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Ashish Manchharam was sold on conservation shophouses before he started buying them. He grew up in one, knows them like the back of his hand and now he's focused on the business of buying them.
The investment property company he founded in 2014, 8M Real Estate, has become a prominent player in the conservation shophouse sector, acquiring and redeveloping 31 units in Chinatown and the CBD with a total value of around S$400 million.
The buying spree started with a row of shophouses on Amoy Street and grew from there. After renovating the units, Mr Manchharam went a step further than most landlords by selecting specific F&B operators to take up ground-floor tenancies. The 8M portfolio includes the Naumi Liora hotel, spread over 10 shophouse lots in Keong Saik Road, while a newly-refurbished property - 20-room hotel Ann Siang House - opened to the public on March 1.
His affinity for shophouses runs in the family and can be traced back over a century to 1908, when a Gujarati man named Nagindas journeyed east from the port city of Surat in north-west India with instructions to expand the family's textile manufacturing and diamond polishing business. In classic immigrant-made-good style, he achieved success in Singapore and settled in Kampong Glam. His descendants continued the feel-good narrative, eventually forging their way in other fields but never straying too far from their shophouse roots.
Mr Manchharam, 39, is a fourth-generation Singaporean and great-grandson of Nagindas. He grew up in a Kampong Glam shophouse and has added his own compelling chapter to the family story - with a 21st-century twist, of course.
At 11, he was shipped to boarding school in England, where he spent seven years. After national service he studied economics and political science in the US, then cut his teeth at property firm JLL, focusing on master-planning for large-scale developments and on capital markets. Twelve years later he founded 8M, a joint venture with institutional investors and others, investing in a sector that is special to him and makes good business sense as well. As far as Mr Manchharam is concerned, there's no business like shop(house) business.
It seems you were destined for a career in conservation shophouses.
Our focus will be on conservation properties. I always wanted to do my own thing, but had no idea what that was. Over the course of my career I developed a lot of ideas so I took what I learned at JLL and focused on sectors and asset classes that were under the radar.
Also, my family owns quite a few properties in Kampong Glam and I helped with their portfolio, which included shophouses in Haji Lane. These units were used as warehouses in the early 2000s but then there were enquiries from young people wanting to set up shop - independent fashion stores and so on. As the concept evolved over the last 15 years I saw the potential and thought of implementing it in other parts of the city. Finding capital was not a problem, the issue was always trying to find out where the opportunities were, and I identified the CBD as the spot I should be looking at.
Explain the thinking behind curating the restaurant offerings and integrating F&B with other concepts at your properties.
I'm Singaporean, so we all love food. I grew up in different places And I like to explore different types of food, see what's popular and learn why. It's not just about bringing food but creating the right environment, trying to figure out if it will it work and then creating the right environment for it. To generate the returns you need, you almost have to do these things to get a return that makes sense.
It's a tiring process to create better value for these properties but I am passionate about being able to take something and turn it around. I thought of F&B as a way to spark interest and drive demand. Our first property was a cluster of five shophouses on Amoy Street. We spent 18 months refurbishing and finding the right tenants.
The goal was to create a destination in the CBD by putting complementary F & B operators next to each other. We also bought a four-storey unit in Hong Kong Street and turned the upper floors into a service-apartment concept. I felt there was a gap in the market for that type of accommodation - flexible, service-oriented and well-managed.
You're hoping to do the same at Ann Siang House.
What we learned is that if we can get a larger property we can do a lot more, create a destination, curate it well. The way we're positioning the rooms is to angle for mid- to long-term stays. This property is really about creating a different product from what's available out there. It's a space where we have the comfort of a home-away-from-home, catering to people who appreciate being in this kind of space.
As for the food offerings, we have F&B pop-ups now and we're working on more permanent ideas. There's an Italian restaurant next door, a coffee programme and a brewery out of Hong Kong, which will move to our Keong Saik location later on. We curate what we think will work.
Talk a bit about your family and growing up in Kampong Glam.
My great-grandfather Nagindas came to Singapore with his brother; the family manufactured textiles in Surat and used Singapore as base to trade until the 1940s. In the 1950s they moved from Hong Kong and Singapore to Kobe, which was a free port after the war.
As a child, my grandfather Manchharam Nagindas used to give us kids one dollar each to buy sweets. He always told us to spend it wisely - it was almost like, do you know what this dollar means? Value what you've got. Dad was a chartered accountant, he worked with Sime Darby for 35 years. By the time it got to me we were landlords and not in retail anymore. The family shop was at 86 Arab Street - one of my tenants owns it now. My parents' generation all worked pretty hard. Dad had eight siblings and there are about 30 in my generation: everyone's doing something different - no one's doing textiles.
The '8' in 8M refers to infinity and the stylised 'M' in your logo is an open doorway, meaning to "infinitely identify opportunities". Do you believe in fengshui and what's the outlook for your industry?
With every property we buy I have someone go and check it out, and we do what we need to bless the property. There was one I looked at that wasn't quite right, so we didn't buy it.
My focus is here in Singapore and there's enough opportunity to grow a fairly sizeable business. The market has been slow but we've seen a lot of positives. Overall, the fundamentals are strong and I'm pretty bullish on where we'll be in five to 10 years. There's still a lot of interest in our market, so we're looking at quality and curation and bringing the right people together.