comment on Mr Wong's net worth.

The speed and strength of the glove boom has been extraordinary, but there are signs the rapid rise could reverse, especially as research progresses for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines.

Glove companies were hammered last week when Russia's president said his nation had cleared the world's first Covid-19 vaccine for use, while Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are among those reaching deals with governments to supply their shots. Riverstone slumped 13 per cent in its worst week since March.

Even though a vaccine may not result in lower demand for gloves, investors may sell their shares in anticipation that a shot will reduce the number of cases, RHB Research Institute analyst Alan Lim noted in a report last Thursday.

When it comes to glove making, Malaysia is king: It produces about 65 per cent of the world's supply of rubber gloves, and the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry estimates exports will climb 45 per cent this year.

Riverstone peers Top Glove and Hartalega Holdings are now among the five most valuable companies on Malaysia's equity benchmark index. Their shares have jumped more than 192 per cent this year, lifting the net worth of their billionaire founders, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Fortunes in the country are booming even as the economy has contracted by the most since the Asian financial crisis. That is exacerbating already-wide inequality.

Knight Frank estimates wealth creation there is the 10th fastest in the world, while the mean income was RM7,901 (S$2,580) last year. The firm's 2020 wealth report projected that the number of Malaysians with more than $30 million would swell by 35 per cent between last year and 2024, compared with 2 per cent between 2018 and last year.

The glove industry's rise to global dominance has created a huge need for foreign workers, leading to controversy over their treatment. The United States last month barred imports of products from two Top Glove units owing to "reasonable evidence of forced labour".

The world's largest glove producer said last week that while it is continuing discussions with the US, demand is picking up in many other countries where Covid-19 outbreaks are resurfacing.

SINGAPORE LISTING

Unlike its rivals, when Riverstone decided to go public in 2006, it picked neighbouring Singapore.

That was because Malaysia had stricter currency controls and the funds raised in the city state were more easily transferable to China and Thailand, where Riverstone was expanding, according to the company's spokesman.

Riverstone has an annual production capacity of about nine billion gloves, according to its latest annual report. Its profit more than doubled to RM137.5 million in the first half of the year.

Mr Wong co-founded the maker of nitrile gloves in 1989 after working as a research and development chemist in a company that supplied clean-room products. He had not planned to venture into building his own business.

"The opportunity presented itself only because the company I worked for shut down, and we were able to use their production lines," he said in an interview with the Singapore Exchange in 2016, adding that with competition being rife, many peers in Malaysia had to close down. "We realised we needed to provide a service to our customers."

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