Fighting for Taiwan: Leslie Koo
Forging the World’s No. 1 Species Platform
Forging the World’s No. 1 Species PlatformBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 600 )
Taiwan Cement Corp. Chairman Leslie Koo has a secret garden.
He heads there every once in a while, taking the high-speed railway down south to Kaohsiung and then a one-hour car ride past seemingly endless, verdant rice paddies and streams with varying water levels into Pingtung County. When the sign for Gaoshu Township finally appears before his eyes, Koo starts to feel at peace, knowing that his secret garden, the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center, is not far away.
When researchers and scholars visit, they see a scientific center, but to Koo, it’s where his childhood dreams are hidden and where his father, Koo Chen-fu, is buried.
“I told my mother that if the conservation center was built here, it would bring in many people to accompany and remember my father,” Koo recalls.
When National Tsing Hua University life sciences professor Li Chia-wei mentioned the idea for the project to Koo more than a decade ago, the Taiwan Cement chief immediately thought of the 20 hectares of land his mother, Cecilia, had in Gaoshu Township in Pingtung County and convinced her to use it for the center.
Setting the Bar for the World
In the 10 years since it began operations in 2007, the conservation center has collected and preserved 28,000 species of plants, surpassing the collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England or the Missouri Botanical Garden in the United States to become the world’s leading species conservation area. It attracts scholars from around the world.
Professor Li, who is the center’s CEO, describes the facility as a modern day Noah’s Ark that is eager to rescue and preserve tropical plants and can provide the means necessary for a natural environment under assault to recover in the future.
But Li warns that if humanity continues to destroy nature at its current frenetic pace, more Noah’s Arks will be needed to join the fray. With species becoming extinct at an alarming rate, he says, the center has gone beyond its original mission of preserving plant species and is now collecting turtles and chickens.
One of the chicken species being raised at the center, known as “gongtingji” (宮廷雞) in Chinese, is a variety derived from the red jungle fowl and a favorite of Empress Dowager Cixi and her imperial court. More than two dozen of the critically endangered birds, which Li suggested calling “royal chickens” in the absence of a formal English name, often swagger around the center’s coop, their red crowns and white feathers on full display.
Selling Taiwan Cement Directors on the Environment
To Koo, the conservation center is undoubtedly the realization of his innermost dreams.
“I’ve loved animals and plants since I was young. I didn’t have much of a touch for gardening, but I was pretty good with animals,” says Koo, who has always wanted to be a farmer and has raised dogs, monkeys, squirrels and other animals. When he was in junior high school, he even secretly raised flies and spiders in his dorm room.
“If you’re a doctor, you can only treat one person at a time. But if you can farm, you can support a lot of people,” he says of why he has so much regard for agriculture.
But the circumstances in his life took him in a different direction, and he studied business, leading him into a career in management. When longtime friend professor Li suggested the idea for conserving nature, Koo’s eyes suddenly lit up.
“Making money is easy, but spending it is hard, especially if you want to spend it in a meaningful way. You have to find the right people, the right cause and the right time,” Koo says.
When Koo was studying for an MBA at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania over 30 years ago, an older professor taught a course that covered corporate social responsibility. It left a deep impression on Koo, and the concept has remained with him to this day.
Though they may have been poles apart professionally, Koo and Li were a perfect fit because of their shared interests and passion. An expert in life sciences, Li began planning and organizing the project, while Koo was responsible for convincing the Taiwan Cement board that the project was worth supporting.
Koo argued that as a well-known company, Taiwan Cement needed to do something that would galvanize society’s positive energy and help Taiwan’s eyes shine. He also wanted to get the board’s directors to unanimously support efforts to address environmental problems related to the cement industry.
The company ended up pouring NT$100 million into the project over its first five years, double the originally budgeted NT$50 million. The contribution rose to NT$200 million over the second five-year period.
“At the end of every year, I would write a letter to (Koo). I only presented a report to the board once, when the first five-year period was about to come to an end,” Li says.
Koo completely trusted Li and gave him full authority. “I come here often, and I know pretty quickly if things are being done well or not,” says Koo, describing how he “manages” with his feet.
Working with the Solomon Islands
In recent years, the conservation center has extended its reach to the Solomon Islands to save endangered plants. Center researchers have traveled to the island country in the Pacific, which has suffered severe deforestation, to take part in conservation projects and train people there to collect plants and preserve them.
Koo has also started to work with Chinese cement companies on a conservation initiative. Last year, researchers from the center ventured into limestone mining areas in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces in China and found four new species of plants before mining activities began.
“If we can cooperate with Chinese cement companies and help botanists gain access to mining areas to collect samples,” it will help preserve more plant species for posterity, Koo says.
Having gained a feel for conservation over the past 10 years, Koo is now addressing his next big challenge: operating sustainably. Because the conservation center has the world’s biggest collection of living plant species, it has evolved into a platform that draws researchers from around the world. The conservation center now signs contracts with visiting schools and research institutes requiring them to share any intellectual property rights derived from research using the center’s resources.
In adopting this approach, Koo is looking to the future, eyeing the development of peripheral medical, biotechnology, horticulture and agriculture clusters.
As environmental standards become stricter around the world, the cement industry will face a gradual decline. Koo’s secret garden could perhaps be one of the keys that will help Taiwan Cement transform itself and adapt its operations to a more environmentally aware world.
Translated from the Chinese article by Luke Sabatier
Leslie Koo Cheng-yun (28 Nov 1954 - 23 Jan 2017) died after fall inTaipei at age62. Nelson Chang, Koo's brother-in-law, has been appointed by the company board as his successor.
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