Newly-minted CEO of CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited, Mr Tony Tan reveals his brave moves at life's crossroads

Issue: Jul 2010

Mr Tony Tan
Mr Tony Tan, who steps into his new role as CEO of CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited this month, is ready for more new adventures

His quiet demeanour is deceiving. That is because, by his own admission, the newly-minted CEO of CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited (CRCTML), Mr Tony Tan, is actually quite a risk taker. From the types of holidays to the jobs he takes, Mr Tan lives by the mantra: “Just do it and things may turn out better than you expect.”

Indeed that has served him well. Always brave enough to switch tracks when he comes to career crossroads or holiday in unconventional places, Mr Tan has not failed to emerge a richer, wiser and more thankful person each time.

Take going to Ethiopia for example. Visiting one of the world’s poorest countries in the world may not factor into a fun holiday itinerary, but for 43-year-old Mr Tan, it is a risk he likes to take.

Accompanying his wife, Leona, on her business trip to Ethiopia, Mr Tan met the daughter (third from left) of the last King of Ethiopia Haile Selassie as Leona’s business partner is related to the last King.

St George Church in Ethiopia
Mr Tan and his wife were outside St George Church in Ethiopia to collect holy water

Mr Tan (second from right) as a young trader
Mr Tan (second from right) as a young trader

“It was a lot better than I expected. The first impression I got from there is that the people there are very honourable. They value honesty and integrity dearly, as most of them are religious and God-fearing Orthodox Christians. But the greatest impression was how great the divide between the rich and the poor was. We stayed in the Sheraton, which was a 6-star hotel built by an Ethiopian born Sheikh Al Amoudi who has made it to the Forbes billionaire list. It was so luxurious inside that you never thought you were in a third world country but as soon as you step out of the hotel, you see the poverty that has ravaged the country,” Mr Tan shares.

Braving the Career Unknown

This risk-taking nature has shaped Mr Tan’s rather unique career path.

In less than two decades, he has ventured from accounting to banking to corporate treasury. Three years ago, he ended up in real estate.

“I became an auditor like most accounting graduates. After one and a half years I asked myself if that was something I wanted to do. That was during the downturn in 1993. But I thought if I don’t like it, I better move fast,” recalls Mr Tan.

So he left the accounting industry and went into the financial industry where he worked for five years in various capacities. But he soon found himself at another crossroad of his career.

He chanced upon a corporate treasury job opening. “Corporate treasury was a new concept to me then. I did a bit of research and found that I have what it took to do the job: I have an accounting background and the relevant financial market knowledge,” he says.

He bravely made the switch and started from the bottom as a treasury accountant. Mr Tan rose through the ranks and ended up working at IKEA for more than nine years, where he held positions as Treasurer and Finance Manager for Asia Pacific region.

At every of these career crossroads, Mr Tan was not afraid to challenge himself to go out of his comfort zone.

“I had to start from ground zero sometimes but I told myself to just do it because I know I can always turn to people that can help me,” he says.

Fast-tracking at CapitaLand

It wasn’t a surprise when he made another turning point in his career to enter the real estate industry in 2007. He joined CRCTML as the Head of Finance.

“Making the transition to real estate was not easy. The first three to six months were really very stressful. Life at CapitaLand has been extremely fast-paced. What I have done in the last two to three years here at CapitaLand, I did them in five to six years previously. It’s the company’s approach to managing people; the opportunities they give to allow people to shine. I am grateful that the company was quite willing to take risk on me,” he says humbly.

But CapitaLand did make the right choice. As the Head, Finance in CRCTML, Mr Tan was a key member of the team responsible for the acquisition of Xizhimen Mall and equity fund raising by CRCT during an economic downturn in 2008.

“That was a career-turning point for me. I had to learn the new rules of the game quickly and to know who are the people who are the stakeholders and understand them in a very short period of time. At the same time I had to ensure that things move. It was very challenging. I was thrown into an environment where I need to engage the public. Coming from IKEA, which is privately run, to a listed company was really a different playing field for me,” he says.

Mr Tan wasted no time in learning the ropes while holding his new team together.

He also played an instrumental role in the successful re-financing of CRCT’s debt during the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. With no time to rest in between, he was soon brought into the key team tasked with the listing of CapitaMalls Asia Limited on the Singapore Exchange Securities Trading Limited in November 2009.

Career Highlight

It was a landmark case as the team managed to complete the entire listing process in a record period of three months when it normally takes six months to two years to take a company public.

