Fire In The Belly
Passionate, adventurous and brimming with ideas, the CEO of CapitaLand Residential Singapore and CapitaLand ILEC, Mr Wong Heang Fine, is always on the lookout for the next exciting thing to do in his career
Issue: Aug 2010
Mr Wong Heang Fine is a firm believer that having ‘fire in the belly’ or drive makes you view your job as more than a job; it becomes a passion and a challenge
If it has not been done before, you’d be sure Mr Wong Heang Fine will be there cracking away at it. It is no wonder that 52-year-old Mr Wong can speak so passionately about the varied jobs he has been in. Always up for a challenge, Mr Wong has been involved in many different industries, from building subways, oil refineries and golf courses; running movie theatres and bowling centres; to setting up a supermarket in Papua New Guinea. Indeed, the CEO of CapitaLand Residential Singapore and CapitaLand ILEC has done them all and done them well.
“I find it challenging and interesting to have done so many different things,” muses Mr Wong.
It’s the commitment - or the “fire in the belly” as he calls it - that spurs him to continue to stay challenged. It has steered him into varied industries, gaining him vast experiences and of course, many interesting stories to tell.
“Throughout my career I’ve often been involved in projects that a lot of people don’t do or projects which have never been done before. I think it’s been good training to undertake these kinds of projects,” says Mr Wong.
Father, the Master
In fact, his training as an engineer probably started when he was just a boy helping his contractor father on site.
Married with three children, Mr Wong believes in giving his children space and freedom to make their own decisions
“When I knew a little bit more, I would help him to do the estimations for job tenders. For example I had to estimate how many steel bars are needed and how much concrete will be used and how much all these would cost,” he recalls.
Those days of training have served him well. Mr Wong went on to study Mechanical Engineering in the University of Leeds in the UK and got a first class degree for it. He also holds a Master of Science in Engineering Production & Management from the University of Birmingham, UK.
“My family was neither very rich nor very poor, but my parents could not afford to send me overseas for an education. I had to borrow money from my father’s friends to cover my first year university fees which I returned after I started working. In university, I made sure I worked during the summer. I would work in jobs that people didn’t want to do. For example, I worked in the powerhouse. I had to crawl inside a boiler to hack away the calcium scales formed by heating hard water. I would get two and a half times the pay and so every holiday break I earned enough for tuition fees. My parents just had to send me money for food and lodging,” shares Mr Wong, the second in a family of four children.
Knack For Niche
This knack of finding a niche for himself was something he learnt from his father. “My father was quite innovative and he never took on the standard type of projects. I remember in Malaysia those days, a lot of small towns had reservoirs. They call them ‘mushrooms’ and if the castings of these reservoirs were not done properly, they would leak - which would be disastrous. We would tender for such high-risk jobs. So we had to design our own equipment that allowed us to carry out continuous casting of concrete for about three days. We were able to do this properly and eventually carve out a niche for ourselves in the market,” explains Mr Wong.
He has not stopped there. This habit of looking out for the next exciting and challenging thing to do has landed him in many interesting jobs.
“In my working life I try to make sure everything I do is interesting. I try to find a niche for myself and ‘glamourise' it,” Mr Wong muses.
He started out working in the projects department in the Economic Development Board in Singapore after he graduated from university. Later, he worked as the Group General Manager in charge of business development in the construction division of departmental store group, Metro Holdings. Mr Wong got involved in many different types of projects at Metro, including setting up a supermarket in Papua New Guinea, listing a company in Australia and even creating innovative ways to market abalone. In fact he was the one who came up with the idea of letting customers buy abalone at a cheaper price if they accumulated a certain amount of receipts shopping at Metro departmental store. It was very successful and soon many outfits, such as the petrol stations, followed that marketing idea.
Then, as President & CEO of Cathay Organisation, Mr Wong put his marketing skills into buying and promoting movies in Singapore. He was also the man who spearheaded the listing of Cathay Organisation thereby transforming a family business into a listed entity.
“In every industry I worked in, I learnt a lot. I learnt to buy movies from reading scripts. You see, when you go to a film festival, you are given stacks of manuscripts to read so it taught me to read fast, imagine what the films would be like and decide which movies to buy,” says Mr Wong.
While he was working in Singapore Technologies Industrial Corporation, Mr Wong was part of the team that helped developed Bintan Island and built the two internationally renowned golf courses and an industrial park there.
He was also President & CEO of Sembcorp Engineers and Constructors, the largest engineering and construction company in Southeast Asia.
At The Right Place
When Mr Wong joined CapitaLand in 2006, he found himself embarking together with the company on a unique project at one of the most exciting times in CapitaLand’s history.
“I came in at a time when CapitaLand, together with our very entrepreneurial partners, Sol and Butch Kerzner, put in a bid for the casino project in Sentosa. It was even more exciting when we got to work with Frank Gehry, named as the world’s greatest living architect by Forbes Magazine. It was exciting because I was constantly working with very intelligent people. If you know Frank Gehry, he doesn’t do designs in two dimensions; he does them in three dimensions so you’ve got to be on par with him when you talk concepts with him,” remarks Mr Wong.
