The Malaysian jour­ney

Eco World De­vel­op­ment Group Bhd chair­man Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin builds com­mu­ni­ties as he strives to put the na­tional flag on a global stage.

The Star Malaysia - StarBiz - - Front Page - By EU­GENE MAHALINGAM eu­genicz@thes­tar.com.my

ECO World De­vel­op­ment Group Bhd chair­man Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin moves into high gear each time the coun­try cel­e­brates Na­tional Day and Malaysia Day.

It is a busy oc­ca­sion for the com­pany be­cause Liew and his em­ploy­ees chan­nel a lot of their time and en­ergy into the #AnakA­nakMalaysia cel­e­bra­tions. The cam­paign, now into its third year, is or­gan­ised in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Star Me­dia Group Bhd to com­mem­o­rate Na­tional Day and Malaysia Day.

Show­ing off the iconic #AnakMalaysia wrist­bands, Liew proudly says that he even wears them to sleep, adding that each of his fam­ily mem­bers wears them too.

This year, a mil­lion wrist­bands were dis­trib­uted.

“We don’t just build homes, we build com­mu­ni­ties,” he tells StarBizWeek.

Liew be­lieves pas­sion­ately in the Malaysian jour­ney, and his even­tual suc­cess in bring­ing his com­pany to the world stage.

The youngest son of a lorry driver and a rub­ber tap­per, Liew grew up in a hum­ble but lov­ing en­vi­ron­ment in the new vil­lage of Plen­tong, on the out­skirts of Jo­hor Baru.

To­day, he is re­garded as a hero among his work­ers. Some say the ado­ra­tion is al­most cult-like.

Down-to-earth and hum­ble, he talks about his hum­ble start in prop­erty de­vel­op­ment.

“I started with a sim­ple of­fice us­ing bor­rowed ta­bles and chairs. That’s how I be­gan.”

One very im­por­tant value he prac­tises and in­stils in his em­ploy­ees daily is the im­por­tance of treat­ing peo­ple with re­spect – re­gard­less of their back­ground.

“My phi­los­o­phy is that if a buyer walks into our gallery, re­gard­less of whether he or she is wear­ing slip­pers or pol­ished shoes, we must give the best pos­si­ble ser­vice. Un­cles, aun­ties, can’t speak English – you must give the best pos­si­ble ser­vice.

“Re­mem­ber where you come from. My fa­ther was a lorry driver, my mother a rub­ber tap­per... and I will not al­low any­one to treat any­body as be­neath them. In terms of how you deal with peo­ple, al­ways treat them with a lot of re­spect.”

He also firmly be­lieves that no mat­ter what one’s status is, one should al­ways stand firm in one’s val­ues.

“Val­ues don’t change. Things such as hon­esty and in­tegrity... they re­main. “These are ideals that have been in­stilled in me since I was a young boy.”

The evolv­ing prop­erty mar­ket

Liew, who has been in the prop­erty in­dus­try since 1989, has a de­gree in eco­nomics ma­jor­ing in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He started as a banker in 1981, but ven­tured into prop­erty de­vel­op­ment five years later.

His first pro­ject was in Ta­man Bukit In­dah, Am­pang. Liew re­calls those days when things were a lot sim­pler and to­day cus­tomers have since be­come in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated.

“The (Bukit In­dah Am­pang) pro­ject was a sim­ple de­vel­op­ment. Peo­ple were happy with just a link house and were not so de­mand­ing on land­scap­ing, show vil­lages, ser­vice or even prod­uct qual­ity.

“But over the years, with com­pe­ti­tion, there have been changes. As more peo­ple jumped on the de­vel­op­ment band­wagon, it be­came highly-com­pet­i­tive.”

So­phis­ti­cated cus­tomers aside, tech­nol­ogy has also been a ma­jor fac­tor that has both shaped and de­fined the prop­erty in­dus­try, says Liew.

“So­cial me­dia, for in­stance, has changed the way in­for­ma­tion is be­ing trans­mit­ted.

“Peo­ple can get in­stant in­for­ma­tion now. So, if you make one mis­take, to­mor­row ev­ery­one hears about it.

“And with the so­cial me­dia, if you launch your pro­ject, within 24 hours, po­ten­tial buy­ers will know about it. The bad news is that even your com­peti­tors will get to know about it.”

Liew says it’s vi­tal for prop­erty de­vel­op­ers to come up with some­thing unique, if not ground-break­ing to stay ahead of their com­peti­tors.

