Valuing a company brand demands a complex mix of art and science that can produce wildly differing estimates, yet the bottom line is undoubtedly affected

In 1998 Larry Page and Serge Brin changed the name of their creation – now the world’s leading search engine – from the not-so-catchy BackRub to the rather more memorable Google. With the power of hindsight it’s easy to see what a smart move that was, and arguably one that helped the brand become a household name worth billions of dollars.

It’s hard to imagine a brand called BackRub commanding such a price tag, or becoming a verb as ‘google’ has. But then again, just 16 years ago, google just meant the number 10 raised to the power 100. Today, Interbrand and Brand Finance’s 2014 surveys estimate Google’s value significantly above that, at $107.43bn and $68.6bn respectively.

The example illustrates the pace of change in brand names and their fluctuating values in today’s fast-moving business world. But despite the growing importance of brand equity – the value of a brand – a globally standardised approach to measuring brand value has yet to be developed.


That hasn’t stopped the proliferation of brand value surveys, none of which fully reveals the metrics behind its brand value calculations. However, despite the disparities, the studies do agree on one ranking – that of Apple at number one, although valuations differ widely.

‘Apple and Google’s meteoric rise to more than $100bn is truly a testament to the power of brand building,’ Jez Frampton, Interbrand’s global chief executive officer, said last October when announcing the 2014 results of his company’s survey.

Brand valuation is a complicated art rather than an established science, although certain methodologies are now widely accepted when it comes to measuring, comparing and contrasting brand values over the years.

When identifying the 100 most valuable brands each year, Interbrand says it examines three key aspects: financial performance, influence on customer choice, and brand contribution to earnings.

Brand Finance applies one of three different measurements: market approach, costs approach or income approach, but typically uses the latter, which estimates the value of future income attributable to the brand and expresses this as a net present value.


With so much value attached to a brand, why do companies choose to change their names? One of the biggest name changes of recent times came at the end of last year, when BSkyB, as British Sky Boardcasting was commonly known, announced it was losing ‘British’ and ‘Broadcasting’ from its name and rebranding simply as Sky (see box). BSkyB was itself a product of the merger of Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting 25 years ago.

Jeremy Darroch, who remained CEO after the rebranding, said that the name change completed the company’s transformation into a pan-European, paid-for TV business following the £6.88bn buyout of BSkyB’s sister companies in Germany and Italy.

There must, of course, be a clear case for a name change, with mergers and takeovers being the most common and understandable driver. Sky says it is dropped the word ‘British’ to reflect its pan-European target market and the word ‘Broadcasting’ to reflect its migration from a pure TV company to a multimedia one.

‘During a merger, brand is crucial to ensure confidence and support among existing employees and clients,’ says Matt Morris, director of Carr Consulting & Communications, who worked on the 2013 rebrand of Quilter and Cheviot Asset Management as Quilter Cheviot. ‘They want to know the firms are stable. It also allows the firm to instil a new and fresh image of what the company must stand for.’

Disasters, particularly public relations ones, can also trigger a rebrand, helping a company to distance itself from bad publicity. But rebranding doesn’t guarantee the business will be saved.

The most well-known PR gaffe was made by Gerry Ratner, founder of jewellery retailer Ratners, who described his own store’s goods as ‘total crap’ to a 5,000-strong business audience at an Institute of Directors conference in 1991.

Ratner’s description wiped £500m off the value of the company, forced stores to close and led to his summary dismissal from the board before the chain was rebranded as Signet Group.


People’s emotions and perceptions are one of the most important factors influencing brand values and turn what might otherwise be a science into an art. Brands are vulnerable to fluctuations in value because they depend so heavily on public opinion.

For example, in brand value surveys when consumers are asked to price a particular car, they may place different values on, say, Volkswagen, Ford and Mercedes marques, even though the same car is used in the survey with just the badges changed on the bonnet. In each case, the brand is seen to be worth around 10% of the retail value of the car.

