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SingHaiyi boss: Property leaves a legacy

SingHaiyi Group's MD Celine Tang says property is about constructing something that spans generations

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"In terms of socio-economic and political stability, as well as standards of living such as healthcare and education, Singapore remains a gem within the Asia-Pacific region. Property values here will definitely appreciate. It's just a matter of how quickly, and in what time frame." - Celine Tang (above).

Singapore

FOR entrepreneur and property veteran Celine Tang, the backbone of any piece of real estate doesn't lie in its brick-and-mortar structure - instead, the human connections created and nurtured within its walls are what constitute the foundation.

"For me, property is all about constructing something that will span generations," said Ms Tang, the managing director of SGX-listed real estate developer SingHaiyi Group.

"It's about families living in their homes. It's about building experiences and memories, and the joy that comes from that."

The China-born Ms Tang, who graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Literature from China People's University for Police Officers - now known as People's Public Security University of China - has lived in Singapore for the last 25 years and is a permanent resident.

She serves as executive director of trading and investment firm Tang Dynasty, which she founded together with spouse Gordon Tang back in 1995, as well as managing director of real estate and investment holding firm, Haiyi Holdings, which the couple established in 2003.

Therefore, it's not surprising she subscribes to the "not just Chinese, but very Asian" mentality of wanting to own property.

"It's everyone's dream to own his or her own home - this is something tangible that lasts. For some it marks a coming-of-age milestone, and creates a sense of belonging. This is why property ownership is a long-term trend that will never die out," she said.

Venturing into property development and investments in the city-state was also a no-brainer.

"We are no strangers to the real estate business. Investing in and developing properties - both in China and the US - has very much been a part of our family tradition," she added.

"In terms of socio-economic and political stability, as well as standards of living such as healthcare and education, Singapore remains a gem within the Asia-Pacific region. Property values here will definitely appreciate. It's just a matter of how quickly, and in what time frame."

So when the opportunity presented itself, the Tangs used Haiyi Holdings - whose Chinese characters mean "smooth sailing at sea" - to take over listed vehicle SingXpress Land in 2012, by subscribing for the latter's cumulative convertible perpetual preference shares.

The following year, the company was renamed SingHaiyi Group, and four years later, it was transferred to SGX Mainboard from the Catalist board.

Diversity and stability

SingHaiyi has a current market capitalisation of about S$380 million. In the year-to date, the stock has generated a total return of 9.9 per cent, compared with total returns of 8.9 per cent and 10.6 per cent for the benchmark Straits Times Index and the broader FTSE ST All-Share Index respectively.

Haiyi Holdings owns a controlling 63.06 per cent stake in SingHaiyi, in which Neil Bush - Tang's business partner and brother of former US president George W Bush - serves as non-executive chairman.

Ms Tang, who was appointed group managing director of SingHaiyi in December 2013, also holds non-executive chairman roles in SGX-listed OKH Global and Chip Eng Seng Corporation.

Apart from an established track record in residential property development, SingHaiyi also owns a diversified portfolio of income-generating assets in the commercial and retail sectors, spanning the US, Australia and Asia.

The group's presence in different real estate segments across multiple markets provides a stable earnings profile, as well as maximises shareholder value.

It is building a portfolio of quality projects, having completed six development properties since 2013, including the Building and Construction Authority's Conquas Star-rated City Suites and award-winning The Vales, as well as the Pasir Ris One "Design, Build and Sell Scheme" project that has since been fully sold.

The group has a pipeline of another five developments in Singapore and the US scheduled for completion by 2024.

It optimises its portfolio through yield-accretive acquisitions and divestments, having made seven development project acquisitions since 2013.

It divested its stake in Singapore's TripleOne Somerset building with a return of more than 60 per cent within three years.

The group also diversifies its income through strategic investments, including a 2.59 per cent stake in Cromwell Property Group, and a 25 per cent stake in Malaysian malls via the limited partner of ARA Harmony Fund III, through which it receives quarterly dividends.

"Such indirect stakes provide us with the avenue to study and understand the dynamics of different markets, as well as assess the potential of future investments should those opportunities arise," Ms Tang said.

Buck stops here

Singapore remains the group's core market. The current pipeline of projects in the city-state include the 9 Penang Road commercial and retail development, which has obtained Temporary Occupation Permit, and secured UBS Singapore as its sole office tenant.

It also has three residential projects - The Lilium and The Gazania, both unveiled in May this year, and Parc Clematis, which launched in August and is the group's largest development to-date.

