Rewriting the Race between the Hare and Tortoise

Mr Ee Chee Hong, CEO of CapitaLand Commercial, shares how persevering on difficult paths makes him a stronger person

Issue: Oct 2010

Mr Ee Chee Hong, CEO of CapitaLand Commercial
Unafraid of pitfalls, Mr Ee is always ready to take on new challenges.

Mr Ee Chee Hong is a person who is in no great hurry. And it may seem strange to some but the CEO of CapitaLand Commercial humbly identifies himself with the tortoise in Aesop's classic children's fable, The Hare and Tortoise.

"The hare can move very fast. It is very impressive and a high-flyer. But it becomes complacent. The tortoise, on the other hand, is not disheartened at all. Instead the tortoise crawls along slowly and patiently till it finally reaches the destination first. I think that story describes my life and career path very well," says Mr Ee.

According to Mr Ee, who is also the Managing Director of Strategic Corporate Development of CapitaLand Limited, a board member of Australand Holdings Limited, Non-Executive Director of CapitaCommercial Trust Management Limited and an Alternate Director of Quill Capita Management Sdn Bhd, he has always been "late" by any account.

"I'm not a fast learner. I categorise myself as a late developer. When I was in primary school, I spent most of my time in band practices. I hardly studied yet I somehow managed to pass my exams and got into Queenstown Technical Secondary School. In secondary three, something "clicked" and I began to perform well academically. That's why I say I'm a late developer," reveals Mr Ee.

The Second Choices

While the self-professed late developer started to perform well in secondary school, he soon realised that life does not always go according to plan.

"I scored As for all my subjects except English. I thought the grades were good enough to get into the junior college of my choice, so I never thought about choosing a second junior college. Nevertheless, as it was a requirement to indicate a second choice, I picked Catholic Junior College with the roll of a dice as my second choice," he recalls.

He ended up in the school of his second choice but it turned out to be a blessing. He excelled in school and was one of the top students there. He even won numerous awards in Mathematics and Physics.

Subsequently, he also secured a scholarship with Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) to study at Tokyo Institute of Technology and earned his Master degree in Engineering there. He was also awarded the IBM Asia Fellowship from his Graduate School. His ambition was to be a researcher and engineer, but EDB wanted him to do investment promotions for Singapore in Japan, attracting MNCs to set up factories and R&D centres in Singapore. In five years, he became EDB's Coordinating Centre Director in Japan.

Upon reflection of his life experiences, Mr Ee shares, "Life is not as perfect as one would have expected. The Chinese proverb ‘塞翁失马, 焉知非福' correctly describes my educational and career paths. Whenever I thought that I had lost some things in life, I moved on positively. Eventually, I was still blessed to be able to land on the right environment and meet the right people at the right time. I am able to come back on track stronger."

Mr Ee with his CapitaLand Guangzhou colleagues at Hainan Island
Mr Ee with his CapitaLand Guangzhou colleagues at Hainan Island in September 2006

The Entrepreneur Ahead of Time

After five and a half years working at EDB in Tokyo, at the age of 33, Mr Ee went on to set up his own dot.com company, called Orange Gum. The business sought to bring Japanese mobile contents into Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, Mr Ee was ahead of time and the business never quite took off.

"The market, technology and infrastructure were not ready for such a service. I wish we had the iPhone or iPad at that time in 2000. The business would have really taken off," says Mr Ee.

To top it all, the dot.com bubble burst. Still, the entrepreneur would not give up without a fight. He diligently worked on various business proposals and knocked on the doors of venture capitalists and angel investors.

And as fate would have it, Mr Ee got in touch with Mr Liew Mun Leong, President & CEO of CapitaLand Group through a common friend and that started off his career in real estate.

"Mr Liew offered me the opportunity to be his staff officer. At that point, it was an attractive opportunity for me to learn how to do business while being paid. Although, I had no experience in the real estate industry, I was prepared to take up new challenges. So, I gladly accepted the job offer," relates Mr Ee.

Building A Track Record

Under Mr Liew's mentorship, Mr Ee gained valuable insights and values of doing business in real estate.

"Mr Liew was a good mentor. He spared the time and effort to explain to me why he made certain decisions at various times," says Mr Ee.

After his stint at the President's office as staff officer, Mr Ee was posted to Guangzhou to spearhead CapitaLand's business in South China.

"It started off as a one-man show. I spent one year building relationships and understanding the culture and the people there. It was not always easy to convince the local business partners with a one-man setup in the real estate business," says Mr Ee.

"Even though I was presented with many potential deals to consider, securing the first project was definitely another challenging task. I had to work within strict investment constraints to mitigate the risks in a new market. First of all, the project has to be of the right scale; the development cannot be too big or too small. Secondly, the location has to be good and the price has to be attractive. I scanned through hundreds of deals before zooming into one deal. There were a lot of risks and I had to find ways to mitigate the risks and it took a lot of determination. Eventually, after spending a year of negotiation, I managed to secure the Group's first project in South China," adds Mr Ee.

