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Moving from optical discs to accommodation

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"You need to be cognisant of shifts in the marketplace, and be ready to reposition yourself at a moment's notice." - Centurion CEO Kong Chee Min

HAVING weathered storms through his career, chartered accountant-turned-chief executive Kong Chee Min is well- schooled in the craft of versatility.

Mr Kong, who joined SGX-listed then-SM Summit Holdings Ltd in 1996 as an accountant, rose through the ranks to become part of the management team that oversaw the metamorphosis of the optical disc manufacturer into Centurion Corporation, a worker and student accommodation owner-operator.

"I never imagined that the company would have to reinvent itself, but the advent of faster and cheaper Internet had a far-reaching impact on the industry, and the entire supply chain was ravaged," recalled the Bachelor of Accountancy graduate from the National University of Singapore.

"There was no choice but to look for options outside this space."

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After evaluating various alternatives, management came across an opportunity in the purpose-built accommodation sector.

"Singapore relies heavily on foreign labour, and there was a shortage of purpose-built accommodation for foreign workers in the city-state. This business model is scalable, and can be exported to other Asian markets," he added.

In 2011, the injection of a 5,300-bed asset via a reverse takeover heralded Centurion's entry into the purpose-built worker accommodation space, and Mr Kong was appointed CEO of the group that year. Three years later, with the acquisition of RMIT Village in Australia, Centurion diversified into the purpose-built student accommodation segment.

The group's transformation journey taught Mr Kong many indelible lessons. One was that nothing is impossible or certain.

"In whatever you do, you cannot afford to be complacent," he pointed out. "You need to be cognisant of shifts in the marketplace, and be ready to reposition yourself at a moment's notice."

His professional training also put him in good stead to assume a management role. "Being an accountant gives you a bird's eye view of the operations - all the inflows and outflows, as well as an understanding of the internal controls and processes that need to be put in place for the business to perform optimally," he said. "It's never just about crunching numbers."

Leaps and bounds

Listed on SGX in 1995 and dual-listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2017, Centurion has a current market capitalisation of about S$350 million.

The group owns and manages purpose-built worker accommodation assets in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as student accommodation assets in Singapore, Australia, South Korea, the UK and the US. It was ranked by Euromonitor as the largest purpose-built worker accommodation provider in Singapore and Malaysia.

As at March 31, 2019, it owns and manages a portfolio of 31 operational accommodation assets totalling 62,656 beds, through two established and professional brands - Westlite and dwell. With projects under development and undergoing asset enhancement, the group's portfolio is expected to grow to 68,756 beds by FY 2020.

"Most countries lack purpose-built accommodation, which allows for the creation of specialised communities - be it foreign workers or students," Mr Kong noted.

"Such communities provide residents with amenities and services that enhance welfare and quality of life, as well as meet existing legal and regulatory requirements."

As a result, this segment of the real estate market is growing by leaps and bounds. "Supply is unable to meet demand, so there's massive growth potential," he added.

In the first quarter of 2019, Centurion added three new operating developments to its portfolio - student accommodation assets dwell East End Adelaide in Australia and dwell Dongdaemun in South Korea, as well as worker accommodation asset Westlite Bukit Minyak in Penang, Malaysia.

"In the area of purpose-built worker accommodation, we're planning to export our current business model to South-east Asia and the Middle East," said Mr Kong, who was named Best CEO for the category of companies with less than S$300 million in market capitalisation at the Singapore Corporate Awards 2016.

For purpose-built student accommodation, Centurion already has a presence in the major education hubs of the US, UK and Australia. Certain markets in Europe - such as Ireland and Germany - look attractive, while in Asia, it has ventured into South Korea, an emerging education hub.

"We're focusing less on the US market because yields there are too compressed, and interest rates are still high," he added.

Asset-light

Currently, Centurion's worker accommodation business accounts for 70 per cent of group revenues. The student accommodation segment - which contributes the remaining 30 per cent - is more resilient, and less impacted by economic cycles. It targets to grow revenues from both segments to a 50:50 split.