“It was very memorable and a highlight of my career. We put in very long hours. I think we worked everyday including weekends for three months. Although the team didn’t voice it but I sensed that they felt a sense of great achievement because it was an extraordinary job. The team was able to pull together five years of the company’s historical records in three months in order to put together a storyline to tell the public what the company had gone through. The work was very tedious but challenging. We were fortunate that a few key people who witnessed the transformation of the company are still here so they were able to share the legacy with the rest of the team. If there was a huge turnover in the company then we would have had a lot of problem collating an accurate set of information,” says Mr Tan.

Being the fastest to list a company was not the only achievement. The CapitaMalls Asia IPO was also Singapore’s biggest in 16 years.

“For me to pull through this period, I must give a lot of credit to the people who have been supporting me. They must have faith in me. I take a lot of comfort that they did not abandon me,” Mr Tan says with gratitude.

New Chief

This month, Mr Tan takes over as the new CEO of CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited (CRCTML). His key task as new chief is to demonstrate to its investors that there is still growth within CRCTML’s current portfolio.

“CRCTML has potential for growth. Organically the vehicle can grow as within CRCT’s existing portfolio, some of the properties are master-leased. The entire mall sector is master-leased to a single tenant so it provides some stability to CRCT. It also gives room to maximise property potential when the time comes. Out of the 51 properties that CMA has, only eight are in CRCT so the remaining are financial injects into CRCT. So from the portfolio point of view, growth is definitely there. I see growth through existing portfolio, asset enhancement initiative and new acquisition, probably within the cities that we have presence in but of course we are not ruling out new cities if the opportunities come,” Mr Tan reveals.

Soul of a Building

In three short years, Mr Tan has learnt to appreciate being in the real estate business. He has learnt that a building is not a dead object; it can have its own characteristics, defined by the people living or working in it.

“Before I joined the real estate business, I couldn’t associate a building to anything. Now, I can associate it with something. Every building has a soul and a life,” says Mr Tan.

For Mr Tan, this fact reinforces the belief that in any environment, people are needed to make things work.

“You are not able to steer any organisation alone. So people are very important. The challenging part is figuring out how to motivate the people, how to ensure that they have the same belief and the same amount of passion,” reflects Mr Tan.

His ability to influence his teams and lead them to tackle some of the company’s most challenging projects is evident. It was evident even when he was teenager growing up in the MacPherson area.

Mr Tan (left) and his good friend and neighbour, Andy, capture a youthful moment together

“In the 70s, that area was very notorious, with a few secret societies operating there. I could have gone astray but somehow something kept me back. The teenagers I hung out with looked up to me like a big brother even though I was the same age as them. So, I tried to influence them to stay away from the gangs. Even though I don’t say very much, I managed to get the message through somehow. I don’t believe in being confrontational or putting people down. Everyone deserves more than a second chance,” he shares.

His Quiet Influence

Mr Tan’s mom is his source of inspiration and influence in shaping the way he deals with people

Mr Tan credits his mom for his ability to influence.

“She was a woman of few words but through her actions, she was able to exert influence over many people including her colleagues and I. Mom did things her own way but it gave people the comfort and confidence that she knew what she was doing. So, I think this has helped shaped the way I deal with people,” says Mr Tan.

It was also Mr Tan’s mom who single-handedly put him and his sister through school.

“My mom worked at her first and only job as a Woodbridge Hospital attendant until she passed away. She said she also wisely invested in two stocks and with that she was able to put us through school. So I’m very grateful for what she had done,” he says.

The Dog Lover

The Dog Lover
Mr Tan and his wife, Leona, share a common love for dogs. They now have four stray dogs under their care
Married for 10 years, Mr Tan and his wife, Leona, not only share a passion for travelling, they also adore their four dogs.

“My wife has a strong passion for animals and I have learnt so much from the unconditional love she shows to the dogs. We have rescued four dogs from the streets. Two of them live with us, one lives with my parents-in-law, and the fourth lives in a boarding house because he can’t get along with the rest. We support him but he just doesn’t live with us,” Mr Tan shares.

From here to Timbuktu

travel destinations
Mr Tan plans to conquer more unconventional travel destinations

So, whether it’s in relationships, career or holidays, Mr Tan sees himself continuing to take risks, albeit calculated ones.

“I don’t think we should over analyse. I think we should have faith, keep abreast with what’s happening and just do it,” he advises.

He plans to continue to invest in building relationships, is ready to conquer greater mountains in his career and plans to travel to far-flung, unknown places. In fact, he is planning to go to Timbuktu.

“I never knew the place actually existed. It was through Leona’s dealing with Malians that we came to know Timbuktu is not a myth. I personally gain so much from going to places that are not usually visited by tourists. I learnt to appreciate life and value the things we have,” he reflects.

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