Yen for Change
If there's anything that Lynette Leong thrives on, it's change.
Issue: Aug 2009
Lynette Leong's appetite for adventure has taken her to places like the Khumbu Valley in Nepal, which is near to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Lynette Leong has a can-do attitude about her. The CEO of CapitaCommercial Trust Management Limited (CCTML) exudes positivity and plenty of confidence. She loves new challenges.
"And I like change," she says. "So after I've learnt something, I like to find something new to learn."
Ms Leong, believes her father's inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge has rubbed off on her. "Even now that he's in his 70s, he's still thinking of new ideas and inventions that he wants to carry out," she says with a laugh.
Knocking on Doors
Years ago, Ms Leong's yen for change propelled her to give up a banking job to pursue a career in real estate, which she had studied at university.
"The only thing available was office leasing, but I took it anyway," she recalls. "So from being a banker, someone whom people go to for loans and kowtow to, I became a leasing broker and had to knock on people's doors."
This drastic change in career shaped the CEO's belief that every job holds valuable insights. For instance, knocking on doors helped her gain entry into the real estate world. Even today, her stint as a leasing broker comes in handy.
"Because I know how the leasing brokers do their business, it helps during deal structuring and negotiating stages. And I toughened up in the process by pounding the pavement," she explains.
"By being open to change and new challenges, my career path also progressed into the world of real estate fund management; literally to London, New York and Chicago in which I was based to build up such skills set that has proven to be useful and valuable to me today."
The REIT Move
CEO Lynette Leong enjoys the challenge of overcoming the market doldrums
Ms Leong joined CCTML in October 2007. The company manages CapitaCommercial Trust (also known as "CCT" for short), a listed commercial real estate investment trust with a market capitalisation of S$2.3 billion.
Her vision is to make CCT the landlord of choice for tenants, and the investment of choice for investors. This requires that the company focus on service excellence and prudent capital management.
"To be the landlord of choice means building strategic relationships with tenants so that it's not just a landlord-tenant relationship but one that allows us to do business together," she says.
A banking relationship is one such example, she adds. The bank is not merely a tenant but also provides banking services to the landlord.
In the first half of 2009, despite challenging market conditions, the Trust delivered a distribution per unit of 3.33 cents. This was an increase of 29.1% over the first half year payout in 2008.
Lynette Leong likens the satisfaction of overcoming market challenges to that of a mountaineer's quest
"When I joined, the doldrums of the market were already starting so, in terms of market timing, I'm not as fortunate. But it's a good challenge and I'm enjoying the process," Ms Leong says candidly.
"Now, given the environment, the sense of satisfaction would be even greater if I can succeed in realising my vision for CCT."
The CEO, who used to trek, likens that satisfaction to the thrills of a mountaineer's quest.
"The peak is exciting but it's even [better] when you descend, when the tough times are over and it becomes a breeze," she says. "When you look back at what you've done - you've scaled a peak - it's exhilarating. Importantly too, it's my being refined and strengthened by the process that motivates me to overcome challenges in any situation."
Though the ranks of women business leaders like Ms Leong are increasing, they remain a minority in the male-dominated corporate jungle. "Sometimes you go into a new meeting and the men tend to think you're a secretary. Then they see your business card and realise that you're more senior than they thought," she says.
The best strategy for women in a corporate world, she says, is to play to their own strengths. Women, she notes, tend to have endurance and patience, and a keen eye for details.
"Don't act like a man," she advises.
Ms Leong once worked in Korea for seven years in real estate, including establishing and leading a fund management team there. She says she was spared the gender discrimination because she was seen as an investor, and a foreign woman.
She recalls how using the "soft" approach - as opposed to an aggressive one - helped when her first acquisition deal in Korea was not quite working out. It was "nerve-wracking" facing a bunch of table-banging businessmen, but Ms Leong managed to keep her calm, and finally closed the deal.
She also realised how important relationships were in Korea - with local businessmen tracing each others' roots back to high school and shared hometowns. The CEO says she made sure to hire the right people to make the right connections.
Gregarious and personable, Lynette Leong (at the staff retreat in August 2008; first row third from right) connects well with her staff
Gregarious and personable, Ms Leong quickly hits it off with most people. She peppers her conversations with humorous yet insightful anecdotes, drawn from her extensive work and personal experiences. This helps her to connect with her staff, with whom she meets fortnightly for updates.
She believes in recognising their efforts in words and actions. "If the staff puts in effort, I will express it in words, to affirm and recognise the effort put in, to encourage the person to do more," she says. The team also celebrates their milestones over food - a Singaporean passion.
Ms Leong shares her interests as a way of connecting with staff too. Some of them know their CEO had studied patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris as a hobby.
"I believe very much in having fun at the same time; it's not about working all the time. There has to be a balance," she says.
Finding that balance was tricky when she first returned to Singapore after years in the US and UK. She found herself "stepping back into the system again, working non-stop".
It is her American husband who reminds her to find the right balance.
"My husband insists he's very 'high-maintenance'," she says with a laugh. "So I always remind myself to make time for both of us."
The couple devote their weekends to church. Ms Leong also likes to putter around the kitchen, whipping up dinners for friends or making delicious pastries.
As someone who has emerged into the upper rungs of the corporate world, the CEO says she is focused on healthy competition for herself and her team. She loves her work because she sees it as a chance to excel and encourages her team to work – together and individually – to constantly improve their performance rather than worrying about what other companies are or aren’t doing.
"I believe in doing everything to the best of my ability," she says. "If you want to do something, do it very well. Otherwise don't do it. That's more my purpose and what I aspire to for my team."