The Thread of Strength
Chief Investment Officer of CapitaLand Residential Singapore,
Mrs Wong Jen Lai is the loyal bond for firm, partners, staff and family
Issue: Nov 2011
Exuding calmness and composure both at work and at home, Mrs Wong Jen Lai is the centre that holds it all
While Mrs Wong Jen Lai may appear gentle and soft-spoken, but as she shares her stories, you discover a strong spirit behind that demure and regal character.
The 53-year-old Chief Investment Officer of CapitaLand Residential Singapore epitomises the working mom, the dutiful wife and an investment leader who, through sheer hard work and openness in heart and mind, connects everything in her life with poise and dignity.
The second youngest of five children, Mrs Wong grew up in Singapore in a one-room flat in Queenstown before moving to a three-room flat at Margaret Drive when she was in secondary school. Her bartender father was the sole breadwinner who not only had to support his family of seven but also his own mother and sister that lived with them.
As Mrs Wong is the youngest daughter, her mother would often call upon her to help with the household chores and trips to the market. But the difficult family situation went a long way to making Mrs Wong who she is today.
“That probably made me stronger and more tolerant when it comes to hard work. I also learnt from my mother, who was a housewife that took care of the family, how to be a giver.”
Mrs Wong on a business trip to Munich at the invitation of MEAG MUNICH ERGO Asset Management GmbH
After graduating from the National University of Singapore with an Estate Management degree, Mrs Wong started her first job with Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Singapore in 1982, managing the properties owned by URA, primarily in the marketing and leasing function. Seven years later, this Property Management function of URA was spun off to become Pidemco Land (a subsidiary of URA then), where she helmed the marketing and leasing of its properties as well as its residential business development. From its genesis as part of Pidemco Land right through to its merger with DBS Land up to what CapitaLand is today, Mrs Wong is in her 29th year with the same organization and has been a witness and a player in many of CapitaLand’s milestones.
Over the years, she has accumulated vast real estate knowledge and diverse experience in areas such as marketing and leasing, valuation, property development appraisal, land acquisitions and divestment.
Mrs Wong counts the divestment of eight prime commercial properties in Singapore in as one of the highlights of her career. Despite taking almost one and a half years to complete the S$4.4 billion worth of transaction in aggregate, which took place between 2006 to 2008, it was perfectly timed and reaped a significant S$900 million profit for CapitaLand Commercial Limited (CCL) where she worked as its Head of Investment and Asset Management. She was also in the same capacity for CapitaCommercial Trust (CCT) from 2004 to 2007.
“I remembered working such long hours every day including weekends, non-stop for nearly three quarters of the year to execute the divestment target. The close relationship amongst our colleagues helped a lot towards our success,” remembered Mrs Wong.
Mrs Wong (in grey, seated fourth from left) sharing a casual moment with her colleagues at the annual
CapitaLand Commercial Limited retreat in May 2010
She was also part of the pioneering team which set up CCT, Singapore’s first commercial REIT in 2004. Despite having no knowledge about REITs then, she took up the challenge, contributing her vast real estate knowledge to help complement the team.
In many ways, she has an institutional memory of CapitaLand’s history and is a valuable link to its past because of her wisdom from many years both in the industry and with the organisation. Being likened as a walking encyclopedia she keeps records of CapitaLand’s dealings either in many files in her cupboard or in her head.
A Friend in Business
Mrs Wong is also a vital link between CapitaLand and its partners. Through these years, she has been instrumental in brokering many multi-million dollar deals. Central to all her dealings has been her belief in fairness and values which is highly regarded in the cut-throat world of business.
In these transactions, Mrs Wong’s transparent dealings and fair assessment of properties have enabled her to form friendships with business partners that are pleased to do business with CapitaLand again.
Mrs Wong believes that open communication has helped maintain the strong relationship between herself and her husband
A Faithful Partner
At home, Mrs Wong is the one that has been holding it all together for many years. When her firstborn was barely two years old, her husband went to University of California, Berkeley, in the US to do his Master degree in Business Administration full time. She stayed behind in Singapore to care for her young son and was the sole breadwinner of the family. Five years later, although she had three young children under the age of seven, she was still very supportive of her husband’s decision to start out his own hardware trading business in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar even though this meant that he would be living overseas. It was another five years before he came home for good after the business took off. Through it all, Mrs Wong was the anchor that made it possible for her husband to venture abroad and for her young family to continue to thrive in the security of home.
“I told him not to worry about the finances and I would take care of everything. I made that decision to put my career aside to spend more time with my children. After work I would rush to fetch my daughter from childcare before going home to take care of the three children so my parents could rest,” said Mrs Wong.
But she has no regrets. “Different stages in life call for a different focus,” said Mrs Wong matter-of-factly. However, she is grateful to her parents for looking after her children then so that she and her husband could concentrate on their work.
Mrs Wong and her husband met in Hwa Chong Junior College and had been together ever since then
Mrs Wong and her husband met in Hwa Chong Junior College and had been together ever since, weathering through thick and thin. Now, she deemed that her husband is the one who is supporting her career.
“He is always there for me. Everybody knows that he will always wait for me after work to take me home. When I have to work late, he will drive me home for a bath before driving me back to work. He even sends my colleagues home,” recounted Mrs Wong.
Now, with three grown up children, the couple is making up for those lost years apart. “On weekends we go for afternoon tea, movies and long walks. We also meet up with friends and we travel regularly together.” The couple is also looking forward to venturing to exotic destinations like South Africa.
Asked about the success of their enduring relationship, she replied, “I emulate my parents. Their loyalty to each other taught me what true commitment really is. I firmly believe that for a relationship to work out, you have to be truthful and open. Not everybody can understand one another so you have to speak out and let the other person know.”
An Open Superior
This open, honest approach is also how Mrs Wong treats her staff.
Because of her childhood training helping out at home, she is also not a boss that is above hard work. In her earlier years in Pidemco Land, although Mrs Wong had her own room, she preferred to work in the open stations with her staff instead. “That was how I got to interact with them, find out how they work and correct them along the way. I may be the manager but I worked with them and attended to the details with them,” she explained. Even though she has high expectations of work delivered, she is a fair superior who expects her staff to just do their best. “It is my job to make it 100 percent,” she said.
Mrs Wong (seated, second from left) treats her colleagues as friends and often attends group gatherings such as birthdays and full-month celebrations
It is clear that Mrs Wong truly enjoys her job and interacting with her staff. She is also a mentor and a role model for the younger staff at CapitaLand who work with her, especially those who are mothers, with whom she shares freely from her own experiences.
“Whenever they encounter problems with their families, I always tell them: ‘You will never regret (the sacrifice) if you need to spend time with your children’. If given the chance or had there been a need, I would have stopped work. I think I would have made this sacrifice for my family as they are very important to me. Whatever I do, whether it is work or play, it has to be centred on my family.”
In keeping the connection open, Mrs Wong organises informal get-togethers with her staff including birthday bashes, durian parties, barbecues, pot-lucks and New Year parties. “Till today, my ex-staff continue to be part of these gatherings,” quipped Mrs Wong.
Indeed, Mrs Wong has been a steadfast presence – whether it is for the organisation, business partners, her family or her staff.