Growing with China
Deputy Chairman of CapitaLand China Executive Committee Lim Ming Yan shares how CapitaLand’s fortunes in China were transformed by a simple yet effective strategy
Issue: Oct 2009
Former CEO of CapitaLand China Lim Ming Yan, now Deputy Chairman of CapitaLand China Executive Committee and head of The Ascott Group Limited, believes in the power of teamwork
Not many know that Mr Lim Ming Yan, former CEO of CapitaLand China, now Deputy Chairman of CapitaLand China Executive Committe and CEO of The Ascott Group Limited, was a soldier for 11 years before he turned corporate warrior.
"You take on a lot of responsibility at a fairly young age. You learn a lot: how to deal with people; how to motivate people to be committed to a particular cause," recounts the former Lieutenant-Colonel, who has used those very skills to carve an illustrious career in real estate.
In 1996, he joined Pidemco Land as Vice-President, overseeing the company's commercial and serviced residence investments in Singapore. Four years later, he was sent to China after Pidemco had merged with DBS Land to form CapitaLand. Aged 37, the executive was tasked to shore up the group's business there.
"There was a common saying then that you can't afford to ignore China, neither can you afford China," says Mr Lim with a laugh. "I did a survey at that time. We were losing money in China, but so was everyone else."
"That's why I decided to build the best China team. I wasn't even talking about profits then. First, we had to build the best team, and once you have that, you will start to do well."
The CEO and his team focused on forging a company culture where "people are committed and passionate about what they do"; they recruited "the best person for the job, regardless of where he or she came from".
Locals now make up more than 95% of CapitaLand China's workforce. "To be successful in China, you need to be close to the ground to understand what's happening," Mr Lim says. "The Chinese staff have a lot of comparative advantages here. Eventually, I believe the China business will be led by the Chinese."
The team he assembled took on the market aggressively. In 2003 and 2005, CapitaLand China was named Best Employer by Watson Wyatt Worldwide and Fortune China; in 2008, it was the Outstanding Corporate Citizen of China. This year, China Real Estate Survey Center listed it among China's Top 500 Real Estate Developers. China's proportion of earnings to the CapitaLand Group has also shot up - from a negative figure in 2000, to 45% in 2008.
Renew and resurrect
In retrospect, the CEO says the first two years in China were his toughest. As the company's most senior executive in China, he had the unenviable task of changing perceptions and mindsets, in order to transform the company's fortunes.
One of the early challenges was the Raffles City Shanghai project, which was nearly scrapped as a result of the Asian financial crisis. "The investors were wary of putting more money into China, and into the project. When we put up the recommendation to restart the project in 2000, it took us one year to get all the shareholders onboard," he shares.
The CEO brims with pride as he describes how they overcame the odds to launch the development in November 2003.
Mr Lim (far right) introducing CapitaLand’s developments in Shanghai to then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (far left) during the official launch of Raffles City Shanghai in 2004
"Today, Raffles City is recognised as the best in Shanghai, but at that time, there was a perception that the best location was in Nanjing Xi Lu, and not Xizang Lu where Raffles City Shanghai was located. We changed that perception with the success of Raffles City. Now people accept that our location is among one of the best retail areas." Since then, CapitaLand has successfully cloned the Raffles City brand in the major cities of Beijing, Ningbo, Chengdu and Hangzhou.
The father of three credits his wife for being his proverbial pillar of strength. She had quit her job, even before his posting to China, to become a homemaker and care for their three boys, then aged nine, seven and five.
"When I wanted to go [to China], she was prepared to say, 'We'll go together.' I appreciate that. She made sure the kids adjusted well to the new environment," says Mr Lim, adding that his wife was active in the Singapore community in Shanghai, and in charity work.
Widely credited for CapitaLand's success in China, Mr Lim was named the Outstanding Chief Executive (Overseas) at the Singapore Business Awards in 2006. He was also twice conferred the Magnolia Award, presented by the Shanghai Municipal Government to expatriates who have contributed significantly to the city.
Mr Lim receives his first Magnolia Award from the Shanghai government in 2003
He returned to Singapore in July 2009 to head The Ascott Group, the world's largest international serviced residence owner and operator, and a wholly owned CapitaLand subsidiary. As a first step, the CEO devotes most of his time to better understand Ascott’s international operations, as well as its staff and challenges.
"We want to relook the business and see how we can fine-tune the business model so that Ascott can move on to the next level," he says. "We want to widen the gap between us and the No. 2 in the industry. With our current team, I think we're in a good position to do that."
Mr Lim continues to share his wealth of knowledge on China in his capacity as Deputy Chairman of the new CapitaLand China Executive Committee. "The idea is to coordinate some of the broader issues so that the group can have an overview of our presence in China," he explains. "At our first meeting, we discussed our branding and marketing initiatives in China. We have more than 100 projects there, so there's a lot of potential in leveraging on one another to have a bigger presence."
He is also sitting on Singapore's Economic Strategies Committee, led by the Finance Minister. "I'm happy to be able to contribute towards the committee," says Mr Lim "It's important that there's a clear strategy as to how Singapore can continue to sustain the growth it has enjoyed for the past 40 to 50 years, in the face of globalisation, the rise of China and the recent financial crisis."
Food for thought
The CEO admits candidly that his work-life balance "isn't very balanced". He tries to reserve Sundays for the family, but says it can be tough to keep work out of the picture, especially with his new appointments. The family used to travel a lot more when they were living in China; nowadays they enjoy bonding over a good meal.
"My sons love good food. They would always have suggestions on where to go, and what to eat. Sometimes they like to prepare one or two dishes. Maybe one day I should send them to a cooking school, so that in future they can cook for me," Mr Lim muses.
With so much on his plate, the busy CEO certainly deserves a good meal, served with love.