CapitaLand’s proposed for the integrated resort, named Atlantis Sentosa, was based on unique, world-leading technologies and was to incorporate many world-firsts, including utilising robotics and the next generation of interactive technologies to take the established family entertainment rides and the aquarium experience into a dimension never before created.
“These gentlemen have a lot of ideas and experience. Besides, they also have the track record to turn the ideas into reality. As you know, we are not reproducing something that’s been done. We have very technologically advanced creations. We have sea animals, which are robots. We have seen them in movies but not in reality. We are really creating something totally new. So, we had to imagine and out of that imagination, we had to provide financial figures to back up our imagination. For example, we had planned to create a curved glass structure using straight pieces of glass. The concept was hard to visualize. So we brought in our German engineer handling the entire structure design to explain what we were doing,” Mr Wong says.
He also takes the trouble to further expound in detail. “It’s very simple. The glass structure is 90 metres tall. It’s very high so from far it looks curved but it’s actually made out of small little straight pieces of glass when you construct them in sections,” he says.
Cut Above The Rest
Enjoy an excellent view of the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque from Rihan Heights. At first glance the mosque looks like a picture in a frame from the window of the Rihan Heights show home
His next challenge saw him breaking new ground in the Middle East. “I guess we were the first foreign investor in terms of real estate in the Middle East. We had to quickly learn about the market and to come up with something to offer within the shortest possible time. To date, CapitaLand still holds the record for sealing the fastest joint venture in Abu Dhabi. In a period of three months, we put together the master plan, the business plan and the structure of the joint venture. That’s the speed at which CapitaLand moves, so it’s been exciting,” Mr Wong shares.
What was even more exhilarating for Mr Wong and his team working there was the fact that they came out with something that was different and that the market would accept.
Arzanah, the integrated development, quickly gained popularity and garnered praises for its high quality finishes and attention to details.
“We have set standards with our residential products. Everyone who has seen our show homes has commended us on the high quality finishes that we have achieved. They appreciate what real quality is. CapitaLand’s competitive edge is that we run the projects ourselves. We don’t have third-party project managers. So the chain of command is very short. We are trained engineers and so we understand what the contractors’ issues are and what the designers want and we bridge that gap. So because of the short chain of command, we have a competitive edge in our project execution,” says Mr Wong.
And attention to details has made CapitaLand’s homes a cut above the rest.
“If you look at the façade of our apartment building from afar, you don’t see any window frames. But there are windows. We actually did a 12-month R&D with the façade manufacturer such that the windows of that building actually fit into the façade itself. This is the only building in the whole of the Middle East that has that design. So wherever you look at our façade, whether you are outside or inside the building, you will not notice the window frame. So we spent a lot of time looking at what we do and why we do it. What we are trying to tell our clients is you are not just buying an apartment with four walls. You are buying a lifestyle and one that gives you all these uniqueness and attention to details. You are able to enjoy the view outside with no obstruction. We even go down to the nitty-gritty details like providing contractors with detailed floor and wall tile layout so that the detailing is right. No other development goes through these details. The reason we are doing this is we are creating a sustainable lifestyle that people can enjoy,” explains Mr Wong.
He adds that when details like these are explained to the buyers, they appreciate the value of the apartments and the difference developers like CapitaLand make.
“The challenge for us is not just to build but to build something that is exceptional and sustainable in the long-term. I once gave a two and a half hour briefing to a well known sheikh who came with 15 of his technical team and they asked a lot of questions about our quality and choice of materials. After that, he signed an option to purchase 55 apartments from us. It just goes to show that they understand what we are doing and they appreciate the quality of our products,” says Mr Wong.
Passionate About Food
Mr Wong shares the same philosophy about work as he does about food. It’s all about high quality and the best in everything he eats.
“Like all things, if I eat, I want to make sure the food’s of good quality. If I go to any place I will source out the best food. In Malaysia, I will look for where the best hokkien mee is. I will ask around. In Dubai, I found the best Japanese restaurant. When I go to London, I go to Four Seasons to eat the best roast duck,” Mr Wong says.
He is also known to be a good cook.
“If you know how to eat, you must know how to cook. My mom is a very good cook. I used to take tips from her. But when I was overseas I would cook the meals myself. I made roast duck in my dormitory when I was studying. It was not difficult but it was tedious. You have to dry it, blow the skin, make the sauce and glaze it. It would take me two days! Once a British student saw me blowing the skin of the duck. He asked what I was doing. I told him that I was a medical student doing my experiments on the duck!” Mr Wong teases.
When asked for his recipe, Mr Wong says, “Oh, this recipe is very hard to get. I only make this roast duck once in 20 years! Everyone, including my mother, has been waiting to eat my roast duck. But I just don’t have the time to cook these days.”
Food and food preparation are so vital to this connoisseur that even his fried eggs are addictive, reveals a fellow colleague. When asked for his secret ingredient, he simply says, “There’s no added ingredient. It’s the way I fry the eggs!”
And even before Mr Wong retires – which is still a long way more – he is already brimming with ideas of what he could do then. “I want to be a tour guide! I will bring groups of people to say, Bintan Island, and tell them all the interesting stories and hard work that went into developing the island and resorts there,” he says. He also plans to compile all his interesting stories into a book and may put together a cookbook as well.
Like we said at the beginning, if it hasn’t been done before, you’d be sure to find Mr Wong cracking away at it!