Beau Monde marked the first residential development of CapitaLand in Guangzhou. The project gave Mr Ee the opportunity to participate in the whole value chain of a real estate development, from sourcing for land, product positioning, design, project management, to marketing and after-sales services.

"That gave me hands-on experience and built up my confidence in real estate. I was able to do it with the strong support and guidance of various colleagues in Shanghai, like Lim Ming Yan, Jason Leow, Chan Boon Seng, Steve Gong and Ma Tie. They came to Guangzhou to help me. I wouldn't have been able to do it on my own," Mr Ee says gratefully.

After nine years with CapitaLand, he still enjoys every bit of being in the real estate industry.

"I'm able to see whatever I've planned being materialised! The results are tangible. Being able to enjoy the fruit of your labour gives me a great sense of achievement," he muses.

Mr Ee with his CapitaLand Guangzhou colleagues and his family
Mr Ee with his CapitaLand Guangzhou colleagues and his family at an outing in Guangzhou in March 2007.

Pacing Your Career; More Quality over Quantity

Having gone through and achieved much in life has enabled Mr Ee to mentor and impart values he has learnt to the next generation within the company.

Mr Ee has mentored about four management executives under CapitaLand's Graduate Development Programme. However, he finds dealing with this generation, known as Gen Y or those below 30 years old, rather challenging.

"They want quick results. They want to be doing different things everyday. They also want to be doing something very important. But the problem is they do not have enough experience or the skills set yet," he observes.

Drawing on the lessons and values his mentor, Mr Liew, has imparted to him, Mr Ee now advises his mentees to be patient and learn their basic skills set properly and stay focused on building a track record.

"Between the age of 25 and 30, it is natural for one to change jobs many times simply because he is still exploring what type of career or which industry he wants to be in. Between 30 and 35 years old is when one is more settled and starts to build his basic skills in the industry he has chosen. Between the ages of 35 and 40 is when you build a track record and the emphasis Mr Liew puts is in the word "a", not many track records but one track record. Focus on something and build up one good track record. After the age of 40 you can go on to build more track records and this is where you will establish yourself further," says Mr Ee.

Well, it looks like Mr Ee is on track. With nine years of real estate experience under his belt, he took over the reigns of CapitaLand Commercial in 2009 at the age of 42.

"As a young executive, one should not rush into gaining too many opportunities. Instead, it is better to centre your efforts in building one good track record first, rather than handling many mediocre projects," Mr Ee advises.

"When I was between 35 and 40 years old, I built my first track record in Guangzhou and now the company is giving me the opportunity to do more," he says humbly.

And that's the same message he is patiently trying to get through to the Gen Y employees under his charge.

Mr Ee with his CapitaLand Commercial colleagues at a trail through the Southern Ridges of Singapore
Mr Ee with his CapitaLand Commercial colleagues at a trail through the Southern Ridges of Singapore in July 2010.

Any New Idea?

While he is more pragmatic and willing to stay on the course, Mr Ee clicks well with Gen Y in other ways. This is because he dares to dream and take risks, albeit calculated ones.

He kick-started the ANI (Any New Idea?) meeting at CapitaLand Commercial after taking over the reins of the business unit. Every two weeks, he invites young colleagues to talk about any new ideas they might have.

Perhaps it's his entrepreneurial spirit that causes him to be constantly brimming with new ideas and inventing new ways of doing business.

An interesting idea generated out of ANI brainstorming sessions is an idea that is based on "non-territorial working" concept. The idea challenges the conventions of an office landlord. With the younger generation becoming more mobile and seeking greater work-life-balance, the office landlord could help its tenants to take up less office space by maximising usage and providing facilities like a business lounge and HD video conference rooms. The landlord, in return, would be able to lease the office building to more tenants and retain its tenants more effectively.

"In this highly mobile working environment, no longer will employees need to have a permanent workstation. Instead, everyone can use any of the workstations provided. Lockers and moveable cabinets can be used to store everyday personal items and web-based booking system can allow staff to share desks, while tenants are able to share common business facilities within the building. This concept can be offered as part of a membership or pay-as-you-work basis," Mr Ee shares his exciting idea.

"With the advent of Gen Y, we are anticipating that there may be new trends in the way office space is used. This may one day threaten our core office business," Mr Ee explains it using the theory of disruptive technology by Professor Clayton Christensen.

Nevertheless, this concept still needs to be further assessed and refined before rolling it out commercially.

Rewriting The Story

Besides the possibility of writing a new chapter in the office industry history book, Mr Ee says that he would like to rewrite Aesop's famous tale to give the story a new meaning.

"In the Hare and the Tortoise story, the tortoise always travels on the safe but winding path. If I were to rewrite the story, I'd like the tortoise to be someone who would explore ways to shorten the journey without ambling along the curves and bends. There is no harm in taking calculated risks and exploring alternative routes, and with a sharp focus and lots of perseverance, he may reach his destination faster," muses Mr Ee.

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