Centurion also aims to enhance returns through selected asset enhancement initiatives. RMIT Village, which provides affordable, self-catering student accommodation just a stone's throw away from Melbourne's RMIT University, has achieved a high average occupancy rate for the first quarter of the year despite an ongoing asset enhancement programme (AEP).

Of the 160 beds under the AEP, 113 have been completed, with the remainder expected to be completed in the current quarter. These additional beds, together with new assets, will add 7,248 beds to Centurion's existing portfolio this year. The new assets are expected to achieve optimised occupancy over the next nine to 12 months.

The group also targets scalable growth through joint ventures and asset-light strategies, including setting up private investment funds.

In November 2017, Centurion established its inaugural private fund, the Centurion US Student Housing Fund, which raised US$89.5 million. A year later, it announced the successful first closing of its second fund - the Centurion Student Accommodation Fund - with total committed capital of S$70 million. This fund will invest in purpose-built student accommodation outside the US.

"There are opportunities that may be out of our reach because of size, and such funds allow us to house much larger assets on our balance sheet," Mr Kong said.

"Going asset-light enables us to efficiently leverage our capital and resources to grow our portfolio, and gain optimum returns in a relatively shorter time frame."

Banking on its deep management expertise, the group will also seek opportunities to provide fee-based investment and property management services for accommodation assets owned by third parties.

Robust prospects

Centurion, which snagged the Enterprise Award at this year's Singapore Business Awards, is seeking to diversify into other accommodation assets. "We're constantly monitoring and exploring other opportunities in Specialised Accommodation," Mr Kong said. "This includes senior living or retirement housing, co-living and variations of worker accommodations."

Co-living, where young working professionals share apartments with common areas that promote community experience and social interaction, is popular in metropolises worldwide. Senior living, which includes independent living, assisted living as well as retirement villages, caters to the needs of adults aged 55 and beyond. Looking ahead, Asia's industrialisation wave will drive demand for quality accommodation to house expanding foreign or migrant worker populations, Mr Kong said.

Growing awareness by regional governments of the need to improve the welfare of their foreign workers, as well as rising demands for Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) compliant accommodation from the manufacturing sector, bodes well for the group. The RBA is a non-profit industry coalition committed to supporting the rights and well-being of workers affected by the global supply chain.

The student property market also retains a favourable outlook. According to Knight Frank, exponential growth of the global middle class has spurred demand for education, and consequently, the number of students studying outside their home countries has jumped by 23 per cent over the last five years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has forecast the globally mobile student population to expand to eight million by 2025, from five million in 2019.

Another factor is low supply in Australia and the UK. According to Knight Frank's UK Student Housing Development Pipeline 2018-2019 report, the country's purpose-built student accommodation market is experiencing severe undersupply of beds, with full-time students outnumbering bed space by a ratio of 3:1. "Because of this, the UK remains a key market for the group," Mr Kong added.

Australia is another bright spot. Deloitte Access Economics expects international student numbers to jump to 720,000 by 2025 from about 500,000 today, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 3.8 per cent, according to data from its Australia International Education 2025 roadmap.

Passion and heart

Robust industry conditions aside, some of the key challenges faced by Centurion revolve around its customers. Moving from manufacturing a product to providing a service involved a steep learning curve, Mr Kong admitted.

"It's not just about providing a roof and four walls for our residents - it's about people management with a heart," he pointed out.

"Previously, we manufactured a product, and it was just a matter of quality control and getting the specs right. Now, we're dealing with people - not just one or two, but several thousand. That's where service standards are critical."

Centurion's residents are also vulnerable groups in society. "They have left homes and families, and have physical, mental and social needs," he noted. "Our staff must have the heart and passion to ensure our customers are satisfied and happy."

  • This is an excerpt from SGX's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a regular column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed companies. Previous editions can be found on SGX's website www.sgx.com/research