‘It’s a highly emotional decision either in consumer or B2B brands,’ says Paul Hague, founder of B2B International, a business research company.

The decline in popularity of Nokia is a little more complex but ultimately boils down to emotion. Nokia failed largely because it underestimated the importance of software on smartphones, but once the business had started to slide downwards, perception took over. In 2009 Nokia was considered one of the most valuable brands in the world, claiming the fifth spot in the Interbrand survey with a value of $35bn. In its 2014 survey the Finnish brand had fallen to 98th position with a value of $4.1bn

Like a see-saw, as Nokia’s brand value went down, so Apple’s rose. In 2009 Apple sat at number 20 in the survey with a brand value of $15.4bn. Five years on, the company is considered the world’s most valuable brand, worth $118.9bn, according to Interbrand’s 2014 study.

To truly assess the value of a brand, a company has to be sold, and buyers and sellers will inevitably differ in their estimations of value placed on a brand for obvious reasons.

‘One of the challenges boards face today is the faster pace of change made possible by new media. Technology stocks are very vulnerable to that change. But cars, for example, are too. In the past those transient changes were slower and you could handle brands better,’ Hague says.

Brands today aren’t as resilient as they once were. Consumers are less forgiving and, ironically enough for technology businesses, technological advances and mass media mean that shoppers are much better informed, more quickly. That applies to business-to-business brands as much as to consumer brands.

Even though there are difficulties in measuring brands accurately since the value of a brand is merely a promise delivered and that can change overnight, it is clear that brand value can have a major impact on a company, and may even ultimately sound its death knell.


Trends in brand names come and go. In recent years one-word names have become popular – Google, Apple, Amazon, Nike, eBay, Orange, and so on. It’s a trend that is still going strong, with the need for a snappy URL likely to be one of the drivers. Of the top 100 global brands, 65 have one-word names, 16 use acronyms and the rest have two-word brand names, such as Land Rover or Harley-Davidson.

The trend isn’t exclusive to consumer brands. A few years ago, Big Four audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers became PwC, and more recently Ernst & Young rebranded as EY. Companies are increasingly dropping geographical names too as they target global markets. British Airways became BA, while British Sky Broadcasting recently dropped both ‘British’ and ‘Broadcasting’ from its name to become simply Sky.

Meaning doesn’t necessarily figure in the search for a new name; connotation or multilingual ‘pronounceability’ may be more important. Accenture, for example, is currently 44th among the top 100 brand names and worth $9.9bn.

Michelle Perry, journalist

This article was first published in the June 2015 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.


How level is the playing field for women in business?

Vince Cable moots women-only shortlists ahead of international women’s day

By Michelle Perry | CFO UK | Published 15:35, 05 March 14

LevelBusiness secretary Vince Cable’s pledge this week to back women-only shortlists for headhunters couldn’t have been a coincidence with international women’s day just days away.

Cable has been a vociferous opponent of the push to hire more women onto company boards setting up the government’s steering group Women on Boards in 2011. The group led by Lord Davies, set a target of 25 percent for the number of female directors on FTSE 100 boards.

The latest figures for the FTSE100 show that the figure now stands at 20.4 percent, up from 12.5 percent in February 2011. Only another 60 new female board appointments need to be made to reach the target for the FTSE 100, according to latest government estimates.

Since 2011 progress has been swift and promising – despite several boards in the FTSE 250 lagging, and Glencore and Antofagasto still have no women.

Both business and government have been keen to show a united front to European leaders that progress can be achieved through gentle persuasion, and of course an overhanging threat to legislate if chairman don’t act.

One of the driving forces behind the initiative is because the UK is on the whole against compulsory quotas and the European Commission is pushing through plans, although currently stalled, for a compulsory 40 percent quota for female representation on boards.

According to the EC, its most recent figures show that the share of women on boards across the EU has been on the rise for the past three years and has now reached 16.6 percent, up from 15.8 percent in October 2012.

