The Resourceful, Resilient Risk Taker
Mr Wong Heang Fine is a risk taker. His career, which spans diverse industries, portfolios and continents, is a clear testament of this.
“I have gone up the mountains, and have descended into the depths of the earth. I have flown in a helicopter without doors to film marketing videos. I have worked for both men and women, in the public and private sectors. At each place, I learnt to adapt to different environments. I find pleasure in doing different things and doing the same things differently,” said Mr Wong.
The CEO of CapitaLand Residential Singapore was speaking at the fourth In Conversation with CEOs series, a special platform for younger staff at CapitaLand to get up close with the top echelons of the Group’s leadership. At once forthcoming and funny, he let the crowd of over 70 in on several insider stories from his colourful and varied 31-year career.
Management Executive, Chua Ruo Mei from CapitaLand Limited, who signed up for the talk, was delighted to discover that he was very much the CEO with the “unique brand of humour, and bellowing laughter”.
“He affirmed my belief that it is not always the specialist who takes it all. The curious and playful generalist, too, can be as inspiring and successful, if not more,” said Chua. “His ability to emerge from the corporate world with passion and ideas intact is also encouraging.”
School of Hard Knocks
The 54-year-old who is also President of Real Estate Developers Association of Singapore (REDAS) is a firm believer in the school of hard knocks.
“In life, you have to learn the hard way. You have to put in the hard work. Don’t assume that people are going to teach you things, you have to learn it yourself,” he said right off the bat.
His five-year stint as Group General Manager of Business Development in the construction division of Metro Holdings was “probably one of the best things that ever happened” to him because he got involved in nearly 500 projects. From setting up mineral water plants in China, and getting involved in coal mining in Indonesia to buying forest concessions in New Zealand and starting a chain of supermarkets in Papua New Guinea.
“I didn’t know a thing so I had to work really hard,” he recalled.
In 1987, he worked on listing a company in Australia for the group, to raise money for projects, doing research on the subject matter from scratch.
“When I was in Australia, I chanced upon a prospectus for listing of a mining company and read every page of it. I discovered how companies can raise funds by just securing mining concessions and figured that we could do the same for our projects in China. That was the first time I learnt about discounted cash flow.”
Mr Wong then spent the next seven days reading every listing brochure he could lay his hands on and doing thorough research. But on the day the company was supposed to be listed, the US stock market crashed.
“I had worked so hard for three years and just like that, I saw my future disappear,” recalled Mr Wong who was then only 29.
“I learnt that, in life, nothing is for sure. You have to work hard but there are no guarantees. So, I am no longer perturbed by bad news. Nothing is too difficult.”
Fong Lie Ling, Lease Administration Manager, CapitaMalls Asia, was particularly inspired by Mr Wong’s willingness to start from scratch and to “work his guts out”.
“I admire his humility, courage and tenacity to start over in a new work environment. It goes to show nothing is too difficult when one whole-heartedly puts one’s mind to it,” said Fong.
When the going gets tough, Mr Wong believes in staying calm and steadfastly holding the fort for his team
“As a leader, it can be lonely because there are many things a boss cannot share with his staff because it would affect their morale”, Mr Wong shared.
This was a trait he demonstrated in 1991 when he was part of the team in Singapore Technologies Industrial Corporation that helped to develop Bintan Island. For the project’s opening ceremony, Mr Wong was asked to ensure that the Singapore and Indonesian government officials attending the event could greet and talk to each other using mobile phones. He was given just three months to make that happen on an undeveloped part of the island which had no communications infrastructure set up.
“I couldn’t tell my team that it wasn’t possible right? If I did, everyone would give up instead of thinking of how to make it work,” said Mr Wong.
“This is one aspect of my management style. I shield my people from external perils and give them an internal environment in which they can prosper and demonstrate their abilities.”
In the end, working closely with SingTel, Mr Wong managed to put in place three communication systems in time for the opening ceremony. Then came another test of his nerves of steel.
The day before the event, for security purposes, all the equipment was carted to the neighbouring Batam for safe-keeping.
“The next morning, when it was time to move the equipment back to Bintan, the tide was too low and the boat was a good half a kilometer away from shore!” Mr Wong recounted.
Everyone was ready to wade through the water to get to the boat on time. Luckily, they found another port to load the equipment and everything went on without a hitch.
“You need dreams to inspire you but you need passion to inspire others to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.”
Method to Madness
The Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (First Class Honours) graduate from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom; and Master of Science in Engineering Production & Management from the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom attributes his go-getting ways to his education.
“I am a Mechanical Engineer. We make things move. My second degree is all about how to get things done,” he shared.
Mr Wong was at the helm of CapitaLand’s bid for the Bedok Central site to develop Bedok Residences.
“It was the first time we bid 21 per cent above other bids. Everyone thought we were mad but we believed that Bedok would do very well,” said Mr Wong of the decision that was born of studied calculations. Indeed, it was a move that would pay off well as the development went on to sell one unit per minute in its first hour of launch. By the end of its first day of launch, over 70% of launched units were sold.
“After we won the bid, the government announced that they were going to revitalise Bedok central,”, said Mr Wong, adding in jest that the industry thought he had access to insider information.
With Bishan’s Sky Habitat, a 509-unit condominium project that was primed to revolutionalise high-rise suburban living with its world-class design; Mr Wong, once again, took a unique route.
“We believed that Bishan would make history. So, we made its launch a historic event as well,” said Mr Wong.
Instead of keeping the development under wraps till the launch which is the conventional approach, Mr Wong called in local and regional press a week before and gave them a tour of the show gallery. It created such a buzz that they were able to price the property at a phenomenal S$1,700 per square feet, creating what the industry has since dubbed, the “Sky Habitat effect”.
“After what we did, everyone in the area took the opportunity to increase their prices, too.”
His ideas may be wild, but they are always engineered with great precision and meticulously thought through.
When he was President and CEO of Cathay Organisation, he convinced the company to invest in seats for the new Cathay Cineleisure that cost nearly five times the price of regular ones. This came from an understanding of customer needs.
“If you are a cinema-goer, you pay not just for the movie but for the whole experience which includes the comfort level of the seats. The movie industry, in its effort to combat piracy and the threat posed by home theatres, was producing movies which were better viewed on the big screen. And because the average running time of movies was also getting longer, a very comfortable seat would be a key competitive advantage for the cinema.”
Within six months of opening, that single cinema complex commanded 10 per cent of the total movie-takings in the whole of Singapore.
“When you work, you need to develop relationships, create bonds. EQ (emotional quotient) is very important,” Mr Wong advised.
This was a lesson he learnt from his first job at the Singapore Economic Development Board’s projects department.
“At EDB, we have to talk to CEOs of different countries every day to convince them to invest in Singapore,” said Mr Wong.
At Sembcorp Engineers and Constructors, Mr Wong had to use his EQ to ensure a successful resort-opening ceremony in Indonesia.
“Many dignitaries were going to be at the event and we wanted to serve alcohol. But we had no licence. So I went to see the President’s protocol officer whom I had developed a good working relationship with,” Mr Wong said. “He told me not to worry but to bring in the alcohol on the same ferry as the VIPs on that day. Lo and behold, when the ferry docked, he got a five-star general with his entourage of army trucks and personnel to unload the alcohol and transport it to the hotel. It just goes to show that we need to build relationships as we never know who we’ll need to call on in times of need.”
Mr Wong may take risks in every possible form and delights in “doing things no one has ever done before because it is fun”. But each risk is calculated for maximum gain, making his form of risky business the safest bet of all.