Apart from bottom-lines, Ms Tang is equally, if not more, uncompromising about SingHaiyi's reputation in the industry.

"For any company, especially a publicly listed one, generating a profit is important," she said.

"Beyond that, the nature of the real estate business demands not only quality, but also integrity. For example, when the market is in a slump, developers may be tempted to cut corners and use fixtures or parts that are inferior in quality, so as to reduce cost and boost margins. That's a no-no for us."

The group has a philosophy that underpins its efforts to build a trustworthy and reliable brand for enduring growth, and a legacy that will span generations, she added.

"Your word must always be your bond. What is paramount is upholding the trust that customers place in you, and keeping our promises with our products," she noted.

The main challenge is making sure all levels of the organisation adhere to this principle.

"There are many moving parts - from the main contractor to engineers, architects and suppliers. The alignment of the group's objectives across each stage - from design and execution to submission and sale of the project - is critical," she added.

Ultimately, the buck starts and stops with SingHaiyi. "If something goes wrong, the customer doesn't care who made the mistake. It starts with us, and ends with us, because we built it."

In October 2018, Ms Tang was the first female recipient of the "Singapore Real Estate Personality of the Year" Award, conferred by Southeast Asian real estate portal PropertyGuru.

Price and location

In Singapore, private home prices continued to climb in the third quarter of 2019, after hitting their highest levels in at least five years in the previous quarter, according to data from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Demand for private homes in Singapore will likely pick up in the medium term, DBS Research said in a report published in September.

This is expected to be driven by government measures to boost affordability in the public housing market, such as the Enhanced CPF House Grant, as well as higher household income ceilings for purchase of new HDB homes.

Last month, a report jointly published by the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers ranked Singapore pole position for real estate investment prospects in 2020, vs second-to-last in a list of 22 centres back in 2017.

Singapore was also one of the few markets regionally to see a surge in transaction values in the first half of 2019, with most of the activity driven by cross-border capital.

Despite a relatively optimistic longer term outlook for the domestic market, challenges remain.

"Property prices have not moved in tandem with the increase in construction costs, and coupled with slower demand over the past few years, developers have not had an easy time," Ms Tang said.

"Land prices in Singapore are also extremely high due to the scarcity factor, and as a result, we've been more prudent in choosing our projects as well as purchasing land bank - the site must have the right price and the right location."

The regulation that imposes a levy on developers who don't complete construction and sell all units in the project within a period of five years from acquiring the land is another stumbling block, she added.

In particular, it takes a substantial amount of time for collective acquisition projects to be approved, which has to be accounted for within the five-year period.

Wait and see

A supply overhang also continues to plague the local market. The number of unsold units from new projects doubled to 4,377 in the third quarter, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said in its annual Financial Stability Review last month.

This increase could be exacerbated in the medium term, as developers redevelop and launch projects following the slew of en bloc sites sold between 2017 and 2018, the MAS noted.

On the demand side, many buyers are adopting a wait-and-see approach after the government's latest round of cooling measures last July, which included higher buyer stamp duties and tighter loan limits.

"This is one challenge we cannot overcome, and every developer faces the same obstacle. We have huge turnouts at our launches and showrooms, but it's difficult to get buyers to commit," Ms Tang said.

No matter how savvy a developer's marketing strategy may be, broader buying sentiment still plays an overriding role.

"The stiffer buyer's stamp duty is a major psychological barrier, and the question in every buyer's mind is: 'Are these duties temporary or permanent? What happens if I make the purchase now, and some or all of the cooling measures are relaxed or rolled back months later?" she added.

While market dynamics and project sales are never far from her thoughts, Ms Tang also frets about cultivating the right values in her two sons and a daughter, aged 19 to 25.

"Usually, first-generation entrepreneurs are the ones who worked hard and got by with very little during the early years. The second generation - their children - are the ones who grow up in a privileged background, and are likely to develop a sense of entitlement," she pointed out.

"I want my children to know that we work very hard to provide them with a foundation, and this foundation is for them to build on - to create something of their own - and not an excuse for them to be lazy and ask for handouts."

The 52-year-old also finds herself grappling with the phenomenon of FOMO, or the fear of missing out, common among millennials and Gen Z.

"I tell my kids that life is a long journey - don't be impatient to succeed or in a hurry to prove yourself. If you miss out now, you could get another chance later," she said. "But in the case of uncertain investments, it's better to deal with a lost opportunity rather than a mistake."

  • 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.