Grounded in Reality
Mr Chen Lian Pang, CEO (Southeast Asia) of CapitaLand Commercial Limited goes on “hardship” retreats as a reality check for himself
Issue: Mar 2010
Hardwork, persistence and a flair for people management make Mr Chen Lian Pang the right man to open new markets in Thailand and Vietnam for CapitaLand
In the last 10 years, despite his busy schedule, Mr Chen Lian Pang, CEO (Southeast Asia) of CapitaLand Commercial Limited, who oversees CapitaLand’s operations in Thailand and Vietnam, has made it his mission to go on personal retreats. But cast aside the vision of spa and golf resorts, Mr Chen’s retreats often took him to places where poverty and hardship abound.
“Life was getting good for me and my fear was that I would lose the ability to withstand hardship whether mentally or physically. So I venture to places where there is hardship to give myself a reality check and observe how people live with the bare necessities in contentment,” he said humbly. “I stayed at cheap places and ate simply. There was once I even had lice in my hair after a trip to one of these places!”
Mr Chen Lian Pang in Tibet for one of his retreats, a personal time of reflection and reality check
On one of these trips, Mr Chen went to Xinjiang where he visited the small towns there. “I think Xinjiang is probably where you will find China’s poorest towns. Along the way I stayed in local lodgings. I walked through the towns and reflected on my life,” said Mr Chen.
This value of enduring hardship was something he had learnt from his mother. “My mother used to say in Fuchow: ‘No matter how hungry you are, never steal or cheat. If you work hard, you will survive. Every grass has its dew.” he recalled.
Till this day, Mr Chen’s 83 year-old mother still inspires him in every way. “My mom is a very determined person. She had no education and she started working as a rubber tapper since she was nine. She worked two shifts and held two jobs so that she could send two of my siblings and I to study overseas,” said the second youngest of five children.
The engineer and innovator
At the age of 18, Mr Chen left his hometown in Malaysia for the United Kingdom and bagged a First Class Honours degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Cardiff. While he was in the UK, he was recruited by the Housing Development Board (HDB) of Singapore to work as an engineer.
Mr Chen was the first person to introduce the intelligent car park lot guiding system at Capital Tower, Singapore
He was with HDB for 11 years before joining a private construction company where he stayed for 3 years. His career with CapitaLand began when he was headhunted to join Mr Liew Mun Leong (President & CEO of CapitaLand Group) at L&M Group Investments and subsequently Pidemco Land, which merged with DBS Land in 2000 to form CapitaLand.
In his illustrious 14 years at CapitaLand, Mr Chen has made a mark for himself in many projects he led both locally and overseas. Some of his outstanding projects included International West Lake Hotel now divested and known as Sofitel Plaza Hanoi (a 5-star hotel) in Hanoi, Vietnam; Raffles City Shanghai and Capital Tower in Singapore, a 52-storey office building with state-of-the-art intelligent and environmental friendly features.
In fact, Mr Chen was the one who came up with Singapore’s first intelligent car park electronic guiding system where drivers are guided by a digital panel to tell them whether there are empty lots on that level or not, saving drivers time and fuel consumption. This intelligent system was implemented in Capital Tower 10 years ago.
Knack for properties
Mr Chen’s two children, aged 19 and 22 years old, are now studying in Melbourne, Australia while he and his wife are based in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Mr Chen’s interest in the real estate business began even before he joined CapitaLand. More than a year after he started working in 1983, he bought his first condominium in the east coast of Singapore.
He lived there for three years and subsequently sold it for a profit. “For the last 25 years, I have never lived in the same place for more than three years. My wife and I enjoy going house hunting and property launches to keep ourselves up to date. We would buy, live in a property for two to three years and then sell it off at a profit and sometimes stay at a rented place until we find a better one at the right price. Of course there was a lot of stress moving home every three years but after a while we got used to it,” said Mr Chen.
Thriving on the unknown
At work, facing the unknown is what gives Mr Chen, his burst of energy.
“I like new challenges. Every challenge has a different solution. There are no fixed answers. You just have to face it, analyse it and solve it,” he said.
Sometimes, Mr Chen had to draw on lessons learnt from his childhood to find those solutions. He recalled a stint in Taiwan where he had to manage a difficult situation with the mafia there.
“I grew up in a rubber plantation in Sitiawan, a small town in Malaysia. As kids we learnt a lot by eavesdropping on our parents’ conversations. The ‘mafia’ used to come to our house to talk to my dad, who was a contractor, on monetary issues and I observed how my dad handled the negotiation. I learnt from there that they are also human and can be reasoned with. Thus as long as I have the courage and confidence, know how to reason with them, be humble and not arrogant, they will listen,” explained Mr Chen.
Armed with this sense of adventure and his flair for handling difficult people and situations, it was no wonder that Mr Chen was the man chosen to break new grounds and conquer new territories for CapitaLand.
Battling salvos from all fronts
In Thailand while setting up a joint venture company, Mr Chen faced his most challenging task yet in his career.
“My background was in engineering and I had no experience in marketing, business development, finance, and the other aspects of setting up a business. I picked up some of these skills through sitting in meetings. Then all of a sudden I was offered the opportunity to go to Thailand with only one CapitaLand staff with me, and we were told to start a joint venture company, with leading Thai developer, TCC Land,” he recalled.
Between them, they set up every department of the new company, from human resource, marketing to finance. What made it more challenging was the fact that CapitaLand was the minority shareholder in the joint venture.
“It was tough. I had to manage the cultural differences and build the team spirit within the new JV company. And I was also learning the ropes of setting up a business while doing it at the same time. It was mentally the most challenging job. There was no one to turn to for guidance. Of course, I can’t give my boss too much of my problems which I was supposed to solve,” said Mr Chen.
What saw him through were sheer hard work, ability to adapt, perseverance, and trust from his bosses.
Mr Chen’s bold move to build an impressive showflat for Athenee Residence, the first JV residential project in Thailand, paid off
For the very first residential development under the JV, Athenee Residence, Mr Chen boldly spent 24 million baht or S$1 million to build an impressive showflat to market the project despite facing criticisms and doubts from his local team in Thailand. Fighting these challenges head on and with the trust from his bosses at CapitaLand, he was proven right on his strategy when the Athenee Residences were sold at an average price of 105,000 baht (S$4,200) per square metre. This set the record price for the high-end market.
“This is what I like about working in CapitaLand. The bosses trust you and empower you so that you can do your job and do it well. Another example is in the area of human resource. In Thailand, I had to make tough decisions to employ and keep the most appropriate people for the job. Many times, it’s gut instinct and good reading of the person,” he said.
When asked to describe himself, the corporate warrior chose to use the word “in-tuned”. “I understand people well,” he said.
Indeed, in his years of operating in the diverse cultures of Thailand and Vietnam, Mr Chen has shown that he has what it takes to do his job well.
To de-stress, it is not hard to understand why a sentimental guy like Mr Chen enjoys watching Korean movies. “I find the storylines very touching and the dialogues are well crafted. I also enjoy the music as it complements the story well,” said Mr Chen.
In tune, sensitive and grounded in reality, Mr Chen continually stays in check with himself - giving him the edge he needs to fight new challenges that come his way. And he is already planning his next “hardship” retreat stop: Nepal.
When asked about work/life balance, Mr. Chen remarked that developing new business in developing countries, you can never have a balance if you want to succeed.