Despite all this progress – the UK now also has two female chairmen and four chief executives in the FTSE 100 – if we look below executive level it seems women have taken a step backwards in some regards.

Mind the gap

Recent data shows that the gender pay gap in the European Union is on average 16 percent, says Jacqueline Minor, head of representation at the European Commission in the UK (the first women to hold the post).

In the UK that gap is greater sitting at 20 percent, says Minor, who was speaking at an event hosted by Business for New Europe, a pro-Europe, pro-reform group and Mentore, an organisation dedicated to increasing boardroom diversity.

Shockingly this gap holds true at executive levels too. In a new book ‘The Chief Financial Officer’ by Jason Karaian published by the Economist, he found that men earned 16 percent more than women in CFO roles at listed US companies.

“This disparity is not because of a difference in responsibilities,” Karaian writes.

In finance, the ratio of women to men studying accountancy is roughly 50:50, with the figure often leaning slightly in favour of women. And yet as these young accountants further their careers the percentage of women attaining executive roles drops off a cliff. There are a number of socio-economic reasons for this, including women choosing to take career breaks to have children and often not returning to the workforce for a whole plethora of reasons.

One of the reasons this is worrying is because headhunters recruiting women for executive roles have persistently argued that they struggle to find suitable female candidates because the pool of women is smaller.

It is therefore all the more disquieting to see new research published on Wednesday by PwC that shows over half of the so-called millennial generation of workers – those born between 1980 and 1995 – do not feel that work opportunities are really equal for all.

PwC’s report Next generation diversity – Developing tomorrow’s female leaders, based on a survey of over 40,000 global workers, reveals that nearly a third (29 percent) of female millennials think that employers are too biased towards male employees when it comes to promotion.

What’s perhaps shocking is that the perception of gender bias in companies is still a concern for this generation of female workers, who are set to make up 25 percent of the global workforce by 2020.

A whopping 82 percent of female millennials said an employer’s policy on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion is important when deciding whether to work for a company.

Jon Andrews, head of HR consulting at PwC, said: “If we want to develop a strong pipeline of future women leaders it is vital we understand what motivates this generation and therefore what organisations need to do to attract, develop and retain millennial women.”

Are women stronger within Europe?

Europe has a strong track record on improving women’s rights, and yet the UK’s voting record in European elections (the next one is due in May 2014) is dire. Britons’ opinion of UK membership of the European Union is ambivalent. So much so that prime minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by 2017 if his party wins a majority at the next elections.

Amber Rudd, Conservative MP and government whip, told the audience at the Business for New Europe event on Tuesday: “The European Union helps us achieve a strong economy, but it has no role on equal rights on pay, or boards.

“I don’t believe it has a role to play in quotas.”

Baroness Goudie, a labour peer, who was also speaking at the event ‘What Europe can do for women’, says that although she is against quotas for women on boards, she believes we should negotiate from within the EU.

“I don’t believe in quotas, I’ve never believed in quotas including in all-women shortlists. I believe that we must have at least fifty-fifty on all shortlists.”

Baroness Goudie is also a founding member of the 30% Club, an organisation working with chairman to increase female representation on boards to 30 percent, 5 percent higher than the government’s target.

She adds: “We have now about 76 chairmen of the FTSE 100 companies who have signed up to us.”

Last December Sir Win Bischoff, founding chairman of the 30% Club and chairman of Lloyds Bank, announced an extension of the goal to encompass 30 percent female representation on executive committees by 2017.

The bank recently took a voluntary step further saying it would achieve a goal of 40 percent female representation at all levels of management by 2020.

Emma Avignon, CEO of Mentore, which sponsored the BNE event on Tuesday, says: “What I find fascinating is that we have these wonderful senior women who are invisible, not within their organisations but outside. No one knows about them and they don’t have a platform to get out there and move into the world and up the ladder.”

