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Centurion thrives on the human touch, says CEO

Mr Kong says that on average, Centurion’s employees have stayed with the firm for more than 20 years.

PEOPLE management is core to Centurion Corporation's corporate governance, chief executive officer Kong Chee Min said, because the listed company's accommodation business boils down to servicing foreign workers and students, two vulnerable groups in society.

Mr Kong who won the Best CEO (Small-Cap) award believes staff happiness index is the barometer of Centurion's business health, over and above financial metrics.

"On average, Centurion's employees had stayed on with the company for more than 20 years," Mr Kong said. This is no mean feat considering the core business of the company has undergone a major transition from its original focus on optical disk manufacturing to providing worker and student accommodation.

Centurion had a thriving optical disk manufacturing business initially but its sustainability was threatened by the advent of the Internet. In 2011, the company diversified into the accommodation business following a reverse take-over of a privately run worker dormitory in Singapore.

Including the current chief operating officer, Kelvin Teo Peng Kwang, just 10 staff joined Centurion from the acquired business. The management was able to further extend the offer to the then existing employees, the opportunity to undertake the transition with the company.

About 20-30 of them took up the offer that came attached with pay cuts while some of the remaining others had to be released along with the downsizing of the optical disk manufacturing business. The "growth of the accommodation business cannot (happen) overnight" and this bought time for Centurion to find the right fit for any existing employee who had elected to remain on board, Mr Kong explained.

He said those who stuck it out were eventually paid back the salary cuts and forgone bonuses during the transition. "We cannot dictate how the market moves (with the optical disk business), but the management has been fair to the staff (who stayed)," he said.

At Centurion, staff loyalty is not just driven by monetary rewards. The listed company is anchored by a culture of collaboration and respect in which the management's role is to provide "guidance and advice" to staff, who then embrace the same values in interacting with workers and students.

Mr Kong added that a lot of work has gone into establishing a community spirit that helps to mitigate any risk of managing either workers or students in each of Centurion's 18 residences.

Workers and students face the culture shock of adapting to a foreign living environment. Integrating these foreign souls into their adopted communities is a challenging task involving balancing the needs of the incumbents. But this has helped drive the expansion of Centurion's accommodation business on its home ground in recent years.

The Singapore government has been stepping up efforts to regulate and develop more self-contained, purpose-built dormitories amid escalating public concerns over the siting and conditions of housing for foreign workers.

An undesirable consequence of the "chunky" tenders for such residences that materialised in the last two to three years, however is an over-supply of beds, which Mr Kong argued however, will eventually balance out with employers being pressed to move their workers to purpose-built accommodation.

Centurion has further expanded into student accommodation in 2014 through acquiring RMIT Village in Melbourne Australia and four other assets in the UK's Liverpool and Manchester.

Centurion owns, develops and manages quality workers accommodation assets under the Westlite brand and student accommodation assets. It has 18 operational accommodation assets totalling 63,889 beds in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom as at June 2016.