Team Leader, Team Player
CEO of CapitaLand Commercial, Mr Chong Lit Cheong, shares about bringing Singapore Inc overseas and rallies his team to chart new grounds in commercial properties
Issue: Aug 2011
Mr Chong Lit Cheong took over the reins of CapitaLand Commercial Limited in February 2011 and outlined his strategy to grow the business in the region
When Mr Chong Lit Cheong took over the position as CEO of CapitaLand Commercial Limited, one of his first actions was to visit all the CEOs in the Group.
"I wanted to tell them that I am here to work with them and that I need their support. As a team we need to work together," explained Mr Chong.
Teamwork and being a team player have always formed the bedrock of the marketing veteran's mission in the various roles he has held.
Prior to joining the CapitaLand family, Mr Chong was the CEO of International Enterprise Singapore, an agency under Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry which promotes the overseas growth of Singapore-based enterprises and international trade. Before that, he was the CEO of JTC Corporation and Managing Director of National Science and Technology Board (now called A*STAR). He has also served in Singapore's Economic Development Board where he was posted to Suzhou, China, to lead the development of the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park project.
Marketing Singapore Inc
With a career spanning some 25 years in the government sector, Mr Chong has witnessed the country's evolving globalisation landscape.
"In the early 80s, when Singapore companies went overseas, they told their potential customers to offshore and outsource their production to them. Then in the late 80s-early 90s, Singapore's cost structure became more expensive and it didn't make sense for us to produce everything in Singapore. So Singapore companies began to outsource their production overseas. Furniture, food, precision engineering and even electronic companies took this strategy. But they went out not just to reduce their costs. They also were out there looking for new markets. So by the late 90s we saw a shift from offshore, outsourcing to acquisition of new markets," the Mombusho (Colombo Plan) Scholar explains.
He adds that by year 2000, many of these Singapore companies were globalised in various ways. They had the value chain and competency to operate outside of Singapore.
The Tough Knocks of Going Global
While going global makes sense against the backdrop of a small domestic market, Mr Chong highlights various challenges facing companies that are setting their sights beyond the shore.
"Your brand becomes very important when you go out to look for new markets. But branding is not always built into a company's strategy from the start. It is often looked into as an after-thought. For a real estate giant like CapitaLand, though our brand is strong in Singapore, at the global stage, we still need to work on it. So, branding is an important strategy a global company cannot ignore." explains Mr Chong.
He adds that obtaining financing for companies, big and small, wanting to take on projects in the overseas market can prove to be a hurdle. In part, this is because many local banks are more conservative in their assessments of the creditability of foreign companies.
Another challenge that Mr Chong has witnessed over the years is identifying, grooming and sending talent to the tougher business terrain that is outside of Singapore. He recalls his own experience when he was posted to Suzhou, China, to develop the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park project. "During my time, getting people to work outside of the country was tough. Being sent out there was like being told you couldn't make it here in Singapore. When I was asked to go to Suzhou, I asked the Chairman of EDB then, Philip Yeo, if I had done something wrong," he laughs.
But today that perception has changed, with the younger generation being more prepared to venture overseas. "When you invest overseas, you need to send your best talent because out there is the more difficult market. However, getting the right talent to be based overseas remains a challenge many companies face," notes Mr Chong.
Companies need to consider sending their employees to live overseas for some years in order for them to do their job better. "When I took over the Suzhou job in 1996, immediately I told myself that if I were to market Suzhou Industrial Park, I must be based in Suzhou. Once you lived there, you could speak with credibility and conviction. I could tell investors exactly what to expect if they were to build a factory there and what were the challenges they would face when hiring people. Being based in Suzhou offered me many more insights than travelling frequently to and from the place. It is also a reason why CapitaLand believes in localising our talents if we want to do business in overseas countries effectively," Mr Chong speaks from experience.
Mr Chong believes in three guiding principles in leading effectively: understanding who the customers are, developing staff and fostering teamwork
It's People First
In his quarter of a century experience in management, three guiding principles have played a crucial role in helping Mr Chong lead effectively: understanding who the customers are, developing staff and fostering teamwork.
