Mr S. P. Tao: a Visionary Entrepreneur and Discerning Investor

wtc on September 21, 2021

It is with great sadness that Overseas Realty (Ceylon) PLC announced the passing of Mr S. P. Tao, Founder, Chairman and Director of the Company, on 24 August 2021. Mr Tao lived to a great age of 105 and passed away peacefully in Nanjing, China. He had extensive worldwide business experience and was widely regarded as a visionary entrepreneur in the commodities, shipping and real estate sectors.


Mr Tao was the Founder and Chairman of the Shing Kwan Group, Singapore; Founder and Patron of Jiangsu Tao Shing Pee Education Foundation; Honorary Citizen of Nanjing, and Honorary President of Jiangsu Charity Foundation.


A naturalized citizen of Singapore of Chinese origin, Mr Tao’s legacies in Sri Lanka include the World Trade Center, Colombo (the largest FDI at the time) and Havelock City, which was built as a “City within a City “.


Throughout a career spanning over 80 years, Mr Tao had a deep-seated vision for Sri Lanka. He remained confident in its strategic location in the centre of East-West shipping routes, its pivotal role as an essential staging point in China’s one road one belt strategy, and in the country’s potential for great success and prosperity.


“I am a fervent believer that the property market is the biggest enterprise in any leading city in the world and its development tracks a country’s social and economic success. Having achieved my great age of 100 years and witnessed considerable changes regionally and globally, I am even more bullish on the growth prospects of Sri Lanka. My family and I are extremely proud to be part of the growth as long-term investors in Overseas Realty (Ceylon) PLC, the premier property Company in Sri Lanka,” stated Mr Tao during his last visit to Sri Lanka in December 2016.


Mr Tao, left Shanghai, armed with a Confucian upbringing, a Jesuit education, and the proverbial “five silver coins” from his father. He was a stowaway on a Jardine Matheson ship bound for Indochina. Fifty years later, after a successful career in commodity trading in Burma and shipping in Hong Kong and Thailand, he switched his focus to bricks and mortar in Singapore. The same Jardine Matheson then invited him to join forces, to build up Singapore Land and Jakarta Land in Indonesia.


As soon as there was a crack in the “Bamboo Curtain,” he conceived and built the 37-storey Jinling Hotel in the heart of Xinjieko in Nanjing. On completion in 1983, it was the tallest building in China. He was one of the first foreign property developers to do business on mainland China. His pioneering ventures helped pave the way for closer China-Singapore economic ties.


Mr Tao first visited Sri Lanka in 1940 at age 24, when working with the China South West Transport unit in Rangoon. He was offered a choice of Sri Lanka, Singapore or Calcutta for a holiday. He chose to come to Sri Lanka and left with a most favourable impression of the people and the country.


In 1958, he commenced his business association with Sri Lanka dealing in commodities and shipping with the Ceylon Food Commissioner’s office. In the 1970s, he assisted Sri Lanka to establish the Ceylon National Shipping Corporation when he sold one ship, on credit, to the Shipping Corporation which was renamed “Lanka Rani”. Pursuant to that, as payment, he received a 20% equity share in Colombo Dockyard.


In 1990, in response to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s call to venture beyond Singaporean shores, he re-visited Colombo, Sri Lanka.


Attracted by the many incentives offered by the then Sri Lankan Government, Mr Tao acquired Overseas Realty (Ceylon) PLC, a listed company on the Colombo Stock Exchange which owned an undeveloped plot of land at Echelon Square in the Colombo Fort area. Mr S.P. Tao had been the non-executive Chairman of the company since the Shing Kwan Group invested in it in 1991.


Mr Tao then decided on a monumental investment of USD 100Mn in Sri Lanka to develop the iconic World Trade Center, Colombo – a 38 storey twin tower. At the time, it was the largest FDI and years ahead of any commercial development in the country. To ensure the highest standards of quality that would withstand the test of time, he also invited the world’s leading construction company, Turner Steiner of the USA, to construct the Twin Towers.


“To achieve my vision and extra-imaginative plan, I needed three major givens: the most appropriate design concept, a world leading construction company and no bank borrowings; otherwise I might not achieve my idealistic goal,” stated Mr Tao at the 15th year anniversary of the WTC Colombo in 2012. To date, the WTC Colombo remains the most coveted business address, delivering the best of design, facilities and services to valued tenants.


In 2005, another opportunity arose in Havelock City, an ambitious, mega mixed- use development project, conceived and developed during the most volatile times.


With the successful completion of three phases of the residential development, the commercial development, comprising a 50-storey 600,000 sq.ft office tower and a 200,000 sq.ft. shopping mall at a cost of USD 150Mn, was embarked upon. It is expected to be ready by March 2022. At the age of 100, Mr Tao visited Sri Lanka back in 2016 to officiate the launch ceremony of the Havelock City commercial development. The entirety of the Havelock City integrated development project is built at a total cost of USD 350Mn.


Apart from Sri Lanka, Mr Tao had real estate investments principally in China and Singapore.


Between 1972 and 1996, he was Chairman of Singapore Land Limited, spearheading its growth into the largest listed property company on the Singapore Stock Exchange. During this time, he conceptualized and developed the iconic Marina Square complex which paved the way for development in downtown Singapore. Mr Tao was also a co-founder of PT Jakarta Land, developer and owner of the World Trade Center complex in Jakarta, Indonesia, and served on its Board from 1980 to 2005.


In 2015, the visionary property tycoon was honoured and conferred the prestigious Outstanding Chinese Business Pioneer Award by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) for his spirit of entrepreneurship and charity.


Throughout his life, this pioneering spirit had driven Mr Tao to venture where no one else has been. He did not keep an eye on the competition. Instead, he channelled his time and energy into trail-blazing ventures.


He was committed to giving back to his hometown. In recent years, his passion was his private educational enterprise in Nanjing, China, which was set up with his constant companion of 71 years, his beloved wife, the late Madam Liu Kwan Li. Since 2006, the Jiangsu Tao Shing Pee Education Foundation (JS-TSPEF) has carried out a Peeli Scholarship Program and Entrepreneurship Program to provide financial aid to students from underdeveloped rural areas. The programmes enable students to complete their tertiary education and encourages graduating students to return to their home communities by providing guidance, expertise and financial backing to establish their own local businesses. These Tao Students benefit from mentorships by a pool of enthusiastic Tao Scholars sponsored by The Tao Shing Pee Education Fund (TSPEF) to earn their MBAs from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools in the USA.


The initiative gave him immense joy. To date, the JS-TSPEF and TSPEF have supported 16,000 Tao Students and 100 Tao Scholars respectively and will continue to support students in Mr. Tao’s memory


Mr S. P. Tao leaves behind family, friends and colleagues who mourn his loss and an inspirational and wide-ranging international business legacy.