KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 5 — One-time Malaysian icon, the 100-year-old Sime Darby Berhad, appears to be in a downward spiral as it faces huge losses again after the last one 13 years ago, with top officials being taken off from several units.
The Malaysian Insider understands that the government conglomerate will next month announce that potential losses could top RM2 billion — and go as high as RM2.5 billion. Most of the losses are down to ill-advised investments in the energy and utilities sector in Qatar as well as tardy business practices in the development of the Bakun dam in Sarawak.
The last time Sime Darby saw red on its balance sheets came after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when a plunge in the stock market and a sharp depreciation of the ringgit led its financial arm, Sime Bank, to post a RM1.6 billion loss — the largest in Malaysian banking history — for the six months to December 1997. The conglomerate went on to post a six-month loss of RM676.2 million and closed the 1998 financial year with a net loss of RM540.9 million.
It is also learnt that property division managing director Datuk Tunku Badlishah Tunku Annuar has been removed from some units within his division while other top officials are being put on notice after Sime Darby instructed former chief executive Datuk Seri Ahmad Zubir Murshid to take a leave of absence last May 13 in relation to the losses.
But hefty losses and disciplined officials aside, the group could also face crippling billion-ringgit law suits as it moves to abruptly end some of its joint ventures across the globe.
It is understood that since being appointed as the acting chief executive, Datuk Bakke Salleh has been looking at joint ventures involving Sime Darby, arguing that some of these were not as advantageous to the group as others and mooting that they be revisited or ended.
The only hitch is this: All the ventures are legally-binding, were agreed to and vetted by Sime’s legal department, and given the green light by the previous management and the board of directors. A couple of the ventures even pre-dated Zubir’s tenure as the chief executive.
Any move to end these ventures is likely to set off an expensive legal battle for Sime Darby. The conglomerate could also have an embarrassing face-off with Zubir. He has been forced to go on leave but has not quit as the chief executive.
Along the corridors of Wisma Sime Darby, there is growing belief that he will engage a lawyer to protect his interest and avoid being made the scapegoat for all the problems at the conglomerate. A slugfest in court will prove bloody for both Zubir and the board of directors, led by Tun Musa Hiitam, but it could also have serious repercussions for the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.
It is widely known that government-linked companies sometimes enter into deals at the behest and urging of government leaders and political masters.
One of the chief concerns of investors on hearing the news that Bakke has been selected to steady the listing ship at Sime Darby was his relative inexperience in running a public listed entity.
He has helmed Tabung Haji and Felda, where profit making were not the primary objective. In both these organisations, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a key objective, and since occupying the hot seat at Sime Darby and meeting senior officials, the view in the conglomerate is that corporate social responsibility will enjoy equal billing with profit making, news which may not cheer investors.
Officials who have met him describe Bakke as driven but impulsive.
Sime Darby closed at RM7.70 per share yesterday, falling one sen from the opening price. It has lost nearly some RM6 billion in market capitalisation since news of its troubles became public last May 13.