For all the progress that women have achieved in business, there still remains a long way to go to achieve gender diversity in British boardrooms and the workforce as a whole. And although the majority of business women CFOWorld has spoken to – including some of the country’s top female CFOs – are against compulsory quotas or any kind of tokenism, it’s hard to ignore the fact that legislation can and often does help achieve lasting change. For now, maybe, just the threat of it is enough.

Construction: the hazards of hitting a brick ceiling

Growth continues albeit at a more moderate pace, but concerns are growing over cost pressures

By Michelle Perry | CFO UK | Published 00:01, 07 May 14

A surprise profit warning from the UK’s largest construction company Balfour Beatty on Tuesday offered the first dose of reality of what many have been suspecting – that the sector’s growth may still stumble.

Until the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics showing a slight slowdown in growth in the construction sector, most data has revealed a buoyant industry in the three main areas – housebuilding, commercial construction and civil engineering.

First quarter results from housebuilders such as Taylor Wimpey, Bovis and Persimmon have all shown double digit growth in both profit and sales, with predictions of more of the same for the year ahead.

But concerns have been bubbling under particularly over the housing market, where growth in London and the South-East of England has been accelerating so fast that a typical house in the capital now costs around £458,000.

Research shows that house prices in some areas have now surpassed pre-recession levels and house-buyers are borrowing ever larger mortgages. Much of the growth in the market has been driven by first-time buyers who have been given a helping hand by the government’s Help to Buy scheme, which offers a mortgage guarantee. But a lack of housing is also a major factor in the surge in prices.

Buoyed by its success and a strengthening economic recovery chancellor George Osborne announced in his March Budget that he would extend Help to Buy, launched in England last spring, until 2019.

Housebuilders like Taylor Wimpey, Bovis and Persimmon have all benefitted from the scheme attributing much of their growth to the government’s scheme.

Indeed Taylor Wimpey group FD Ryan Mangold told CFOWorld that the company’s strategy – drafted during the recession – has accelerated 18 months ahead because of the government’s help to first-time buyers and growth in the market.

But with a predicted 1.1 million shortfall of homes in England alone by 2022 and London making up around a third of that deficit, the biggest cause for concern is not so much a housing crash – although that outcome is always a worry – but the need to build more and the costs associated with building projects.

Unrealistic pricing

On Tuesday Balfour’s Steve Marshall – who has taken over as executive chairman following the resignation of CEO Andrew McNaughton – blamed the company’s £30 million profit shortfall on its UK construction division, which is heavily reliant on large-scale infrastructure projects.

The cause of Balfour’s profit warning chimes with a new report by auditors at the ICAEW who warn that construction companies and their clients must end “the vicious cycle of pricing contracts unrealistically low”.

The report – Audit Insights: Construction – from an ICAEW working group warns the sector to strengthen its understanding of the supply chain and avoid cutting corners when delivering on contracts.

This insight would have served Balfour well last year. Balfour’s UK construction division has faced growing costs because of financial penalties and other expenses due to project delays. Problems with sub-contractors and supply chains have also aggravated those problems.

Phil Westerman, a member of the ICAEW working group and a partner at Grant Thornton, says: “Construction firms have to bid realistically and responsibly; they need to get the costing of bids for contracts right. They have to factor in how changes in one end of the supply chain could impact further down.”

Westerman adds: “Without sufficient margins, they won’t be able to invest and innovate, which is critical for the sector to fulfil its potential as a key contributor to UK growth.”

And that’s the rub. If companies aren’t getting the basic pricing right then management won’t be able to sustain growth in the sector in the long-term. This is not just bad news for business, but for everyone.

The auditors’ report highlights five critical areas that need most attention from the government, construction companies and investors. They include dealing with the “politicking” over the government’s spending and procurement policies, providing clarity over long-term plans, and the skills squeeze in the sector.

In a recent exclusive interview Taylor Wimpey’s group FD tells CFOWorld that one lesson he’s learned from the recession and turning around the UK’s third biggest housebuilder is the need to invest for the future and ensure a sustainable business.