“You must be able to present some­thing that no one else can copy. Of course, they can copy your de­sign, your brochure, but they can never copy your ser­vice stan­dard be­cause that re­quires a lot of train­ing. For ex­am­ple, why do you pay for a fives­tar ho­tel? It’s be­cause of the stan­dard of ser­vice.

“Over the years, the coun­try has be­come a lot richer. Peo­ple want bet­ter homes with a cer­tain life­style in mind.

“The mar­ket has changed com­pletely and to­day peo­ple can af­ford to buy de­tached homes and bun­ga­lows.”

Liew re­calls that in the 90s, when a com­pany de­vel­oped 200 acres of land, it would be con­sid­ered a big de­vel­oper. How­ever, this is not the case to­day.

“Two hun­dred acres will only make you a niche de­vel­oper. The mar­ket has be­come much big­ger be­cause of fac­tors such as a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, de­mand and buy­ing power. Since Malaysia’s in­de­pen­dence, the coun­try has done very well.”

He ob­serves that peo­ple have more dis­pos­able in­come to pur­chase prop­erty over­seas – which is why it’s im­por­tant for de­vel­op­ers to ex­pand abroad.

“Peo­ple have money and I don’t mean the su­per rich. The mid­dle-class and up­per-mid­dle class can af­ford to buy prop­erty. If the coun­try is not get­ting richer, if we’re still a de­vel­op­ing coun­try, how can a mid­dle-class fam­ily buy an apart­ment in Aus­tralia?

“In the 90s, only the rich could buy prop­erty in Aus­tralia and Lon­don. But in to­day’s mar­ket, the mid­dle-class can buy. The world has changed.”

This phe­nom­e­non has driven Liew to lead the Malaysian con­sor­tium of SP Se­tia Bhd, Sime Darby Bhd and the Em­ploy­ees Prov­i­dent Fund (EPF) to bid for the Bat­tersea Power Sta­tion site in Lon­don a few years ago.

Liew, who was SP Se­tia’s president and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer (CEO) for 18 years from May 1996 to April 2014, re­calls the Malaysian con­sor­tium’s up­hill task of win­ning the Bat­tersea pro­ject.

“Ev­ery­body looked down on us. We were up against (Rus­sian bil­lion­aire and Chelsea FC owner) Ro­man Abramovich and (bil­lion­aires) the Reuben brothers. And no one thought that a Malaysian com­pany could meet global stan­dards.

“The im­pres­sion was that there is ‘no way the Malaysian group can do this. No way they can pay you the price and no way they can ex­e­cute’. So, we were the un­der­dogs and we needed to strate­gise.”

And strate­gise they did – and won the pro­ject.

“The first thing we needed to do was to en­sure that the bank guar­an­tee was ready to se­cure the pay­ment. We also needed to make sure that the au­thor­i­ties were be­hind us. So, we spoke to the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment and the Prime Min­is­ter him­self set up helped meet­ings for us.

“The brand­ing and mar­ket­ing were cru­cial. For the first phase of the pro­ject, all 864 units were sold out in three weeks!”

To­day, un­der the EcoWorld brand, the group’s for­eign projects are parked and man­aged un­der Eco World In­ter­na­tional Bhd (EWI), which was listed on the Main Mar­ket of Bursa Malaysia in April this year.

Liew has a 10.3% stake in EWI. EWI is de­vel­op­ing three projects in Lon­don and one in Syd­ney with a to­tal es­ti­mated gross de­vel­op­ment value of RM12.98bil.

As of Jan 31, the to­tal con­tracted sales from the four projects was a 1.2bil (RM6.65bil).

Be­fore the in­ter­view, Liew gave a whirl­wind tour of the Bukit Bin­tang City Cen­tre (BBCC) sales gallery ex­plain­ing that the gallery is di­vided into two dis­tinct por­tions –a more cor­po­rate look wel­comes those who en­ter the BBCC sec­tion of the gallery while a grungier, in­dus­trial look

wel­comes vis­i­tors to the EWI por­tion.

The RM8.7bil BBCC in­te­grated pro­ject, which sits on the for­mer Pudu Jail site, has Eco World hold­ing a 40% stake, while UDA Hold­ings Bhd and the EPF have a 40% and 20% stake re­spec­tively.

Pass­ing on the val­ues

Liew, who has been in the lo­cal prop­erty in­dus­try for close to three decades, says that his role in Eco World is that of a “men­tor”.

