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THERE are contractors, and there are developers - few companies are both. Greatearth, though, has always pushed the envelope. An engineering and construction group with a storied history, it successfully transformed itself into a developer as well, with significant projects that have left its mark on Singapore's cityscape.
Though the group is constantly reinventing itself, its forward-thinking style was evident early on. Greatearth became one of the first main contractors in Singapore to move up the building value chain into property development when it decided to do so "at the turn of the new millennium", he says.
That move was "long before it became an act of necessity in the face of fast-eroding construction margins and widespread consolidation", he notes. It allowed the group to gain more control over project management, which in turn helped it achieve greater building efficiency and cost economy.
The group is a trailblazer on many fronts. Even before the local building industry is plagued by manpower crunch, the group had already embraced technology and innovation to constantly refine its edge in the market, says group chief executive Chang Chew Kient, who notes that its construction arm is currently helmed by a lady, bucking the trend in the male-dominated industry.
Greatearth's all-encompassing business model now means it can handle a property development project "from foundation works to construction to all other ancillary services" such as mechanical and electrical engineering and procurement, he adds.
"This has been a major competitive edge for the group . . . the group is always pushing the envelope and testing boundaries on all fronts in order to stay relevant with, or even ahead of, the times."
To stay ahead of the pack, the group has trained its staff to deploy productivity-enhancing technologies in its operations such as building information modelling (BIM) and prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC), he says.
It has also played a key role in prominent local projects. It is the co-developer and main contractor for Gem Residences, a 578-unit condominium in Toa Payoh's Lorong 4 and Lorong 6, close to Braddell MRT station. The project consists of a 37-storey tower and another 38-storey tower, and was the first condominium to be launched in Toa Payoh since 2009. Its debut in May 2016 was so popular that the project sold about half its units the day before the public launch.
For construction, the group is engaged in building new-generation Housing Development Board flats in Bukit Panjang, along with providing geo-technical works for a dam in Sarawak as well as Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club.
On the engineering front, it also has marquee customers. Greatearth is providing electrical works for the Jewel Changi Airport, and air-conditioning and mechanical ventilation works at a science building at the National University of Singapore.
Illustrious track record
Though its agility may be more often associated with a newer firm, the group has - in some form - been around for more than a century. Its principal engineering subsidiary, UG M&E, can be traced back to the formation of United Engineers Limited way back in 1912.
The group played an instrumental role in post-war rebuilding construction activities around 1950, and in 1994 its principal construction subsidiary, Greatearth Construction, clinched a substantial construction contract to build the Institute of Health and National Dental Centre for S$107 million - one of its largest projects in terms of contract value at that time.
The group made its first foray into property development in 2006, with the development of a 778-unit private condominium called Kovan Melody near the Kovan MRT station in Hougang. It later took on two other property development projects Park Central@AMK and Ascentia Sky.
Its first major infrastructure project in Singapore was to build the Pioneer and Joo Koon MRT stations in the west part of the island, which it completed in 2009, and in 2010 it completed mechanical and electrical engineering works at the upscale Marina Bay Sands hotel.
Extending its streak, it listed on the Singapore Exchange's mainboard in 2011, and around the same time finished building a mixed-use development at one-north.
More recently, it launched an executive condominium (EC) called Watercolours, in Pasir Ris, secured another EC project called Waterwoods in Punggol and bagged an approximately S$243 million contract to build two campuses, one at Novena and one in Yunnan Garden, for the Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian school of medicine. It was taken private in 2015, and rebranded Greatearth.
Investing in training
To overcome a manpower crunch in Singapore, the group constantly invests in training and retraining. It has actively embraced productivity- and efficiency-enhancing technology and equipment to get more work done and more accurately with smaller staff strength, Mr Chang says.
The group has set its sights on growing its business in South-east Asia, where he says he sees "tremendous growth opportunities" and potential joint ventures or acquisitions.
"Despite the unstable global economy and geopolitics, Asean as a whole still sees a high and growing demand for developing and building infrastructure as well as institutional, industrial, commercial and residential properties on the back of its growing affluence as well as rapid urbanisation and globalisation," he notes.
"The group is also well placed to capitalise on these opportunities as it is already operating in many parts of Asean, including Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam."
It has worked with the Brunei government for nearly 30 years, and is making good progress in expanding in Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, he adds.