“We want to be top quartile operating margin in the sector. We want to be the most efficient and effective on the hygiene side of the business – that’s manufacturing, selling and planning homes,” he says.

Mangold is all too aware of the issue on pricing and supply chain. “We do know we’re not going to get it right necessarily every single time. There are going to be issues that surprise us. Either the planners turn against us for whatever reason in terms of the engagement we’ve got with them. … Or the planners have a different philosophy to what we have. We might get a surprise that means the margins get squeezed. And if the margins get squeezed then you end up impairing the asset,” Mangold explains.

The latest research from financial data company Markit shows that the construction sector – which accounts for just over 6 percent of the economy – expanded for the twelfth consecutive month in April, albeit at the slowest rate in six months.

Markit’s senior economist and author of the survey Tim Moore says growth has started to moderate but strong rises in new work and payroll numbers “provide ample optimism that output will expand strongly over the course of 2014”.

Taylor Wimpey’s finance chief is equally effusive on prospects: “As the housing market continues to cheer up so we would expect the volumes to be positive this year thanks to the government’s Help To Buy. And in that environment the trades and some of the core items that go into new build houses come under strain so it’ll be good to understand those cost pressures better, and give us the opportunity to mitigate those and become more efficient.”

But Markit’s Moore also has a warning: “Set against the tightening supply chain backdrop, a difficult challenge lies ahead for the housebuilding sector to make sure it doesn’t hit a ‘brick ceiling’.”

Of all the industry sectors construction suffered one of the most bruising recessions. It benefits no one – not even home buyers – for the sector to hit the rails. What we need now more than anything is for builders to price realistically on quality homes and buildings to earn good but not excessive margins. That way companies will be in it the long-term and Britons can look forward to more homes at reasonable prices and better infrastructure projects that benefit all.

TRAVEL: Our Cousins, the Orangutans: A Wildlife Tour on the Kinabatangan River

By Michelle Perry

You would think that it wouldn’t be that hard to spot an auburn-haired orangutan in a tree. But it is.

No sooner had I dumped my bag at the lodge on the Kinabatangan River than river guide Nelson hurried me into a waiting boat to head down river before dusk.

Fifteen minutes later Nelson cuts the boat’s engine, nods to the left and shushes everyone. I try to follow his line of vision, but disappointingly couldn’t see anything.

Finally I see him, an adult male, hanging by one arm and chowing down on a handful of leaves in the afternoon sun.

He is calm, quiet and watchful. I sit there amazed staring up at him in deferential silence. Only a flock of hornbills taking flight across the river breaks the stillness and quickly returns me to reality.

A Long-Lost Relative

The most impressive thing when you get up close to an orang-utan is how similar we humans are to them. Everything about them feels familiar. Weirdly, I felt like I was staring at some long-lost relative.

You get the sense they recognise you, too. This feeling of mutual recognition is not however surprising given that amazingly, we share over 90% of our genetic make-up with orang-utans.

The meeting of eyes between ape and human is an edifying experience, and all the more so for being unexpected.

When I planned the trip to Borneo, I hadn’t factored in seeing an orangutan in the wild. Orangutans, which are native to Borneo, were on the itinerary, of course. But as an endangered species, I thought there was little chance of seeing one in its natural habitat.

Instead I had planned to go to an organutan sanctuary, where you can ogle at the orphaned baby orangutans at feeding times amid other onlookers. There, I knew I’d be guaranteed a glimpse of the notoriously solitary creatures, but the experience is incomparable to seeing them in the wild.

The possibilities were, however, slim. Orangutans maintain complex social networks of loose relationships, but adult males are usually found alone, while adult females are usually accompanied by one or two of her offspring. In short, they aren’t easy to spot.

Declining Numbers

Worse still, their numbers are declining fast. It is estimated that well over half of their number have died mainly due to loss of habitat over the past 60 years. There is no let-up in sight either, with the rate of decline predicted to continue.

