Ruben Gnanalingam on family businesses and Malaysian football

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April 6, 2017 | BY Daween Maan

As one of our four Tatler Tribe panelists who selected our Generation T shortlist, Ruben Gnanalingam provides insight into transition and evolution in business and sports.

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When the decision was made that Malaysia Tatler wanted to do more than just bring together the Generation T community – that we wanted to honour some of the news-makers and trendsetters, we assembled an impartial panel of respected and accomplished people from several industries -- The Tatler Tribe.

Ruben Gnanalingam was one of the four who, as CEO of Westports and co-chairman of English football club Queens Park Rangers, brought his knowledge and experience to help pick out the best from the community.

Although an accomplished industry leader, Ruben's investments and interest in sports and sports development make for a more impressive read.

Apart from QPR, he is also invested in the newly formed Los Angeles Football Club, and through the English club was instrumental in starting the National Football Development Program back home with the Ministry of Youth & Sports. The latter program is focused on developing young talent under the age of 16 and equipping them with the fundementals of the game.

Ruben is also the vice president of the Malaysian Basketball Association, owner of the basketball team Westport Dragons and will serve as the manager of the men’s basketball team for the upcoming 2017 SEA Games in KL.

We caught up with Ruben to learn about his approach to Generation T, his business, and of course, football.

What were you looking for in our Generation T candidates?

There were so many great candidates, from all different walks of life, so the key criteria for me was “do they inspire others?”
I tried to be as broad-minded as possible with regards to each candidate’s strength and talent. I’m not so familiar with, for example, bloggers and influencers but I tried to understand what kind of influence they have and what kind of change they’ve managed to bring.

You attained your own success through your family’s business – something you have in common with some of our Generation T-listers. What were you looking for with these candidates? 

I was looking for those who stood out a bit more, and made a mark for themselves. I wanted to see what they had done and what they had achieved and accomplished.
I can understand where they come from, because I’ve been through something similar, and it’s sometimes harder because you have to prove yourself a little more.
At the beginning of my career, I had to join the family business and was made to do all the odd jobs on the bottom rung, but that was crucial to help me understand what the company was about.
Before my dad gave me the big role, he wanted me to satisfy three constituencies – our customers, my colleagues and the board. I had to ensure the customers liked me, my colleagues respected me and the board trusted me. Honestly, if I hadn’t accomplished these three things I wouldn’t have felt comfortable as CEO anyway.

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When did your love for sports start?

I think my love for sports started way back in school, although I was never much of a sportsman myself. I used to be involved in a lot of throwing sports like shot put and javelin throw, but I was always more interested in managing.
In my last year of school I managed the softball team, so that’s where I think it started.
As for where we are now, it really started with MyTeam – that’s where we really got a taste for this, Jason [Lo], Tony [Fernandes] and myself.
From that we went on to do the basketball team, and after MyTeam ended, Tony suggested we go into football proper and that’s how we ended up at QPR.

How did it feel, going from MyTeam to, at the time, an English Premier League football club?

We did not start as fans – I was a Liverpool fan and Tony was a well-publicised West Ham fan – so we came in as investors, with the mindset to improve its value and also have fun.
But after a while, when you’re so invested in it, emotionally as much as financially, you change and now, we are huge fans. QPR is a great team and we really love the club. There’s also the LA club now, of which I’m officially a fan – of course there isn’t a team yet – but when they start playing, I’ll be rooting for them as much as I do QPR.

Do you believe Malaysian football will improve?

Yes, if we do it the right way. Under the NFDP we are training coaches to train kids. The next step is to move on to PE [physical education] teachers because that’s where we can start teaching the correct fundamentals of football; that’s what you see in countries like Germany. Right now, PE is just an exercise class and is very much underserved, so we will look to change that. The key is to create a large pool of talent whereby some of them may get the chance to play at the highest levels of the game.
It will take 20 to 30 years to see the results of all these changes – by then no one will even know we were behind it – but I think it’s important to get the ball rolling and make significant changes, to see significant results.

More from Generation T: Bryan Loo dishes up 4 things every budding entrepreneur should know