Joo Kim Tiah: Youth movement

Joo Kim Tiah, 33-year-old scion of one of Malaysia's wealthiest families, is spearheading the development of Vancouver's $360 million Trump tower and a $300 million property in the city's Little Mountain district

Holborn CEO Joo Kim Tiah: “me and Don [Trump] Jr. have a lot of similarities. We're both second generation people. We both have strong, dominant fathers who are very successful”

The drum set stashed in a spare room at Holborn Group's Vancouver headquarters is the first clue that CEO Joo Kim Tiah is not your ordinary Vancouver developer.     

Another comes for those who visit the website marketing the $360 million Trump tower that Tiah is building on West Georgia Street.

Inexplicably, a woman dances with a bear. There's a sockless man wearing a suit lighting his cigar with a candelabra. All the while, a fish dangles from a chandelier. It's not your typical marketing site for a Vancouver real estate project.

The 33-year-old scion of one of Malaysia's wealthiest families basked in the spotlight in June when he announced his partnership with celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, whose brand will grace Tiah's 63-storey Arthur Erickson-designed tower now under construction with presales slated for fall.

Tiah also generated headlines in July, when he finalized a $300 million deal to buy 15 acres of land in Vancouver's Little Mountain district near Queen Elizabeth Park from the B.C. government. He plans to use the property as a site for up to 10 mid-rise towers, including 1,500 homes, 234 of which would be social housing units.

Critics of his controversial proposal, which has initial city approval, fear that the road network and nearby community centre are inadequate to handle the jump in population. He believes consultation has taken far too long.

Associates believe Tiah's relative youth is key to understanding why he is so different from most developers in town.

"With age and experience, you tend to be more cautious because you've bumped your head a few times. You learn you have to do things a certain way," said James Cheng, who recently resigned, for health reasons, as the architect for Tiah's Little Mountain project.

"Joo Kim is an outside-the-box thinker because he has a younger attitude of 'Why not? Why can't you do it this way?'"

Tiah's decision to approach Trump surprised Cheng because Cheng doubts the Trump brand will impress potential buyers in Vancouver. Cheng believes Vancouverites are not as brand-conscious as those on North America's east coast and perhaps much of the world.

So why did Tiah approach Trump?

Mostly because he bonded with Donald Trump Jr. and knew Donald Trump's children would be the point people in the Vancouver project.

"Me and Don Jr. have a lot of similarities," Tiah said. "We're both second-generation people. We both have strong, dominant fathers who are very successful. How Don treats Don Jr. is very much how my dad treats me. It's firm. He's very tough on his kid. I can associate."

Wearing a shoulder-length bob hairstyle and a fashionable suit and tie, Tiah sits in an office in the Holborn head office on Seymour Street in the Bay Parkade building that his family owns.

Tiah reveals that if sales go well with the Trump tower and the Little Mountain development, his attention will shift to the block bounded by West Georgia, Seymour, Dunsmuir and Richards streets, where Holborn owns most of the land.

Aside from the old post office site, at 349 West Georgia, his family's block is likely the downtown's prime redevelopment site.

Holborn includes family investments outside of the TA Group.

TA includes the majority stake Tiah's father, Datuk Tony Tiah Thee Kian, has in the Malaysian public company TA Enterprise Berhad (TAE:KL), which in turn owns a majority stake in TA Global Berhad (TAGB:KL).

Tiah's mother, Datin Alicia Tiah, is CEO of TA Enterprise, which has a market capitalization in excess of US$350 million.

"Growing up, I was a rebellious kid," Tiah said. "I blame it on my parents not having time to spend with me because they were busy working all the time."

He wanted to leave Malaysia after high school and was willing to go anywhere.

Instead of backpacking around the world, he went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, starting in 1997.

Four years later, degree in business management in hand, he learned that "women change the course of your life."

Tiah fell in love with a woman who lived in Sydney, Australia. He enrolled at the city's MacQuarie University and completed a master's degree in international business in 2002.

After a short stint in Kuala Lumpur, he came to Vancouver in 2003. Brother-in-law Simon Lim was running Holborn, and Tiah's two older sisters were living in Vancouver, so the city seemed to be a good fit. His younger sister and younger brother are both still in Malaysia.

Tiah's first development projects included the Allison heritage restoration in Yaletown and the Symphony townhouse project in Richmond.

He also did design, marketing and branding work for the Domaine project near Main Street and East 33rd Avenue.

"After three years here at Holborn, my dad was like, 'Son, you really need to expose yourself more and increase your financial knowledge,'" he said.

So Tiah found a job as a researcher at ABN AMRO in Singapore. It was a junior position that he describes as "humbling."

He watched bosses suppress subordinates and take credit for junior workers' work.

"I learned that it's a dog-eat-dog world out there," he said. "It made me think that when I became a boss again, I will be a way better boss."

Outside work, Tiah works out, spends time with his girlfriend and plays drums in a heavy metal band.

Passionate about music, he talks in depth about subgenres of heavy metal. His favourites? Death metal and metalcore.

Asked what aspect of himself he would most want to be conveyed in a profile, he opens up about how central religion is in his life.

"Every morning I come and pray with my team," he said, explaining that employees are not required to join prayer sessions.

"I don't know if it's appropriate or right. In Canada it's not good to talk about religion or personal beliefs. It's like God is so distant, and it's offensive to talk about what you believe in. I'm not professing to be a super holy Christian, but it's the reason why I'm here, and I am so blessed."