Rising through the Ranks
Mr Jason Leow, CEO of CapitaLand China, shaped by humility, honesty and a willingness to learn
Issue: Feb 2010
Mr Jason Leow, CEO of CapitaLand China, looks forward to bringing CapitaLand China to greater heights
He painted SBS buses and worked at NTUC Fairprice as a store-hand to put himself through school. Such was the humble background in which 43 year-old Mr Jason Leow, CEO of CapitaLand China, came from.
“My father used to help my uncle in a joss-stick making factory. Our two families lived together in a 3-bedroom apartment. Including my grandparents, there were 18 of us,” recalls Mr Leow.
Due to their circumstances, Mr Leow and his siblings were eager to complete their studies so that they could work to help support the family.
“After I finished my O levels, I did a calculation. If I went on to junior college, national service and then university, it would take me 7.5 years to enter the workforce. That was too long. So I decided to go to polytechnic instead,” says Mr Leow, the fifth of 6 children.
He went to Ngee Ann Polytechnic where he did a diploma in Business studies. In 1989, Mr Leow entered the workforce as an executive in DBS Finance where he was involved in credit control and the marketing of various products.
But he soon realized that his peers, who graduated from university, were getting a starting pay of S$2,000 compared to his meager salary of S$700.
He thus decided to go back to the classroom part-time as he could not afford to study on a full-time basis. He took up the ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) Qualification Programme and was certified as a Public Accountant in 18 months. To top it all, he was awarded a Gold Medal along with it.
“I think the motivation to do well stemmed from the fact that I wanted to help my family,” says the humble father of two, who is currently based in Beijing.
Climbing through the ranks
His humility, honesty and willingness to learn, have become golden rules, with which Mr Leow lived by - whether it is in his personal or professional life.
And they have certainly served him well. After three years in DBS Finance, Mr Leow was headhunted over to ST Aerospace where he worked in its corporate finance arm. In 1994, he was again headhunted to join the real estate arm of the then Liang Court Holdings. Liang Court Holdings was later bought over by the Somerset Group in 1999 and subsequently merged with The Ascott Limited. Eventually it was amalgamated into the CapitaLand Group in 2001.
Although he enjoyed his varied experiences at his previous jobs, joining the property business seemed more real for him.
“I think real estate is … something very close to the heart. Whether you buy your own home, patronize a shopping centre, or go to the office, you find that real estate is something you can relate to easily unlike aerospace or banking. You can never own a bank or aircraft but you can, in your own way, own a home and can actually be involved in it,” says Mr Leow passionately.
However, when he first joined the business, he knew nothing about real estate.
“I didn’t know what is plot ratio, red line, density, site coverage. I had to learn from ground zero. I was fortunate enough that the company actually offered that kind of opportunity,” he admits.
Being at the Right Place at the Right Time
He began his career in real estate as the Vice President (Business Development) of The Ascott Limited, in charge of the serviced residence group’s China Investments and Asset Management. In 2001, Mr Leow joined CapitaLand China and was stationed in Shanghai. He completed the acquisition of several residential and commercial sites in the city. Four years later, Mr Leow was promoted to Deputy CEO of CapitaLand China, based in Beijing.
Jason Leow (seated second from left) with his wife and kids seated to the right, at one of the many staff bonding sessions in 2003, two years after being first posted to China. With the support of family and peers, the young Mr Jason Leow chartered into unfamiliar territories and made a mark for himself
And to this day, Mr Leow is grateful for the many growth opportunities that were offered to him. When he was hired in 1994 by Liang Court Holdings, he was assigned to look after the property arm in China, a market that was new and immature at that time.
Despite his inexperience in this industry, Mr Leow has learnt from a young age to take life as it comes and to appreciate its many folds and turns.
“As a new hire, they just throw you into a market that is not so significant to the Group at that time. Be it by luck or design, China became a key market for Liang Court at that time and subsequently for Ascott and CapitaLand. So I guess it’s being at the right place at the right time and since then I have benefited from the environment, the growth and the achievements,” he says.
With an open heart and a willingness to get his hands into the plough, Mr Leow quickly demonstrated his strengths in negotiating and managing thorny issues of projects inherited from his predecessors with his Chinese counterparts.
“I had no baggage then. I went with an open mind and that helped me to resolve old issues. I learnt to treat every case as a challenge and not to be too emotional about it. To resolve issues, you need to minimize your opponent’s pain and to not glorify your gain,” he shares.
Looking back, Mr Leow was glad he chartered into the unbeaten path and emerged victorious from his endeavours. “It is about how you define your own role in the company and not how you define the job,” he says. With his ability, tenacity and commitment, Mr Leow was subsequently asked to help expand CapitaLand’s businesses into Beijing.
True to CapitaLand’s credo “Building People”, Mr Leow seeks to empower and nurture talents just as how he has developed and grown over the last decade at CapitaLand.
“I’ve seen many local staff going through the same progression. It’s very good. I benefited from the system and from the mentorship of Mr Liew Mun Leong and Mr Lim Ming Yan. We should have more people in the privileged position. The company is big enough to groom a lot of people,” adds Mr Leow.
He looks up to his many mentors and hopes to be able to develop these traits in his current role as the new CEO of CapitaLand China.
“Mr Tham Kui Seng (former Chief Corporate Officer of CapitaLand Limited) is balanced in his approach. Mr Kee Teck Koon (former Chief Investment Officer of CapitaLand Limited) is more strategic. Mr Lim Ming Yan (CEO of The Ascott Limited) is practical and Mr Liew Mun Leong (President & CEO of CapitaLand Group) has good judgment and is decisive. I have learnt a lot from them and I hope to be able to embrace these traits that they have and pass on to the younger generation,” says Mr Leow.
To that end, CapitaLand China has started to hire management associates in their mid-20s of various disciplines so that they can be, in turn, nurtured and groomed by mentors like Mr Leow. He currently mentors four management associates and hopes that he can pass on the good traits he has learnt from his own mentors.
Above all CapitaLand's achievements, Mr Leow (front) credits strong teamwork as the company's proudest achievements
Flying the CapitaLand flag
Today, CapitaLand China brings in about 40% of the Group’s earnings. Its award-winning portfolio includes projects such as the La Forêt in Beijing, La Cité and Oasis Riviera in Shanghai, and I-World in Hangzhou.
Despite the many star projects the company has completed, Mr Leow feels that teamwork is its proudest achievement.
“We do more than we talk. We fly the CapitaLand flag before us. The Chinese are always impressed and they ask us where we find people who are loyal and do not clamour for the limelight. It’s the CapitaLand’s culture. It’s also Mr Liew’s reinforcement in his staff communication sessions and the conduct of leaders that set the path right,” says Mr Leow.
And judging by the conduct of this leader, Mr Jason Leow looks set to fly CapitaLand’s flag for many good years to come.