A Progressive, Bold Trendspotter
Mrs Chng Chet Siew, SVP of Regional Investment & Asset Mgt (Leasing), CMA, surprises with unconventional way of life
Issue: Jun 2012
Mrs Chng Chet Siew, Senior Vice President of Regional Investment & Asset Management (Leasing) at CapitaMalls Asia Limited (CMA), who interacts with over 10,000 tenants in her unconventional course of work, is seen here at a meeting with US retailer Gilly Hicks in Cannes at MAPIC
Senior Vice President of Regional Investment & Asset Management (Leasing) at CapitaMalls Asia Limited, Mrs Chng Chet Siew, is everything you expect of someone who spots trends for a living. Chet, as she is affectionately known to others, is tastefully stylish, standing out from the corporate suits with her wardrobe of timeless designer pieces and creations from small independent labels, and conversation-piece accessories. She is fun and colourful, like the many brands she has been responsible for bringing in. And she is both disarmingly forthright and intriguingly sharp, a sure sign of her business acumen.
10-month-old Chet, (second from right) pictured here with her parents and elder brother in 1958, was the only daughter in the family whom her mother took great joy in dressing her up, honing her sense of style in future
But just as you are about to peg her as a woman ahead of her time, she surprises all by sharing some of her values that are quite conventional. Much of this may be attributed to her upbringing as a proper lady. Decorum and grooming were very important to Chet’s mother who would never let her step out of the house to run errands until she had changed into ‘outdoor’ clothes.
Recalling fondly the popular Teochew Opera performances that took place every year near her childhood home, Chet remembered her first taste of “fashion week”.
“My mother would get us seven new outfits, one for attending each evening of the opera so that our neighbours would not see us in old clothes,” Chet beamed.
And so, Chet’s mother, who took pride in dressing up the only girl in a family of three children, unknowingly honed her sense of style and gave her a head start as an astute trendspotter in the retail industry.
A Woman in a Man’s World
From the beginning, Chet has been one who revels in holding in delicate balance polar opposites. In the 1970s when the real estate industry was dominated by men, she carved a name for herself with over 30 years of retail management, centre management and project development.
“When there is a lot of cynicism, or negativism; that is when I like to rise to the challenge. The more difficult it is, the more exciting I find it. It gives me a high,” she smiled.
Even as a young girl, Chet was comfortable being the rose amongst the thorns. While other Rafflesian girls took up Home Economics in Secondary School, she opted for Technical. “It was the only course that lets you interact with boys from other schools twice every week,” she confessed tongue-in-cheek.
Working in a male-dominated industry, Chet refused to be intimidated and rose through the ranks through persistence and hard work
But she definitely has a knack for tackling the male-oriented pursuits and succeeding in them. After graduating from Singapore Polytechnic in 1978, she started as a Quantity Surveyor and progressed to Project Mangagement. Then, as a Facilities Manager, she was responsible for the launch of Raffles City Singapore in 1985. The 27-year-old had to deal with the chauvinistic Korean contractors, many of whom were men twice her age.
“They were very intimidating and would talk down to me and bear down on me with their garlic breath,” she recalled.
But she refused to let them brow-beat her into accepting standards that were less than perfect. She insisted on testing each sensor and equipment in the 4 million sq ft development even when it meant many days of working through the night and at the expense of her personal plans.
“I had to postpone my honeymoon by seven months because I was in the middle of taking over Raffles City Singapore from the contractors,” said Chet.
Chet and husband, Rodney, enjoying their much delayed honeymoon in 1985
These days, however, she has no problem getting anyone to respect her judgment. As the head of CMA’s regional leasing, Chet actively engages the tenants of the company’s 99 shopping malls across 51 cities in Singapore, China, Malaysia, Japan and India. She guides and mentors her younger colleagues in design development, positioning and tenant mix of the Group’s shopping malls. The former Retail Director of VivoCity and Executive Director of Amrita Spas is a Board Member for Singapore Real Estate and Construction Centre and the Exco member of The Orchard Road Business Association. She has a Master of Science in Psychology from City University of New York and is a member of the International Honor Society Beta Gamma Sigma. She also sits on the Resource Panel for the upcoming National Arts Gallery in Singapore.
