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WHETHER at home or in the workplace, family matters to Angelene Chan. She grew up in 1970s Johor Baru, surrounded by dozens of extended-family members who all lived within a stone's throw of each other in houses built around a landmark church. Now, as CEO of DP Architects, Ms Chan is head of a home-grown architecture family - the largest in Singapore and currently ranked 12th in the world by British architecture website Building Design. You could say she practically grew up in DP, having spent half of her 52 years at the firm behind high-profile projects such as The Dubai Mall, Resorts World Sentosa and Esplanade Theatre. DP started in 1967 with 18 staffers and now employs over 1200 people in 16 offices worldwide. It's a big family to take care of, but Ms Chan wouldn't have it any other way.
You wanted to be an architect from the time you supervised your own home renovation when you were barely 12. Why? And how is running a big company different from simply practising what you love? I just love design. This profession allows me to push the boundaries of my imagination. There are big jobs, but I've always continued working on the small ones - they are the ones that make you pay attention to the little details. My role is to propel DP to the next league globally, but it's not just a management role - I'm still very much involved in design. We are a big firm and we have to aim for design excellence all the time - we're proud to be a Singapore brand.
There's also a close-knit kampong spirit that is a significant aspect of the DP philosophy. Which is no doubt what you grew up with. Any memories to share? My grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and many relatives lived on land surrounding the Church of Immaculate Conception at Jalan Ngee Heng in JB. My family has been there since the 1930s; It was a happy place to live and grow up in; full of warmth, sincerity and laughter. Those were my formative years and there were always friends and relatives close by, visiting or eating in each other's homes. There were about 20 houses - half belonged to relatives but all of us were friends. There were never any fences between our homes. My grandfather had the first TV in the neighbourhood. Many kids would show up, unannounced but always welcome. I remember watching Happy Days and thinking that my dad was cool for being like 'The Fonz' - he wore his hair like Fonzie for many years. Football was big in the neighbourhood. The Dolphins Football Club was one of the best teams in the local league. Everyone either played or watched football, or gathered at after-match parties for satay and beer. I grew up believing that after family and religion, comes football! Back then, people looked out for each other without having to be asked. These same values drew me to DP Architects when I first applied for a job in 1990. It was my first job in Singapore and I have stayed ever since, largely because I feel a similar kampong spirit here. My father moved to Singapore years ago, but before he passed away this year, he told us that he wanted to have his wake in our original house next to the church. To have the wake there was very meaningful - plus I half-wanted to see the house I renovated again.
You were appointed CEO in January 2016. What's your approach to running a large firm? There are a lot of mouths to feed. We believe in family and it's a big responsibility, that's why when there's an economic downturn - business is extremely slow this year, and maybe next year as well - we don't downsize. We may cut salaries from the top down. Over five recessions, we'd rather keep the firm together through cost-saving measures than by letting people go.
You collaborated with The Food Explorer Group to open Redpan, a casual eatery in Marina Square - where your office is. What possessed you to go into the food business? We see it as an experimental place for us to showcase our design. We're not just about big malls or sports hubs - we do other things as well. It's a great place to meet colleagues after work; it's an alternative meeting space - all the firm's directors bring our clients there. We all hang out there - the family that eats together stays together. The same goes for my own family. Sitting down to dinner at 7pm each day was a ritual that my parents insisted on. My husband and I do the same with our kids. When it comes to food, I'm a creature of habit. I have the same spaghetti vongole at Porta Porta in Changi as often as once a week. I order the same dish at other Italian restaurants wherever I am around the world just to compare. For me, it's comfort food. Growing up in Johor, every Thursday was steak night. It was a special treat - served with baked beans, fried eggs and HP sauce.
You excelled academically, represented Johor at netball; you're a CEO. Are there any boxes left to tick? I would love to design a winery. Outside of work, I'd like to spend three months on safari with my family; Noma and Jiro are on the restaurant bucket list. Architecture will always be my passion but this is a temporary assignment - eventually I will step down. But not before I take the firm to the next level and pass it on to the next generation. I'm not vain enough to want to leave a legacy - I just want to do a good job.