With most of the remnant wild populations located outside protected areas, my chances of seeing these apes weren’t looking great.

That was until I met expert river guide Nelson, who soon raised the odds with his eagle eyes. Spotting the adult male was to be the first of many wildlife sightings that would leave me feeling like an intrepid explorer in unspoilt jungle.

The Kinabatangan River, which lies in the eastern lowlands of Sabah in Maylaysian Borneo, is one of the best places to experience these wonderful animals, and many more, in their natural habitat.

The wildlife sanctuary is only 26,103 hectares in size, but within this tiny area the diversity of animals and flora is remarkable.

Jungle Book

Kinabatangan is all the more special, because it is hemmed in on all sides by palm oil plantations – one of the biggest causes of deforestation and loss of habitat for orangutans.

The rapid expansion of plantations in Borneo has significantly accelerated habitat loss, but jobs like Nelson’s in eco-tourism are offering sustainable, alternative sources of work and income to nationals that might otherwise be tempted into illegal trades, like logging, to earn a living.

Riding back down the river in the last of the setting sun and a haze of contentment, I was party to yet more treasures.

Casually, Nelson pointed out proboscis monkeys and silver langurs high up in the trees, while mischievous long-tailed macaques gambolled along the river banks.

Hornbills, white-bellied eagles, swallows, kites and red, yellow and blue kingfishers darted between the trees in a harmony of noise and splatter of color.

With a recorded 1,000 plant species, 250 bird varieties, 90 fish species and reptilian, and 50 types of mammal cramped into this small area it all felt too easy. Sumatran rhinoceros have been spotted here and there are herds of pygmy elephants often come to the riverbanks to drink, bathe and play.

I almost felt like I was cheating by the ease with which we spotted the vast array of animals and birds as we sailed back down the river with the setting sun behind us.

A Jungle Night Tour

Back at camp, Nelson decided a jungle night tour was in order. Making sure to tuck my trousers into my socks to avoid the pesky leeches getting in, and cover my body as much as possible to fend off swarms of mosquitoes we set off into the jungle with headlamps.

Admittedly, I was a little spooked at first when I got a face-full of cobweb, as we trudged deeper away from camp into the jungle. It triggered thoughts of a million other creepy crawlies that might be lurking in the dark jungle.

My growing anxiety wasn’t abated by Nelson listing all the creatures that we were likely to encounter, either.

As we crept quietly through the forest my apprehension was soon forgotten, however, when Nelson flashed his torch over what at first looked like a patch of mud, but was quickly revealed to be implants of elephant footprints. Fresh dung nearby provided yet more tantalising evidence of their proximity.

My excitement was almost tangible, but then I remembered a wildlife documentary I’d seen on elephants’ potential for charging.

Sadly, the elephants remained elusive for my whole stay at Kinabatangan. We did however see a civet cat, spotted thanks to its gleaming green eyes that made the walk worth enduring the creepy crawlies.

Babies, Too!

Early next morning on the final day of my two-day tour, Nelson woke me with an unsympathetic bang on the door for the second trip downriver.

At dawn the river was shrouded in a lilac-coloured mist slowly rising up into the trees, as if unveiling its secrets to the lucky spectator. The mysterious ambient made me forget the ungodly hour and I soon cheered up.

We slunk slowly downriver in the morning silence. This time there was no eager expectation to mentally collect sightings, but a sluggish relaxation as birds flitted to and fro between the river banks.

After about 20 minutes, however, Nelson cut the engine and nosed the boat into the left bank, again silently pointing up into the trees where this time I clearly saw two baby orangutans swinging between the branches; playing – to the untrained eye – just like human siblings. They were disinterested in us, but their mother was close by nonetheless.

Suffused with smug satisfaction having seen four orangutans in the wild over two short days, we return to the jungle lodges where I began my journey out of the jungle back through the carbuncle of plantations.

