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Shaping the skyline here and overseas

The heads of six of Singapore's most established property groups talk about their companies' achievements and challenges.
Thursday, October 22, 2015 - 05:50
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(From left) CapitaLand's Lim Ming Yan, Pontiac Land's Kwee Liong Keng and UOL Group's Gwee Lian Kheng
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(From left) Wing Tai Holdings' Edmund Cheng, Far East Organization's Augustine Tan and Hong Leong Group's Kwek Leng Beng

CAPITALAND
Interview with Lim Ming Yan, president and group CEO

About the company

"CapitaLand was formed from the merger of Pidemco Land and DBS Land to create the largest listed property company in South-east Asia, debuting on the Singapore Exchange on Nov 21, 2000. Today, CapitaLand and its predecessor companies have a combined experience of nearly 50 years. Prior to the merger, DBS Land had its origins in 1978 and became a leading property company in Singapore listed on the SGX main board with significant operations spanning 11 countries in the Asia Pacific and Europe. Pidemco Land, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore Technologies with its roots as the Urban Redevelopment Authority's property management arm, was established in 1989 and became one of the largest property groups in Singapore with significant investments in 24 cities in 12 countries. including key gateway cities in the Asia-Pacific region and the United Kingdom."

Achievements

"We have a strong track record of leveraging our strength in Singapore to build significant regional and global businesses. An example would be Ascott, which is now the largest international serviced residence business with presence in Asia, Australia, Europe and US. Another example would be our shopping mall business, with 105 malls in Singapore, China, Malaysia, Japan and India.

"We have built a strong business foundation in China. CapitaLand was one of the first foreign-funded developers to enter China in 1994. We were among the first to introduce integrated developments to China, with the official opening of Raffles City Shanghai in 2004. Today, we have eight Raffles City developments in China, worth over S$12 billion when completed, as well as a sizeable residential business with more than 115,000 residential units including those under development.

"Our people are willing to embrace innovation and technology. In 2001, CapitaLand launched Singapore's first 'intelligent' building, Capital Tower. In 2015, recognising that technology will play a pivotal role in real estate of the future, we formed the CapitaLand Technology Council, the first by an Asian real estate developer, comprising technology stalwarts to provide strategic inputs. We work with technology partners such as Samsung and Tujia.com (China's equivalent of AirBnB) to define this new space.

"Another of our achievements is that we set up Singapore's first real estate investment trust (Reit), CapitaLand Mall Trust, in 2002 and pioneered a new capital efficient business model for real estate companies. Today, we have five listed Reits and 17 real estate private equity funds, with total assets under management of over S$44.1 billion. We continue to work with strong capital partners and target to set up six more funds with total AUM of over S$10 billion by 2020, including the recent 50:50 joint venture with the Qatar Investment Authority.

"We also strive to be a responsible member of the community. To encourage volunteerism, we put in place a three-day Volunteer Service Leave (VSL) for our staff in 2006, the first Singapore company to do so. We are pleased to see a ten-fold increase in staff volunteer hours - from over 2,500 hours in 2010 to more than 28,000 in 2014."

Most challenging moment

"The market was sceptical of our strategy to expand overseas post-merger. When I was sent to Shanghai in 2000 to set up and lead CapitaLand's China operations, people were unfamiliar with us. It was very challenging at first, but we worked hard to build trust and confidence in the company. Today, we are well-recognised as one of the largest foreign-funded real estate developers in China, with S$20.7 billion of investments in China (as at June 30).


PONTIAC LAND GROUP
Interview with Kwee Liong Keng, managing director

About the company

It was founded in 1961.

Achievements

"One of the projects we are most proud of is Regent Singapore, which was launched in 1982. This was American architect John Portman's first project outside the US and in Singapore. His vision was to bring Singapore's tropical environment indoors by landscaping the atrium space. The lobby also has beautifully designed elevators that act as kinetic sculptures and a cascading Rainshower art piece created by celebrated artist Michio Ihara.

"We also built two office towers - Millenia Tower and Centennial Tower - as part of our Millenia Singapore development in the Marina Centre locale. Both skyscrapers were designed by Pritzker Prize laureate Kevin Roche. Millenia Tower, the tallest building in Marina Centre, has a unique and prominent architecture that is easily recognised as part of the Singapore skyline. We also built The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore; we were the first to place windows in our bathrooms, and this has since become an iconic feature of the hotel. Along with a stellar collection of 4,200 art pieces, our hotel has become a benchmark of innovation, art and design for all the Ritz-Carltons of the world.

