Deputy CEO of Ascott, Lee Chee Koon, shares about his life of contradictions, and his career in the CapitaLand team
Issue: Aug 2012
Mr Lee Chee Koon, Deputy CEO of Ascott, a keen sportsman who played table tennis, ran for his school, played hockey, football and basketball in inter-class matches, appreciates the importance of playing and working as a team
When asked to use a sporting metaphor to describe his life, Deputy CEO of Ascott, Lee Chee Koon, a keen sportsman himself, gamely gave it a go.
“If life were a football game, then I would be the central defender,” he mused. “Most people want to be the strikers, the ones who score the goals. But the job of the central defender is to stop opposing players, particularly the strikers, from scoring. And as the name suggests, we play in a central position. I like to be able to read the game as well as anticipate incoming threats, to be in a position that allows me to see the whole situation a lot clearer. Before anything happens, the ball must stop at me. I need to focus on the task at hand and get a sure footing on the ball when clearing it. I don’t have to be the one to score the goals, but I want to be the last man, the one to manage the team and pull the team together.”
Mr Lee is a man who holds many of life’s contradictions in a fine balance. He may see himself as the quiet man- behind-the-scenes, but he is clearly a fast rising star in CapitaLand. He may be on the upward trajectory in his career and now helms a top post newly created for him, but he still lives the simple life.
“My lifestyle has not changed since I started work. I own a second-hand, eight-year-old Toyota Corolla. But most of the time my wife monopolises it and I still take the bus and train to work. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be rich, to be able to afford anything my heart desired. But over time, I figured that it was not me. While I appreciate the value of money and financial independence, I realise it’s even more important for me to maintain personal discipline and humility in all that I do. “能屈能伸”, he said, using the Chinese proverb that talks about being resilient and able to adapt to changes the environment, be they good or bad.
Mr and Mrs Lee enjoying a day out with little Matthew at this year’s CapitaLand Family Day
More Than Simply an Engineer
Part of Mr Lee’s reluctance to live it up may have to do with his simple upbringing. His graphic designer father, part-time seamstress mother, elder brother and he lived in a one-bedroom shophouse till he was 12 when they moved into a three-room flat.
“We had a simple life. I shared a room with my brother till he got married and moved out. By then I was 28!” admitted the 37-year-old. “My parents never pushed me to study nor did they supervise my schoolwork and grades, probably because they were too concerned with making ends meet. When I took my PSLE, I didn’t even know it was an important exam that would decide if I could go on to a secondary school.”
Mr Lee would go on to St Joseph’s Institution, then National Junior College, before becoming a Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholar. Yet, he denies that he was a stellar student. “I was really an average student. But in Secondary 1, by chance I came in first in the exams and realized that I liked being first. So I decided to study very hard and told myself that I must put in my best in everything I do.”
Mr Lee holds a Masters degree in Advanced Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London, United Kingdom; a degree he pursued after graduating from the Singapore National University’s Engineering faculty. But he has not been an engineer a single day in his life.
“To be honest, I picked Engineering because I was good at Mathematics and Physics,” he admitted.
Instead, he was very interested in how the business world worked. In fact, during his undergraduate days, he started a business venture with a few friends during the school holidays.
“In a short span of three months, we had a monthly turnover of about S$200,000 to S$300,000,” he said.
He would go on to be part of two other business start-ups.
“For me, it was not about the money. I just enjoyed getting the ideas going, turning them into something tangible, and constantly seeing how we could improve on what we were doing.
Yet, when it came time to pick a career path, he went into public service instead, serving out his government bond in the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), Ministry of Finance (MOF), and Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Moving around these various organisations, Mr Lee learnt to work with and across different teams and picked up skills that now stand him in good stead within the CapitaLand team.
“I learnt about negotiating with people from different countries, each with different interests and personalities, and how to protect our own national interests amidst these competing agendas,” recalled Mr Lee on his stint in MTI. “In MOF and subsequently in MAS, I learnt how to run big organisations, how to take a more strategic long-term perspective of issues, and to understand trends and how they affect business.”
Mr Lee (first row, 5th from the left) attending the annual Ascott Global Conference 2012 in Singapore
Head-hunted and handpicked by President and CEO of CapitaLand Group, Mr Liew Mun Leong, Mr Lee started his career in CapitaLand in 2007 as Senior Staff Officer in the Office of the President after his six-year bond with the government. He would quickly rise to the position of Vice President in the Office of the President before being appointed Managing Director of Ascott China in July 2009, heading its hospitality operations and investments.
From then, although he was stationed in Shanghai, the world was really his home. He travelled very frequently within China and soon after, his role expanded to cover Japan and South Korea, a vast change from the boy who only had his first real holiday abroad when he was 17.
“I travel around so much now I am never in one place for very long,” he smiles wryly.
The change in job scope is one Mr Lee counts as one of the most challenging seasons in his career in CapitaLand.
“I suddenly had a 2,000-strong staff. I had to take care of the business in China, Japan, and South Korea with more than a billion dollars’ worth of assets.”
“The team player that he was, he dived in straightaway and strove to build up the teams in these regions.
“I enjoy building teams and watching people grow. I created a structure in which there were three Regional General Managers who were equivalent to mini Managing Directors in each of the regions: North China, South China, and Japan/South Korea. I wanted to give people an opportunity to take the lead. This has always been my philosophy when I do a job. Of course, I know that’s not enough. We must concurrently implement processes and systems so that the business can run independently,” said Mr Lee.
Now that he is the Deputy CEO of Ascott assisting in areas of strategic planning and investment, in addition to his continuing role as head of Ascott’s North Asia business, his travelling days will only increase.
“I now add India, Europe and other countries where Ascott has a presence, to my travel itinerary,” he said.
Mr Lee makes sure he spends all his free time with his family
Despite his heavy workload and confessing to being “a very bad workaholic” whose hobby is his work, Mr Lee is a devoted family man. Just as his mother, who is his role model, used to put the family’s needs above her own, Mr Lee is equally family-oriented. He proudly whips out pictures of his three-and-a-half-month old daughter, Marian, and 22-month old son, Matthew, when he talks about them.
“Every free moment I have, I spend with my wife and kids,” he said. “Whether it’s a quick lunch with my wife in-between my meetings or putting the kids to bed together with my wife, I will try to make time for it. The children love the water so I am planning to take the family to Phuket for a short family holiday.”
That is why although he does golf, he seldom plays anymore because it takes too many precious hours from family time. Instead, he runs to stay healthy.
“It’s a good way to detoxify because I have to do quite a bit of entertaining in my job,” he shared.
Mr Lee may balance contradictions with deft skill but if there is one thing this easy-mannered and modest leader is, it would be a team player. Whether it is for the CapitaLand team or his family, he is definitely one to be counted on to be the last man standing.