An Ally in a Competitive Business
In a time when people believe trends are set by the young, this youthful 55-year-old is widely acknowledged for the success in bringing various new-to-market brands to CMA malls throughout the region. In Singapore, she has expanded the number of Food and Beverage outlets in malls, noticing the trend for locals to seek out new, convenient and exciting dining experiences. In India, she gives mall-goers the cineplexes they crave, given Bollywood’s huge popularity. In China, she brings to the people brands that let the shoppers live out their aspirations for the good life.
With her razor sharp instincts and a trained eye for spotting up and coming trends, the humble Chet is often found walking the ground, travelling to the fashion cities of the world to attend events and reading extensively on the market conditions. She enjoys learning from others and often asks people around her what appeals to them – regardless of colleagues, friends to family members.
“I am truly blessed to have a job that allows me to mingle with people of all ages, from the arts, entertainment, food and beverage, fashion and lifestyle industries. I get to soak in their creativity and experience their latest offerings. Enjoying life is part of my work!” exclaimed Chet.
Chet (front row, third from left) led a study mission for Singapore retailers keen to expand overseas to visit our CMA malls and had arranged for networking opportunities with potential overseas partners and franchisees
In addition, Chet has often gone the extra mile for her retail partners, regardless whether they are long-time collaborators or new-to-market retailers in markets with CMA presence. She has gone so far as to help brands decorate their stores, design their logos and uniforms, understand and navigate local business regulations, helping them find local partners and even recruit management staff. Genuinely interested in the business needs of the retailers, when retail space is not available within CMA malls for the retailers’ strategic store expansion, Chet would refer these retailers to suitable competitive malls that fulfill the retailers’ needs for their expansion.
“This is a people business. There is a lot of moral obligation because you have to point them to the right direction and people,” shared Chet. In return, such retailers are very loyal to CMA, often choosing CapitaMalls for their store expansion locally and overseas.
“A lot of the retailers call me dajie (which means elder sister in Mandarin). Many of them have been with me since the 1980s. Brands like Cortina Watch and Saj Drugstore, I worked with the parents and uncles, and now I work with the children.”
A Traditionalist in Modern Times
Despite growing in a traditional family, Chet is very much the modern working woman and she has always been. In that, she has blazed a trail for other working mothers to follow. For that, she has her consultant husband of 27 years, Rodney, to thank. He has always been understanding and supportive of her hectic work schedule and frequent travels.
“A few years ago, he had much free time on weekday nights when I was studying for my Master programme that he signed up for piano lessons to occupy himself. Now, he plays me all the old love songs that I like,” she smiled.
Spending their 10th wedding anniversary in Paris & other parts of Europe alone and making time for the children in a separate family holiday
Teenage sweethearts, the pair met when she was just 16 and dated for 12 years before tying the knot. While she may seem to stride ahead in her career, Chet is very conservative in her values about relationships.
Asked about the secret of their enduring marriage, she shared, “I believe in regular, couples-only weekends. They always tell you that you need to spend quality time with your children. What you need to do is to spend quality time with your spouse. I just booked my husband for a long weekend alone after my busy period in the later part of June.”
Another conventional belief for this seemingly unconventional woman is her practice of always dressing up for her man.
“A lot of women don’t bother to dress up when they are at home or during weekends. Yet, when they go to work, they are all dolled up. So what signal are you sending to your husband?” she mused.
Chet believes in being firm with her children and made them take public transport to school when they were young to teach them independence
This corporate conqueror is also an all-traditional mom. She has no qualms making her children walk and take public transport to school alone when they were in Primary Three. Both children were also urged to work during school holidays to appreciate the value of money. Despite her busy schedule, she found time to teach her children to read from as young as two, and that started their hunger in pursuing knowledge.
Today, she has two children who are outstanding in sports and studies, both alumni of the Gifted Programme: 24-year-old Nina who is already working and 19-year-old Leon is doing his National Service.
So, she raises another generation to hold in tandem the values of old with the boldness to embrace the new, bringing to life as she does to her work timeless traditions that bode well for the future.