"Seeking to create enduring designs for long-terms investments, Pontiac Land Group pioneered the trend of luxury residences designed by internationally renowned architects. To date, we have worked with Paul Rudolph for The Colonnade (1986), Ben van Berkel for Ardmore Residence (2013) and Kerry Hill for HANA (2015).

"The group has also expanded into New York City and Sydney. In 2013, Pontiac Land Group invested in 53W53, the iconic residential condominium development that will also house the expansion of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The 82-storey residential tower is under construction.

"In September 2015, Pontiac Land Group was awarded the opportunity to redevelop two iconic heritage buildings in the heart of Sydney. We shall redevelop the two stunning conservation Sandstone buildings into a 240-room hotel, which will be one of the best luxury hotels in the world.

"At Pontiac Land Group, we hold a long-term view of our assets with an aim to combine creativity with business. We see this as a collaborative process and we work things through a clear, constructive manner that delivers the best outcome for tenants, our guests and us - without compromising the architect's and creative team's vision."


UOL GROUP
Interview with Gwee Lian Kheng, chief executive

About the company

"UOL was founded in 1963 under the name Faber Union. It was renamed United Overseas Land in 1975 and subsequently to UOL Group in 2006. Today, UOL has a diversified business model in residential development, hospitality and property investments."

Achievements

"UOL is an integral part of the Singapore story and is closely associated with the city-state's changing skyline over the past 50 years. We started small but our entrepreneurial spirit quickly led us to be a forerunner in building quality private residential developments with early projects such as Faber Gardens, Mount Echo Park and Orchard Bel Air and more recently, award-winning projects like Nassim Park Residences and Newton Suites.

"We also had humble beginnings in hospitality with the 260-room Hotel Merlin along Beach Road in the early 1970s. We bought more hotels and hotel brands as we became more profitable with better cash flow. Between 1993 and 2005, we purchased several hotels in Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, China and Myanmar. Today, we own and manage more than 30 properties globally through our wholly- owned subsidiary Pan Pacific Hotels Group Limited (PPHG).

"The group has made some significant acquisitions. In 2009 during the global financial crisis, UOL increased its strategic stake in United Industrial Corporation (UIC), making it an associated company of the group. Over the years, UOL has gradually added its interest in UIC to 44 per cent. In turn, UIC holds more than 99 per cent of Singapore Land (SingLand), which was privatised in 2014. The increased shareholding in UIC enlarges the group's exposure to UIC and SingLand's quality commercial assets in the Singapore CBD.

"In 2013, UOL decided to delist PPHG so as to allow greater management flexibility to review the running cost of the subsidiary and seize new opportunities.

"Good design is very much part of UOL's DNA. UOL is behind several Singapore landmarks including Parkroyal on Pickering and Pan Pacific Serviced Suites on Beach Road which garnered the prestigious FIABCI World Prix d'Excellence awards. To date, we have received more than 10 local and international FIABCI awards for both our hospitality and residential projects on top of other highly acclaimed awards like the President's Design Award and the Aga Khan Award."

Most challenging moment

"The severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003 was one of the most challenging periods for UOL. Tourist arrivals declined and occupancy rates at our hotels fell. Our malls in the Novena area were deserted and business plunged as people were afraid to be in the vicinity of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the treatment centre for Sars.

"We took some decisive steps to mitigate the impact of Sars. A cost containment plan was introduced. With the union's cooperation, our staff at three Singapore hotels took no-pay leave over a period of four months. We also cut back on hiring and took advantage of the lull period to intensify staff training.

"To restore confidence in our malls, our maintenance team stepped up frequent cleaning of common areas like lifts and installed hand sanitisers at entrances. We gave rental reductions to some of our tenants to cushion the drop in business. Such steps helped us ride out that very difficult period."


WING TAI HOLDINGS
Interview with Edmund Cheng, deputy chairman

About the company

"The company was incorporated in Singapore on Aug 9, 1963; it was founded in Hong Kong in 1955.

"Over the past 50 years, we have made several successful turnings in our growth and expansion - from manufacturing to property, and diversifying into related sectors of retail and hospitality. Today, we are a pan-Asian enterprise and our projects are sought after globally by a discerning clientele."

Achievements

"We were among the first to embrace art and heritage in our architecture. We lead by our conservation practices, always seeking to keep the history and heritage of a place. By the timelessness of our architecture, creating and preserving value, we appeal to customers beyond geographies and generations. This can be seen in The Crest, our latest development designed by Toyo Ito; it is an experience of urban stature, privacy and fine domestic detail.

