Vincent Tan: Cardiff owner dispels his Bond villain image

When Vincent Tan takes a seat in the directors' box to watch his Cardiff City side at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, there is unlikely to be much fanfare.

Perhaps a few camera lenses trained on the Malaysian, possibly some banter dished out by Spurs fans and potentially a dose of now-familiar criticism from supporters of his own club - but nothing unusual.

Which is probably quite tough to get your head round when the last time you appeared at a high-profile public event you were the overwhelming centre of attention - for all the right reasons.

Indeed, it is not until you spend time with Tan in his homeland that you realise just how sharp a contrast there is between the perception of him in the United Kingdom and Malaysia.

Cynicism gives way to celebration, anger to admiration, ridicule to respect and protests to parties. Tan could hardly be more popular in his native country; it is a very different picture in Cardiff. 

I know for some of you this is not your first club. Most of you are Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United fans, but surely you can accept Cardiff as your second club?

Vincent Tan

A long-standing interview request was granted when Tan agreed for me to visit him in Kuala Lumpur on Founder's Day, an event held annually since 2011 to honour his business and charity work through Berjaya Corporation - the conglomerate he established from scratch in 1984.

Starting out as a steel company, Berjaya has expanded into areas such as property, retail, food and drink, leisure and gaming, with a turnover of £5.4bn and 30,000 employees around the world.

Founder's Day was an idea conceived by Robin Tan - one of Vincent's 11 children, who has been chairman and chief executive of Berjaya since 2012 - and he purposefully organised it to coincide each year with his father's birthday, thus maximising the merriments.

It was an extraordinary experience, providing a rare glimpse into the life of a man who has been the subject of such controversy in British football and, specifically, the Welsh capital.

Malaysia

On Founder's Day, people packed into a festival bazaar at Tan's Berjaya Times Square complex

The first hint of his standing at home arrives early on the flight over, when I mention to a member of staff on the national airline that I am going to see Vincent Tan and he excitedly describes 'Tan Sri' - the second most senior federal title in Malaysia - as a "hero to my people."

On Founder's Day itself, plenty of those people packed into a festival bazaar at Tan's Berjaya Times Square complex despite 30C heat and 80% humidity. There is a palpable sense of excitement surrounding the festivities, but more so about the entrance of Tan.

"We're all waiting for our boss!" enthused Siew Wan Mah - a member of his senior management deployed to look after us - before noticing Tan already greeting guests inside the auditorium.

He had arrived ahead of schedule and was getting on with things, which appears to be his way; there may be huge fuss around Tan, but he is surprisingly down-to-earth and hands-on.

After ushering family, dignitaries and royalty to their seats, he made a beeline for me. Nerves and apprehension were rife until Tan - burgundy shirt, rib-high trousers, slick side-parting and pruned moustache - offered a firm handshake and warm smile. His English is good.

Who is Vincent Tan?

Age: 62

Nationality: Malaysian

Marital status: Married

Children: 11

Net worth: $1.6bn (making him the 10th richest man in Malaysia)

No dark sunglasses. No black leather gloves. The Bond villain image dispelled.

Tan looked on approvingly from a front-row chair - the royalty either side of him sat on thrones - as an array of singers and dancers entertained the crowd, and the now customary video tribute produced by Berjaya staff  was played on a big screen.

Trouble loomed when he stepped up to make a keynote speech and promised to deliver it "off the cuff". Tan is excitable, impulsive and somewhat eccentric, but he spoke eloquently of his philanthropy and passionately about Cardiff.

Echoing the 'Believe in Yourself' theme of this Founder's Day, Tan said: "I like the team this year, believe in yourself. I must tell the Cardiff team, believe in yourself. We are going to make it.

"God willing, we want to be in the Barclays league next season."

A handful of people came decked in Cardiff colours - Berjaya employee David Loo, wearing red, admitted he switched allegiances from Manchester United after Tan's 2010 takeover, while his colleague Fazrol Wira, in blue, claimed to have supported the club since before Tan became involved and was therefore determined to "stick with tradition".

But, in truth, Cardiff fever is not sweeping Malaysia and Tan knows it.

"I hope Malaysians will support me," he said, drawing applause from the crowd. "I know for some of you this is not your first club. Most of you are Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United fans, but surely you can accept Cardiff as your second club?

Tan cuts his birthday cake - a slightly smaller version of the 20m one he was also presented with

Tan cuts his birthday cake - a slightly smaller version of the 20m one he was also presented with

"Then hopefully one day we will do well and you will upgrade us to your first club and chuck away your current club. God willing."

Tan later presented £4.7m to charity causes and the benevolence continued as 15,000 pieces of birthday cake were handed out to members of the public at Times Square, a 48-storey building that features a hotel, condominiums, an indoor theme park and a shopping centre.

There is little doubt Tan enjoys the limelight and if being serenaded with a lively rendition of 'happy birthday' was insufficient then being presented with a 20 metre dragon cake should have done the trick.

It took nine chefs 20 days to create, using 150kg of dark chocolate, 200kg of chocolate dough, 2000 eggs and 75kg of sugar. He took great pleasure in slicing it open with a sword.

The design paired two intricately-designed dragons - one Chinese and the other Welsh - with a globe in between to symbolise 'East Meets West'. It felt like an appropriate symbol for the businessman's life at present.

"When Cardiff were promoted to the Premier League I was a hero and now I'm a zero," said Tan, speaking just hours before his side's crushing 4-0 home defeat by Hull City. "You're a hero one day, you're a villain another day. They say that's football.

"When a manager does well they're applauded, when they don't do well they get the sack. Football is a tough world. Those who watch enjoy it - for everybody else there are a lot of challenges."

These are challenges to which Tan is not accustomed. In his other businesses, he is used to succeeding and what he says goes. In British football, he has encountered a new culture and unfamiliar obstacles. He is clearly still coming to terms with it all.

Vincent Tan

Cardiff climbed from the Championship into the Premier League when Malky Mackay was manager

But Tan is determined to make up for lost - and damaged - time, bringing success to Cardiff and making his country proud. He is listed by Forbes as Malaysia's 10th richest man with a net worth of $1.6bn (£956m). The prospect of failure brings a look of horror to his face.

The adoration for Tan continued as he guided me through an exhibit area set up to showcase some of the charities he backs. The beneficiaries I spoke to - like so many of his Berjaya employees - are incredibly grateful for his contributions. In Cardiff, it is largely the opposite.

And that disparity proved one of the key themes of our interview. I never believed it would actually happen until the camera started rolling, but he said he would arrive at 5pm and was bang on time. No PR advisors or assistants. Just Tan. He wanted to speak, to give his version of events.

Whether people like him or not, Tan let me throw any question in his direction and answered each one that did not not relate to the legal case between Cardiff and former manager Malky Mackay.

He did not impose any time restrictions, attempt to sway our coverage or ask to know what material we would be using. Love him or loathe him, he was simply speaking his mind.

In the UK and Malaysia, it seems, he will continue to split opinion.