Myanmar's Clean Tycoon
As Myanmar continues its surprising reforms, foreign companies freed from the sanctions that bankrupted former Burma are returning in force, particularly in the energy sector. And everyone wants to partner with Moe Myint, a former airline pilot who steadfastly refused to bribe or cavort with the old cronies.
By Ron Gluckman /in Yangon
MYANMAR BOASTS VAST, UNTAPPED RESERVES of oil and natural gas, and with sanctions over and a world thirsty for new sources of energy, Western multinationals are eager to sign deals. Yangon plans to auction off new exploration licenses starting in September, but foreign companies must join up with a local company to bid.
That’s why Moe Myint and his oil company, the largest in Myanmar, are so in demand these days. “[We] have received a lot of interest from oil companies, including many majors, independents and investment groups,” he says. “We will be partnering up with several Western multinationals to bid for offshore blocks.”
The man who all the oil biggies want to do business with got into the industry by accident in the 1990s and then found himself owning 100% of a sizable oil project as the sanctions and boycotts pressured his partners to flee. Myint avoided becoming a crony in one of the world’s most corrupt countries, turning down special favors and refusing to give gifts to Myanmar’s ruling generals. He paid a price, suffering annual audits and getting rejected for import permits, but he also won a reputation as one of the country’s cleaner tycoons.
“I’ve done everything to avoid the gray areas,” he says. “I’ve always operated openly, honestly.” Rather than bribes, the common currency in the dark days of Myanmar, he paid taxes. “I’ve probably paid more taxes than any other tycoon.”
That sterling image is a key reason overseas oil executives are eager to meet with him, and Myint, 60, is poised to take full advantage of his newfound popularity. He says he asks for a 10% or 15% stake in projects that are pitched to him.
His MPRL E&P–formerly Myanmar Petroleum Resources Ltd. Exploration & Production–holds concessions of its own. And as the foreign companies return and ramp up exploration, he’s ready to reap the rewards with his Asia Drilling Pte Ltd. and Myint & Associates, which provides catering, logistical and other services to the industry.
In January he sold half of the rights to a tract in the Bay of Bengal to Woodside Petroleum of Australia, the first big Western oil deal since the country began opening up; the amount wasn’t disclosed. He says he’s pumped $40 million into the offshore project, and analysts say he now needs the experience and heft of a major partner to continue exploration and start production, something that could cost anywhere from $200 million to $500 million.
Myint spent several years in Thailand and the U.S. after his father moved the family to Bangkok following the 1962 coup, and that time helped foster an international perspective, many say. “He’s just very focused on his business, which is unusual in Myanmar,” says one expat business associate. “The other tycoons are all over the place, trying to grab this and that. But not him. He’s different, he operates like an international.”
His rivals consider Myint hard-nosed and aggressive but ultimately a fair competitor. “He gets good people, pays them properly and keeps them. And this is what really sets Mickey apart from the rest of the Myanmar tycoons–he pays attention to their advice,” says one local oilman, using Myint’s nickname. “He’s as professional as it gets in Myanmar.” (Like virtually all who know Myint, he requested anonymity, a sign that despite the reforms, many still don’t want to speak openly in Myanmar.)
Myint wasn’t always seen as quite so clean. A trained airline pilot, he became the personal pilot of dictator Ne Win in the 1970s. “I was never close to General Ne Win,” he says. “I was simply a pilot assigned to his travels.” Then, beginning in the 1990s, his growing oil operations meant dealing with the Ministry of Energy and the state-owned Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise.
In 2008 he applied for a tourist visa to visit his family in the U.S., and instead the U.S. State Department added him to its travel-ban list, claiming that he was a crony–one of many businessmen who “provide substantial economic and political support for the regime by virtue of their positions,” according to a cable published by WikiLeaks.
But the next year the U.S. government essentially said, “Never mind.” It moved to end Myint and his family’s travel ban, a rare case of the U.S. dropping a name from the list. “Moe Myint is a legitimate and respected businessman, who earned his success through hard work and ingenuity rather than ties to the regime,” noted a 2009 State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks. It added: “Myint is also a close embassy contact, often providing us with valuable information on Burma’s oil and gas sector and general economic information.”
Myint feigns little interest in all this: “I’ve been told that the ban was removed, but I don’t know, as I haven’t tried it.” Yet it clearly was a bother, affecting him and his family. He describes how his eldest son, Sithu, was denied reentry to the U.S. after a trip to Canada in 2007. Sithu was working in California for Chevron, which then relocated him to a job in Australia. Myint’s other son, Carl, was attending the Colorado School of Mines and couldn’t come home on visits for fear of being stranded.
Myanmar’s reopening is pushing the savvier tycoons to improve their image. Myint handed FORBES ASIA a press packet that not only detailed the advantages of investing in Myanmar but also stories referring to his travel ban and how it had ended. This is part of a more public stance that began a year ago. Says one Myanmar oilman: “He’s putting himself in position to cash in on the boom.”
indeed, Myint is in pole position. MPRL operates Mann Field in central Myanmar, pumping a modest 1,500 barrels of oil a day along with up to 4 million cubic meters of gas. The aging field, discovered in 1970, still has reserves of 10.7 million barrels. But the company’s future lies offshore, where it holds the potentially lucrative concession with Woodside for the nearly 10,000-square-kilometer Bay of Bengal tract.
