The Art of Shopping

Chief Development Officer of CapitaMalls Asia Limited, Mr Simon Yong shares insights on designing malls

Issue: Mar 2011

Mr Simon Yong
With 30 years of design and development under his belt, Mr Yong is a guru when it comes to shopping malls

Here is a gentleman who knows what shoppers want. “To me, shopping isn’t an activity. It’s an all-round experience. People shop for very personal reasons. For example, I find that I shop more when under pressure. The greater the stress, the greater the purchase,” says Mr Simon Yong, Chief Development Officer of CapitaMalls Asia Limited.

It is no surprise; however, that Simon enjoys his spot of shopping. After all, this is the man who is responsible for, among other things, design and layout, workplace health and safety, stakeholders’ and community engagement and environmental sustainability in CapitaMalls Asia’s 91 shopping malls in 49 cities in Singapore, China, Malaysia, Japan and India.

Shopping has therefore become a delightful occupational hazard of sorts for Simon because it allows him to study and understand the designs of malls and excel in his work. Be it ION Orchard, VivoCity, or Raffles City Singapore, Simon has had a direct hand in crafting and enhancing the shoppers’ experience.

“One of the things I always look at is space planning, so that the flow of traffic is smooth in our malls. Where we place key facilities like escalators and lifts is crucial. I think the most frustrating thing for any shopper is not being able to locate amenities like the toilet, escalator or just how to get from one level to the next. That’s why I go shopping,” the 55-year old explains. “When I put myself in the shoes of a shopper, I can find out the fine features and flaws of malls and that definitely helps me plan better.”

Simon with his Singapore team at the CapitaLand Annual Dinner and Dance
Simon (2nd from right) with his Singapore team at the CapitaLand Annual Dinner and Dance; Having been in the company for almost 30 years, Simon has played his part in helping build CapitaLand into the real estate powerhouse it is today

Simon’s experience stems from almost 30 years of being in the real estate design and development business. He joined DBS Land as an engineer in 1981, the day right after his last paper in National University of Singapore, where he was first trained in mechanical engineering. He also has a Masters in Industrial Engineering from the National University of Singapore.

Having stayed with the company since, he has managed CapitaLand’s wide range of projects from residential, commercial, hospitality to retail in Singapore and overseas markets in China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Cambodia and Australia.

Some of Simon’s notable projects in Singapore include landmarks like Raffles City Singapore, Clarke Quay, VivoCity, ION Orchard as well as the historic Raffles Hotel.

Innovation in Planning and Construction

In all his years of designing and developing properties, Simon names ION Orchard and VivoCity as the two projects that stand out for him.

“We literally built and designed the property concurrently – meaning that, as the construction was taking place, we were still designing the rest of the building.” says Simon.

Designing a project while it was still in the process of being built was indubitably an unconventional way of operating in the construction industry then.

“It was a risky thing,” acknowledges Simon. “We did it that way because we wanted a fast track to speed up the process by half a year. We also wanted to capitalise on the lower construction costs in 2003 for VivoCity. We managed to get the contractor onboard the project to start foundation work even before our design was complete. The same process was applied to the ION Orchard project later,” he explains.

In recognition of all his exceptional contributions to the project management field, Simon was awarded Outstanding Project Manager in 2010 by the Society of Project Managers.

A Head Start on being Green

Simon’s very first project upon graduation was to help develop Raffles City Singapore. While working on the project then in 1981, Simon was unknowingly involved in trendsetting the development of green buildings in Singapore.

“If you talk about being green, Raffles City would be considered one of the first green buildings in Singapore. It was designed by the famous American architect, I.M. Pei. During that time, some 25 years ago, Raffles City already had energy-saving features like stormwater storage where rain water can be collected for other uses and a two-pipe system where one is for industrial water and the other for potable water. There was also a recovery system where cold toilet exhaust air were channelled to a heat exchanger to pre-cool the outside air and thus save energy. The US was so many years ahead of us in promoting the green movement,” comments Simon.