"We have always been enterprising, adaptive and responsive to change. Our business philosophy of fair dealing and achieving winning partnerships stems from our foundational core values of trust, respect and mutual benefit. We believe in always leaving something on the table for our partners and customers."

Most challenging moments

"The external changes and challenges, they come and go fast. But we need to be steadfast in upholding our core values, balancing prudence and profit in our growth and expansion. Such an approach guides many aspects of our business, and enables us to earn the trust of our staff, customers, partners and shareholders. It is this earned trust that enables us to overcome the challenges we face in times of crisis."


FAR EAST ORGANIZATION
Interview with Augustine Tan, executive director, property sales and corporate affairs

About the company

"Far East Organization was founded by the late Ng Teng Fong in 1960. Its early milestones were built on the aspirations of our founder's entrepreneurial vision coupled with his propensity for hard work and frugality . . . Mr Ng broke tradition and forged his own path beyond his family's soya sauce and grocery shop business to establish a real estate development company."

Achievements

"By the grace of God, Far East Organization has been able to play a role in the many historical markers of Singapore's progress - including the shaping of Orchard Road and Singapore's urban landscape, as well as the many innovative home concepts that have met homebuyers' aspirations. These include Far East SOHO (apartments that offer flexible space in strategic locales with excellent connectivity) and Inessence (ultra-luxury homes customised for savvy homebuyers) in addition to vibrant mixed-use developments.

"As a Christian enterprise, Far East Organization is guided by its values to seek the welfare of the city, support the causes of the needy and show love to its neighbours. Through space philanthropy facilitated by the government's Community/Sports Facilities Scheme, the group has gifted five purpose-built spaces at its developments for community use."

Most challenging moments

"In recent memory, the Asian Financial Crisis was a very difficult period for developers. Events happened in a short span of time; interest rates spiked up quickly and the market fell sharply. What followed were very bad years for the Singapore property market, from the troughs of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997/1998 to 2001, when there was a double dip caused by the terrorist attacks which precipitated the Wall Street crash and the worldwide turmoil, through the sluggish market to 2006/2007.

"Through this period, we consolidated our operations by doing more with less. We remain steadfast in making improvements operationally, structurally and organisationally so that we can do business better and create more value from our resources. Our goal is to build an enduring enterprise that contributes to fulfilment for our customers, our business partners and our people. Far East Organization is committed to investing in the creation of innovative, functional spaces that will improve and inspire better lives."


HONG LEONG GROUP/ CITY DEVELOPMENTS
Interview with Kwek Leng Beng, executive chairman

About the company

Hong Leong Group was established in 1941 by Kwek Hong Png. Since the 1980s, the company has been under the leadership of the second generation of the Kwek family with Kwek Leng Beng at the helm as executive chairman. The group is currently focused in four core businesses - real estate, hotels, financial services, and trade and industry.

The group ventured into property development in the 1960s with Hong Leong Holdings, a private property holding company which was set up in 1968. In 1972, Hong Leong acquired a controlling stake in City Developments Limited (CDL), which was formed in 1963.

Achievements

"We have put Singapore on the map by building a global hotel business. From just one hotel in the 1970s, the group's hospitality business has grown to include more than 170 hotels (including properties in the pipeline) in over 20 countries with over 45,000 rooms globally. In 1996, we floated our hotel arm, Millennium & Copthorne Hotels (M&C), on the London Stock Exchange.

"The group stamped its financial and hospitality leadership with the formation of Singapore's first hotel real estate investment trust, CDL Hospitality Trusts.

"On the Singapore residential property front, the group has developed many iconic properties over a span of more than five decades, reinforcing its position as a market leader with quality properties such as One Shenton and The Residences at W Singapore - Sentosa Cove. Hong Leong Group was also the first developer to launch a branded residences project here - St Regis Hotel & Residences. Member companies in the group have developed close to 50,000 homes catering to a wide range of market segments here and in the region.

"CDL has been an early advocate of environmental sustainability and measures its success with a triple bottom line focus on People, Planet and Profit. CDL has developed City Square Mall along Kitchener Road as Singapore's first eco-mall and 11 Tampines Concourse as the first CarbonNeutral® development in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific.

"We have also contributed to the push to make Singapore a global city by revitalising old districts across Singapore - the latest example being the South Beach mixed-use project. The group has created several other iconic developments across the city. The 66-storey Republic Plaza was the first project here to win the FIABCI Prix d'Excellence Overall winner award in 1997, while The Sail @ Marina Bay was one of the world's tallest residences at the time of its completion in 2008."