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.
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.