The recollections, however, made the hour-long bumpy trip back along the palm oil plantation roads away from Kinabatangan all the more bearable this time round.

Way to go:

Sepilok and Kinabatangan River: Sepilok Jungle Resort, a short walk from the Sepilok Orang-Utan Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre, is an ideal base to arrange trips out to the Kinabatangan river

Companies running tours to Kinabatangan River lodge their guests either in Sukau or in camps along the river.

Two options include: the more upmarket Sukau Rainforest Lodge, or

Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures is a well-established budget option offering basic accommodation in huts on the river and cold bucket showers.

Read more:

TRAVEL: Borneo: Climbing Gunung Kinabalu

By Michelle Perry

The inability to sit, stand or walk without spasms of pain lasted for at least four days after descending Mount Kinabalu, one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountains.

By the fifth day I vividly remember the euphoria at being able to go to toilet without it turning into a gruelling effort to sit or stand.

At the nearby hot springs, it is easy to pick out those that have made the 13,435 ft (4,095m) climb for their crab-like sidle, and pained expression.

Kinabalu National Park – a UNESCO site since 2000 – is one of the main reasons to visit Sabah, the smaller of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. But the trek up Gunung Kinabalu, as the locals know it, is fast rivalling the experience for first place, as increasing numbers of foreigners and Malaysians make the climb up the mountain, sacred to the Kadazan, the state’s largest ethnic group.

When I first caught sight of the peaks that form the summit from the park’s headquarters, it induced a reverse sense of vertigo, making me question the sanity of a novice climber scaling the jagged peaks. But I had come especially to climb the mountain, so climb I would.

Most people do the trek over two days; although I encountered two British lads that completed the whole thing in one go. Once down from the mountain, however, they had to spend the next two days in bed to recover. It is not advisable to do it on one go, unless you have just spent four months at Everest base camp acclimatising to high altitude.

Saium, our guide, reckoned it would take between four and five hours to make it up to the halfway point at 11,197ft (3415m), where we would stop for the night. At first I scoffed at his forecast, considering myself in tip-top shape to walk the four miles in a much shorter time.

The steep ascent soon made me revise my estimate, as the walk began to feel like a five-hour long step aerobics class, albeit in much more verdant surroundings, although equally as sweaty.

It turned out, naturally, that Saium was right. It took five hours to reach Laban Rata resthouse at 11,646 ft.

The first stage takes you up through lowland tropical rainforest; palms gently nod all around you while orchids and rhododendron border the trail upwards, injecting bursts of colour into the otherwise green landscape.

The park has one of the world’s richest varieties of orchid with over 800 species, as well as 600 types of ferns and 300 of rhododendrons, not forgetting some of the only varieties of the delightful pitcher plants.

Pitcher plants are nothing like their cartoons portrayals of evil carnivorous plants. In real life they are much less offensive and substantially more beguiling. In fact plant-spotting was a great distraction to keep my mind off the pain in my legs and chest.

Most of the pitcher plans we came across were much smaller than I’d imagined them – about the size of an average thumb, and they really didn’t look like they could hurt a fly! But their prey-trapping mechanism is second to none in effectiveness.

One story has it that during the 1850s Spencer St. John, the British Consul in neighbouring Brunei at the time, found a drowned rat floating in four liters of water in one of the larger pitcher plants!

As you wind your way up, the landscape transforms into alpine forest, showcasing an array of colourful succulent plants scattered across the rock face, and eventually it turns into cloud forest.

It is a veritable feast for the eyes, even if the spirit of Charles Dickens has not taken hold of you by this point. The mountain’s climate range, with its incredible diversity of plant and animal life, is a great draw for Malaysians, too, many of whom make the hike over for the weekend from mainland Malaysia especially for the climb.

At around 9,842 ft (3000m) I soon fell into a slow but steady pace, leaving Saium with a mildly restless air about him. I soon realized it was sluggish rate that was boring him when two porters powered by us carrying 40 kilos weights on their backs.