CapitaLand was one of the first developers to go green , and was able to tap on grants that the Singapore government started giving out to businesses for their green efforts sometime between 2003 and 2004.

That was also the time when Simon got involved in the design and construction of VivoCity and later, ION Orchard. Both the buildings have incorporated many green features such as efficient chiller systems, green walls and energy efficient lighting features. Many of CapitaMalls Asia’s malls have also been awarded the Green Mark Gold by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore.

In fact, up and coming mall, JCube, which will be ready in 2012, is gunning for BCA’s highest and most coveted accolade – the Green Mark Platinum award.

JCube will boast a slew of energy-saving and eco-friendly features. “To get a Green Mark Platinum, your design must cater for it from the start,” states Simon. “In JCube, we will be housing an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, which will have a ‘grey water system’. Heat can be recovered from the refrigerator system that is used to heat the floor slab under the ice and perimeter concrete slab around the rink so that there’s no need for the use of alternative energy source. Incidentally, heating the underfloor slab is needed to prevent condensation on the bottom of the structural slab,” he elucidates.

So in his opinion, what will a green building look like in the next five to ten years? “It’s hard to be sure,” Simon muses. “But green walls could be a fixture to reduce the amount of heat entering the facility so that buildings will be less dependent on air-conditioning. The other feature would be for buildings to convert sunlight into energy - solar panels would be the way to go in the future. Currently it is too expensive to have that in all buildings but Sembawang Shopping Centre does have some already in place. It’s a pilot project for us.”

In his own way, Simon practices being green whenever he can. For many years now, he has been taking the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) to work and meetings especially when his various offices were situated near MRT stations.

Simon and the China team
As a person who likes to be involved, Simon (1st row, 3rd from left) tries to strike a fine balance when managing his team in China

Involved Empowerment

Since 2010, Simon has been closely involved in both designing and developing the malls in China as well.

Managing a staff of some 50 people in Singapore and a team of about 100 people in China, he often has had to find a balance between being on top of every single detail and empowering his people to take charge.

“Trust is critical when you manage people in a different country. When I visit my team in China, I go through their processes and see if there are any gaps. Hence, training them well to fill these gaps is very important. Building and managing the team well and retaining them are certainly strategically key,” Simon shares.

Run the Race of Life

To keep pace with his busy work schedule, Simon makes it a point to exercise regularly. “I can’t say I do enough shopping for it to keep my body fit,” he quips. At 55 years old, he has been told by his colleagues and contractors he works with that “he walks too fast”.

It is not hard to imagine. After all, Simon has four marathons under his belt. In 2007, he even completed a triathlon along with his two oldest kids, aged 28 and 24.

“I enjoy running. I discovered in the army that I have the capacity to run long distance – so that was when I ran my first marathon. It’s trickier to keep up the frequency of running with the frenzy of working life. But I try,” Simon says with a smile. “When I was working on VivoCity, I participated in my second marathon. Subsequently I did one every year for three years. I am trying to get back on track again.”

He finds running a marathon akin to running the race of life. “Running a marathon is something in which you pit you against yourself: it’s a true test of your determination and tolerance. I find that it’s less a test of the body than it is of the mind. It’s about stretching your mental endurance,” he expounds.

Simon and the China team
Simon and his family enjoying a relaxed moment in the garden of his terrace house where he tries his hand at growing various fruit trees

These days, Simon spends his weekends pottering around his garden in his 3500 square feet terrace house. “I tried growing chiku (a type of tropical fruit) and bittergourd but I wasn’t successful. I am now trying my hand at growing papaya. It seems promising so far so I’m crossing my green fingers,” he remarks, beaming. “As it is with everything, I believe that patience reaps rewards.”

But the mall is still one place you are sure to spot him regularly as the gentleman continues to strive to find ways to make the shopping experiences unique and memorable for one and all.

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