“My role as chair­man is more on poli­cies and guid­ance, men­tor­ing and how I see the fu­ture. In terms of dayto-day op­er­a­tions, it’s my CEO and his team. To be chair­man when you were once CEO is very dif­fi­cult.

“I was CEO for al­most 18 years in SP Se­tia, but I’ve learnt over the years that a one-man show can­not sur­vive in this mar­ket.

“It has changed over the years. So, I de­cided that I should play the role in a dif­fer­ent way and al­low my CEO and his team to de­velop the brand.”

Liew says the group has an in­ten­sive, in­ter­nal train­ing pro­gramme to de­velop its “next group of lead­ers”.

“To pro­vide the best pos­si­ble ser­vice, we also have our own kind of train­ing which we call ‘Eco World Class’. It’s di­vided into ser­vice and prod­uct. We map out the whole cy­cle. Every part of the jour­ney must be taken care of so that by the time the prod­uct is de­liv­ered, it’s be­yond doubt a very good-qual­ity one.

“The pro­gramme also helps Eco World nur­ture and re­tain its tal­ent, es­pe­cially the Gen-Y group of em­ploy­ees.

“How do you main­tain the loy­alty of your em­ploy­ees?

“We change the way that we train our peo­ple. Un­der the Eco World Class, we tell them ‘why don’t you guys de­sign the sys­tem, ser­vice and prod­uct qual­ity?’

“And they own it, be­cause the sys­tem is de­signed by them and it be­comes their re­spon­si­bil­ity. It works won­der­fully.

“The key for young peo­ple is own­er­ship. It must come from them.

“We, the older work­ers, pro­vide the plat­form to al­low the younger work­ers to come up with new ideas and evolve them. That’s how we won our ‘Best of the Best Em­ployer’ award.”

The com­pany re­cently bagged the pres­ti­gious AON Best of the Best Em­ploy­ers in Malaysia award for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year.

About 69% of Eco World’s work­force com­prise of Gen-Y em­ploy­ees.

“Also, over the last four years, we have stan­dard­ised all our de­vel­op­ment DNA.

“In all of our town­ships, you see gaze­bos, wa­ter­ways, big round­abouts, parks, boule­vards and how we fil­ter wa­ter so that the lake is clean.

“The only dif­fer­ence be­tween the in­di­vid­ual projects is the end prod­uct. The DNA of the streetscape and land­scape is the same. The end prod­uct de­pends on the price per sq ft that we pay for the land.”

In ad­di­tion to the var­i­ous train­ing plans, Eco World also has many em­ployee-en­rich­ment pro­grammes.

“We have our own choir team. They are our em­ploy­ees. They’re not pro­fes­sion­als, but when they per­form, they do it with in­tegrity and com­mit­ment of the high­est stan­dard.

“We use this group as an in­stru­ment to pro­mote unity and build con­fi­dence be­cause it’s very im­por­tant.

“Many of them are low-rank­ing em­ploy­ees, but we give them the op­por­tu­nity to play in­stru­ments and sing, and it also gives them a sense of pur­pose.

“The best part is that we take them all over the world with us – to Lon­don, Aus­tralia, China. Why? Be­cause we are as good as any­body else in the world.”

Be­ing the best that you can be is key on every level, es­pe­cially on a na­tional one, says Liew.

“We have to show the world that we are as good as any­body else and that we can com­pete. That’s how we won the Bat­tersea pro­ject. If we have an in­fe­rior mind­set, then we can­not com­pete.”

This is why when Liew has meet­ings with his em­ploy­ees – re­gard­less of their rank – he has one piece of ad­vice for all of them: “I al­ways tell my peo­ple... be dif­fer­ent, be bet­ter... than me.”

Royal walk­a­bout: A file pic­ture show­ing Se­lan­gor Ruler Sul­tan Shara­fud­din Idris Shah (third from left) and Tengku Per­maisuri No­rashikin lead­ing more than 6,000 Malaysians dur­ing the re­cent #AnakA­nakMalaysia Walk. With them were Se­lan­gor Men­tri Be­sar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali (fourth from right), Liew (third from right), Shah Alam mayor Datuk Ah­mad Za­harin Mohd Saad (right), and Star Me­dia Group chair­man Datuk Fu Ah Kiow (sec­ond from right).

Im­pres­sive lay­out: An artist’s im­pres­sion of the sig­na­ture round­about of the Eco Grandeur pro­ject.

Iconic land­mark: The prop­erty de­vel­oper’s Eco Ma­jes­tic flag­ship town­ship in the Kang Val­ley.

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