MPRL is assembling data and conducting test drilling, but it’s too early to estimate the oil and natural gas reserves. Myint puts MPRL’s total investment in the Myanmar industry at close to $200 million, and, overall, his companies boast more than 3,000 employees. Myint says the oil company generates $18 million to $24 million in revenue each year, while the industry services add up to $15 million; he won’t talk about profits. “I’d expect growth of all kinds to continue at 15% to 20% per year,” he says. “I’m very optimistic.”
These days Myint is also focused on interests outside his business career. An avid sailor and head of the country’s yachting federation, he is spending $17 million to build Myanmar’s first coastal yacht club. In December it will host sailing events at the Southeast Asian Games, Myanmar’s first international sailing competition in 45 years. Pictures of boats adorn the walls of his Yangon office, and huge charts display data on oil tracts while a TV flashes news continually. There are also photos of two muscular men, his sons, now 30 and 27 and both award-winning sailors. They returned from study and work abroad to join the family business.
Other photos show Myint with Aung San Suu Kyi, who called on him to help rebuild the country, he says. “She told me, ‘I’m 67, you’re 60. Let’s work together now for the country. We won’t have this opportunity again.’ ”
The pair are neighbors along Inya Lake, where the Nobel Prize winner was under house arrest for much of the time since her party won elections in 1990 only to see the regime refuse to honor the results. In February the Inya Lake Hotel was the site of Myanmar’s first literary festival. Suu Kyi, a bestselling author, appeared at several sold-out programs. Myint couldn’t have been more delighted–he helped bankroll the event, a landmark in returning the country to normalcy.
Much as he likes boats, he values books more. “ Education is crucial for people, but education here has been in decline,” he says solemnly. “But Burmese people love books.” Myint is among them. He’s assembled one of the largest private collections of books about Burma, as Myanmar was called until 1989.
“I remember the first real books I collected. It was an old medical set, like you would buy for medical school,” he recalls with fondness. “It’s not just about the content. I love the look of these books.” He shares his affection by having the books scanned and then distributed on discs to libraries in Myanmar and Thailand.
Born to a prominent Yangon family, Myint seemed destined for a charmed life. His father, Philip Kyaw Myint, founded the national geological society after returning from studies in Glasgow. Myint attended Yangon’s prestigious Methodist English High School, as did Suu Kyi. But his world turned upside down with the 1962 coup. The isolationist government nationalized the mining industry. “My father lost his job, was forced out,” he says.
The family moved to Thailand, where Myint finished high school and his father worked for the UN. He spent a couple of years at Marshall University in West Virginia and then flight school in Hua Hin, Thailand before returning to Myanmar. He flew for Burma Airways, eventually becoming a pilot for Ne Win and other generals.
Seeing colleagues retire on tiny pensions, he left the airline in 1987 to launch his business career. “The oil companies arrived in 1988-89 [after a change in the law allowing in foreign ones], and they needed food and other services. I told my wife, ‘I’m going to start this catering company,’ ” he recalls. “ She told me I was crazy, that I had no experience. I went ahead and hired cooks. I wound up catering for 4,000 people per day. I had something like 300 cooks.”
His Myint & Associates expanded into other services for the industry, and by the mid-1990s he had become enough of a player that he could join a consortium that obtained rights to Mann Field. Myint had taken an unlikely path into the oil industry, but the foreign oil companies rushing in needed a local fixer to navigate a corrupt and inefficient system, and he proved to be good at grabbing opportunities.
Myint soon wound up with sole rights to the field. Oil services giant Baker Hughes was the lead partner in a group that included, according to various accounts and filings, Keppel of Singapore and Nissho Iwai of Japan. Then the Western boycott efforts intensified and oil companies proved an easy target for protests. All the partners pulled out. Myint, who held 9.5% of the concession, wound up with 100% after–says a WikiLeaks cable–paying Baker Hughes $1. The Houston, Texas company is unable to confirm this. Keppel says it can’t find any records of its involvement.
Myint says the terms stipulated that if any partners withdrew, the other members would take over. And he inherited not only the concession for Mann Field but also equipment that foreign oil industry sources valued at up to $75 million (he won’t comment). He patiently tended his businesses and avoided the crony network.
His staying power since then is one trait that separates him from other Myanmar moguls. “How he survived all this time is amazing,” says the business associate. But Myint thinks that more opportunities to spread the wealth are certain to come. “I think it will happen fast,” he predicts. “The changes are real. People in this country are desirous of change. They’ve been waiting so long for this. They deserve it.”
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living and working in Asia since 1991, and visiting Myanmar/Burma since the early 1990s. He roams around Asia for a wide variety of publications including Forbes Magazine, which ran this story in its issue of April 15, 2013.
All words and pictures copyright RON GLUCKMAN