The Constant Learner
CapitaLand Retail CEO Lim Beng Chee believes in giving his staff the same opportunities he's been given.
Issue: Apr 2009
Mr Lim Beng Chee sharing insights with China colleagues visiting Singapore.
In many ways, Lim Beng Chee, CEO of CapitaLand Retail Limited and CapitaMall Trust Management Limited, could be a poster boy for CapitaLand's 'Building People' philosophy. The former physics teacher and IT sales executive decided to switch career in his early 30s, going back to school fulltime to get an MBA (Accountancy) at Nanyang Technological University before joining DBS Land in 1999, a year before its merger with Pidemco Land to form CapitaLand. With little experience in the property market, he started at a lower-level position than he could have expected with an MBA in his pocket, but he was given many opportunities to stretch himself with new projects and quickly rose through the ranks.
Looking back at the 10 years he has been with the company, Mr Lim believes the key to his success was "not so much about the decisions I made but about the company giving me the opportunities."
"I've been fortunate enough to have very good colleagues and bosses, who gave me opportunities to grow. This company is quite open; people share information readily so it's really a matter of whether you want to learn. I've always looked for experts in the company and picked their brains," the 42-year-old admits, adding, "My advice for young recruits is, 'learn from each other, appreciate each other and work as a team.'"
A Journey of Learning
One of Mr Lim's first projects was working on the initial stage of what would later become the company's first Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) launched in July 2002 as CapitaMall Trust (CMT), which is today the largest REIT by market capitalisation and asset size in Singapore. Mr Lim admits he knew very little about REITs and with the support of those around him, he learned as the project developed. "My boss then, (Mr Pua Seck Guan) was very good at throwing people in the sea and letting them swim. I think it's actually a great way to learn, learning on the job, because you can never teach everything in the classroom. It's also important to learn from your colleagues."
"I really believe in learning from each other. There is always something that you can contribute to the other party and the other party can teach you. That's why it's important when it comes to communicating within the company to have a lot of honesty; if you don't know, you should say so," Mr Lim adds.
When DBS Land and Pidemco Land merged, Mr Lim was pulled onto another new project, giving him the opportunity to develop new knowledge and skills: fund management.
"The opportunity came about when I was tasked to work on the Eureka Office Fund. That was a very interesting learning experience, because I didn't know anything about fund management," recalls Mr Lim who was soon put in charge of the fund in 2001. At the time, the fund controlled all the offices and 38 percent of the retail units in The Adelphi. It had a 19.92 percent stake in Temasek Tower and owned Pidemco Centre in South Bridge Road (later redeveloped as One George Street).
"In a way, I was lucky because the fund started small and simple which gave me the opportunity to learn because we later started doing things a bit more complicated," he says.
In 2004, Mr Lim moved to become an investment manager of CapitaMall Trust Management Limited. He moved through the ranks to Acting Finance manager, Deputy CEO of CapitaMall Trust Management Limited, and then to become the CEO of CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited when CapitaRetail China Trust was listed in December 2006, which led him to spend the last two years in China, before returning to Singapore to take up his current position.
Mr Lim Beng Chee addressing CapitaLand Retail China staff in Beijing at the staff communication session.
Mr Lim is a strong believer in moving internationally to further one's career. "Working abroad gives you a different perspective. When you're in Singapore, it's easy to be complacent because everybody knows CapitaLand, but when you go to a third-tier city in China, nobody knows who CapitaLand is. So you need to start build your brand, build customers from scratch. In a big city, you can get bullied by the big boys out there, so you learn to be a bit more resilient and thorough in your business strategy," he points out.
Given CapitaLand Retail's strong retail presence, with 95 malls all over Asia, including 28 in China and 9 in India to be developed, there will be plenty of opportunities for staff to further their career internationally over the coming years. "There is a lot of scope for growth in the Asian retail scene, especially in countries like India and China, and we can play a part in that development," Mr Lim says. He points that in India organized retailing only represent 3 percent of the overall retailing market, while in China, domestic consumption takes up only 36 percent of the country's GDP, a figure that is bound to increase over the coming years. But while the company has expanded very rapidly in China, Mr Lim anticipates a more cautious approach in India. "In China we expanded very rapidly, maybe because we're comfortable with the market as a group, we've been there since 1994. But in India, as a group we're still new to the market. It's important to learn with those first projects, understand the country a lot more, before we start to expand rapidly."
Mr Lim also sees Japan as another market with strong potential in the current portfolio that CapitaLand Retail already has. "It's a tough market to expand in because of cultural and language differences. But we do see a lot of value there and we need to establish a strong platform quickly over the next two years or we may have to exit if we fail to do so," he said, pointing out that CapitaLand will open Ito Yokado-Chitose shopping mall in Hokkaido by end April. "Even though it's been a bit painful - because we're moving from a single tenant to a multi-tenant space in this difficult market - it's an exciting project that will open up opportunities for us if we can do it well."
Mr Lim wants to give his staff the same opportunities he has been given through his career. "We always try to pull one or two junior staff in on a new project, so that they themselves can learn on the job," he says.
He is also a strong believer in the Project Control Group and Asset Control Group systems that his predecessor, Mr Pua, instituted. "This is something I want to keep and strengthen. I want to make sure there is a lot of buy-in before we start on any new project. In the past we would develop a property by first having the design people doing the plan then the leasing people coming in; but in a way, it's a very ad-hoc arrangement. We want to institutionalize a workshop practice where everybody gets involved from the start. The challenge is how to pull everybody together and move fast."
Mr Lim says he is looking for people who are knowledgeable in their own area of expertise but who are also willing "to learn and interact with other people."
"Teamwork is a very important criterion for me, along with integrity and honesty. Straight-talk is very important. We don't like shadow-boxing here. And as we have to communicate and be very transparent with our investors, we should also be so amongst ourselves," he said.
"What is important is that the culture of CapitaLand allows us to do that. We can talk to Mr. Liew, our CEO, directly. That makes a lot of difference. It's important because we're a people business; otherwise we're just brick and mortar."