All I could hear was the blood pumping in my ears and my breathing began to sound like Darth Vader’s, but it turns out this was literally a walk in the park for Saium.

He competes in the annual race, billed as the world’s toughest mountain race and last year he’d done it in just over three hours – roundtrip! The winners aim to complete the 13-mile (21km) course is under three hours. No wonder he was distracted.

The best part about arriving at the Laban Rata resthouse is not the rest, but the unobstructed views back down the valley. With the highest peak – Low’s peak – behind and a swirling mass of cloud 1,000 ft below, the mountaintops seemed to form the crests of the waves, giving me the sensation I was at sea. A touch of light-headedness due to the altitude may well have contributed to the sensation!

Not everyone is resting at this point, however. Saium and the other guides, who are compulsory for the round trip, gathered at a make-shift dusty pitch below the rest house balcony to play ball. As I sat listlessly watching over them in the sunset their abundance of energy made the atmosphere, inversely, all the more hypnotic.

Before dawn the next morning most of the climbers were up drinking badly-tasting coffee and stocking up on water and chocolate bars. There is a cafe at the rest house but the food – standard rice and noodles dishes – is not overly appetizing, so it’s best to take enough snacks and energy foods for the trip.

By 3 am we began to set off in small groups at staggered intervals, as the next 1.9 miles (3km) is technically more challenging and the going was slow.

At first, the path up is narrow and steep and we had to walk in single file up yet more steps, so there was a bit of a scramble to get ahead and find my own pace. An hour into the walk I realised that I hadn’t switched on my headlamp, but could see fairly well.

I looked up and was greeted, more by luck than design, with a shining full moon. The long shadows cast by the moonlight behind the peaks gave the place a kind of Kafkaesqueness about it, making me believe the local myths and legends about the summit.

Kadazan folklore has it that the mountain is the resting place of the dead, and the summit inhabited by ghosts. Kadazan guides still perform an annual sacrifice to appease the gods.

Once above the tree line you step out into a lunar-like expanse of craggy, grey rock sweeping out ahead of you, where for the first time the summit felt close. The moonlight allowed me to clearly pick out the oddly, but aptly, named surrounding peaks, such as Donkey’s Ears and Ugly Sister.

I made it to Low’s Peak (13,435 ft) at around 5.30am, 10 minutes before the eastern skies burst veins of pink into the darkness. The sunrise, not guaranteed, and the views suddenly made all the effort pale away and I felt unbridled delight.

In February I got lucky with the dry weather for the trek, but ideally the best time to climb Kinabalu is between March and April when the skies are clearest.

Two weeks after my trip, up in the state capital, Kota Kinabalu, I bumped into a fellow traveller who had climbed a week after me. She had had to endure constant heavy rain for the whole ascent and descent. Magical is not the way she described her experience, but then again she had gone up in a pair of fashion trainers and little warm clothing.

Arguably the descent was as tough as the ascent, albeit for different reasons. Once on firm ground, however, and with not a wooden step in sight, I made a bee line for some cool lemonade in one of the roadside cafes to await a minibus to nearby, and appropriately-named, Poring hot springs, where I’d already decided to reward myself with a dip in the soothing waters.

There I fitted in nicely with the other crab-like travellers for a well-deserved soak, finally.
Wanna Go?

Laban Rata Resthouse is a bit grotty, but they offer welcome respite in the form of dorm rooms replete with sheets and blankets, and the hot showers. Book a bed in advance at the park headquarters; even though you may not sleep much the chance to rest is usually needed.

How to book:


RM100 per person to climb Kinabalu, RM15 entry fee to the park and compulsory insurance costs RM3.50

When to go:

March to April is the ideal time, but you can climb throughout the year. The worst time is between November and December when traditionally the monsoon comes.

What to take:

Warm clothes, sturdy footwear, hats, gloves, water bottle, headlamp, waterproof coat, paracetamol and energy bars

Further information:

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