“Wherever I go, the question I always ask myself is: Who are my customers? It is very fundamental to me. Once you understand your customers, you then know how to chart your strategy and get your priorities right. Next, when I hire, I look for people who understands this mission of serving the customers. I’m cautious of people who change jobs frequently, because there is no way the person can serve his customers effectively if his tenure is short. Generally between three to five years is a fair length of time to stay in the same job. So, I look for someone who can appreciate the purpose and therefore the customers; someone who is willing to learn, contribute and leave behind a legacy. I encourage my staff to go through these three stages in their job career which equates to at least three years before leaving. If I manage them well, I will put them on the treadmill where they will be continuously learning and contributing. They might never get to their third stage where they would leave. That was how I stayed in the government sector for 25 years!” Mr Chong notes humourously.
Although he has a stern look, Mr Chong is known by his staff for being friendly and always willing to invest time and effort in helping them grow. "When I look at my staff, I always ask myself, how long can I make him or her stay? What is he or she doing? Is he or she growing in the job? If not, what are we doing about that?" he reflects.
A winter sport he took up when he was in university, Mr Chong has encouraged his whole extended family to take up snow ski as it is an activity that brings the family closer together
While he is clearly the team leader, Mr Chong is also inclusive in his management style and does not shun from filling in the gap for his team. "Teamwork is key. I make sure that whatever decision I make, I keep my team in the loop. Thanks to email, we can do just that. And if we do this well, anyone can be dispensable, including me. It means that if anyone leaves, others can take over and business can still go on. So teamwork is key. And this is what I cherish when I came to CapitaLand because I heard the same comment being said by Mr Liew Mun Leong and the many people I spoke to before joining the Group," he revealed.
As the head of CapitaLand Commercial Limited (CCL), 55-year-old Mr Chong is responsible for overseas markets including Malaysia, India and Japan. But he candidly outlines his challenges and strategies for the company.
"It is quite difficult for commercial properties to go regional or global because there is limited network effect unlike say, Ascott. Ascott can be in Singapore, Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City because there is a network effect. It has certain competencies that are scalable. Generally it works because there is a standard of how customers should be served. Even for malls, it's possible to do that. When it comes to commercial properties, there is lesser network effect. Just because a financial institution is your customer in Singapore, doesn't mean that they will be your customer and rent from you an office space in Beijing," observes Mr Chong.
He adds that to overcome the hurdle, CCL's strategy is to become a local developer in the country which it operates. But that itself poses another challenge for the company.
"Are we better than a real local developer who has been there for years, who knows the authorities very well and who knows the location much better than we do?" asks Mr Chong.
The CEO also points out that these local developers might not see any value in partnering foreign developers like CapitaLand. Hence, his task is to engage like-minded partners to see the strategic relationships they can have with CapitaLand beyond just a one-off project.
WORK and Live
And he is quick to point out that these overseas projects might not always be commercial projects to begin with. "If my partner gives me a slice of a project that is manageable, it might most likely be a residential project first. And if our relationship grows, in two to three years, I could plan to develop commercial properties along side with residential. That's our business model and mission statement when we are overseas. My staff knows our mission: WORK and live in Singapore, LIVE first then work overseas," Mr Chong reveals.
Bringing StorHub overseas
For the immediate future, CCL has plans to take StorHub self-storage business overseas. Besides finding suitable locations, Mr Chong and his team are putting their effort into making sure the StorHub brand is strong and lives up to its name.
"A brand takes time to build. There are certain principles behind a brand that you don't destroy. Trust is number one and should never be taken away. That is something we will be very mindful when we bring StorHub overseas. When trust is established, then there is value," promises Mr Chong.
For now, the StorHub brand will be established in two major cities in China and more will also open up in Singapore before the end of this year. Besides individual households, small and medium-sized enterprises will be the main target customers.
"We are choosing locations in Shanghai and Guangzhou that are giving us high visibility and good accessibilty. As space and land are very expensive in these cities, we see the potential demand for self-storage space to thrive," Mr Chong observes.
It looks like the veteran who has marketed Singapore Inc to the world has his work cut out for him in CapitaLand Commercial.