the RIGHT build

With a vi­sion to in­flu­ence and im­prove the ur­ban life­style of the yan­gon peo­ple, Cyrus Pun has big dreams. he gives Karen Tee an in­sight into his plans


With a vi­sion to in­flu­ence and im­prove the ur­ban life­style of the Yan­gon peo­ple, Cyrus Pun has big dreams

When Cyrus Pun held his wed­ding cel­e­bra­tion in Myan­mar re­cently, he was amazed at the sar­to­rial flair on dis­play. “I saw peo­ple wear­ing di­a­mond-stud­ded saris and fab­rics made with real gold threads,” ex­claims the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and head of real es­tate at Yoma Strate­gic Hold­ings.

“They’re a so­cia­ble crowd who en­joy at­tend­ing events,” says the 36-year-old, still look­ing gob­s­macked at this show­case of af­flu­ence. While much has been said and writ­ten about the pent-up de­mand for the finer things in life in Myan­mar, wit­ness­ing this man­i­fest in the flesh is some­thing that has to be seen to be be­lieved, as Pun can at­test to.

On a sep­a­rate oc­ca­sion, Yoma held a sales event and sent out el­e­gantly printed in­vi­ta­tions to guests. “Some turned up in for­mal at­tire, think­ing they were at­tend­ing a cock­tail party,” he says. Thank­fully, with canapes at the ready, the guests were none the wiser that the event was en­vi­sioned as a much more low-key af­fair.

In the five years since the tran­si­tion to a civil­ian gov­ern­ment be­gan in 2011, the peo­ple of this for­merly iso­lated coun­try have shown a re­lent­less thirst for the ma­te­rial plea­sures that are com­mon­place in many other parts of the world. Whether it is feast­ing on a fried chicken meal at KFC, to driv­ing a Volk­swa­gen car or own­ing a piece of prop­erty, Yoma Strate­gic has al­ready made these op­tions — and more — avail­able to the pop­u­la­tion.

Build­ing blocks of Yan­gon

The com­pany was es­tab­lished by Cyrus’s fa­ther Serge Pun, a for­mer ex­ile who left Burma for China in 1965 with his fam­ily af­ter the mil­i­tary coup. He even­tu­ally found his way to Hong Kong in 1973, where he got his first job in real es­tate, set­tled down and had four sons. He only re­turned to Myan­mar in 1990, where he came to the re­al­i­sa­tion that the time was ripe to in­vest in real es­tate de­vel­op­ments there. He founded his com­pany Serge Pun & As­so­ciates (Myan­mar) Ltd in 1991 and his first real es­tate projects there in­cluded the high-end Pun Hlaing Golf Es­tate, fea­tur­ing an 18-hole Gary Player-de­signed golf course and FMI City, the coun­try’s first gated com­mu­nity.

To­day, Yoma Strate­gic Hold­ings, which was listed on the main­board of the Sin­ga­pore Ex­change in 2006, has a di­verse port­fo­lio of de­vel­op­ments in Myan­mar. These in­clude Star City, a 135-acre satel­lite town that will feature 10,000 homes and 1.7 mil­lion sq-ft of com­mer­cial space upon com­ple­tion as well as a 10-acre Land­mark Development project in the heart of Yan­gon city, which will also in­volve the restora­tion of one of Yan­gon’s most fa­mous her­itage build­ings into the Yan­gon Penin­sula Ho­tel.

The com­pany is also in­volved in a di­verse port­fo­lio of busi­nesses in the au­to­mo­tive, con­sumer, lux­ury travel and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor. The group recorded a rev­enue of $111.9 mil­lion and a net profit at­trib­ut­able to share­hold­ers of $37.2 mil­lion in fi­nan­cial year 2016.

“Quite of­ten, peo­ple de­scribe us as the big­gest real es­tate de­vel­oper in Yan­gon, but our fo­cus is on be­ing a spe­cialised player in the field that de­vel­ops prop­er­ties in a way that is pioneer­ing and in­no­va­tive. We are well-known for be­ing more dar­ing — we like to take the business to places no one else has gone to,” says Pun dur­ing our chat at the com­pany’s of­fice in Shen­ton Way, a few days af­ter host­ing us at Pun Hlaing in Yan­gon for his cover shoot. Clean cut and with boy­ish good looks, the Eng­land-ed­u­cated Pun, who holds a Bach­e­lor’s de­gree in Eco­nom­ics from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, speaks with a crisp Bri­tish ac­cent that would make Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch proud.

“So if you look at the de­vel­op­ments that we do in Yan­gon, ac­tu­ally most of them are very ground­break­ing. For in­stance, we were the first de­vel­op­ers to man­age our es­tate and pro­vide up­grades to the prop­erty. The value ap­pre­ci­a­tion we bring to cus­tomers is a lot higher,” he adds.

Pun joined Yoma in 2007 af­ter his fa­ther Serge ap­proached him to join the com­pany. Prior to this, he worked for Hutchi­son Port Hold­ings in the South China Com­mer­cial Di­vi­sion based in Hong Kong. Three out of four Pun broth­ers are in­volved with the fam­ily business. The old­est, Melvyn, is chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Yoma. Cyrus, the se­cond-born, heads Yoma Strate­gic’s real es­tate de­vel­op­ments in Myan­mar. Third son Ivan helms Pun + Pro­jects2, a life­style com­pany that op­er­ates stylish restau­rants in Yan­gon, in­clud­ing Port Au­ton­omy and Rau Ram. The youngest, Se­bas­tian, is pur­su­ing his in­ter­est in aviation.

Fam­ily ties

Al­though the fam­ily mem­bers split their time be­tween Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore and Myan­mar, they are a closely knit bunch. Just the night be­fore this in­ter­view, the fam­ily had gath­ered in Yan­gon to cel­e­brate Serge’s and Se­bas­tian’s birth­days. Even though it may seem more than mere co­in­ci­dence that the broth­ers have ended up with the fam­ily business, Pun says he can­not be sure if this was part of Serge’s grand plan or plain serendip­ity.

“If you ask my fa­ther, he’s said that it’s al­ways his in­ten­tion for us to de­cide our own des­tiny. He takes a very lib­eral view on what we choose to do as long as we are ded­i­cated,” he says. “How­ever, he re­cently said in an in­ter­view that he’d al­ways wished that some of his sons would come back to work for him. How much of that was just ma­nip­u­la­tion…” Pun trails off in a fit of laugh­ter, be­fore adding: “He’s just the grand­mas­ter of strat­egy.”

What Pun does know though, is that the “seeds” for his in­ter­est in real es­tate development were planted when he was a young boy fol­low­ing his fa­ther to project sites in Hong Kong. “My in­ter­est and pas­sion was al­ways in build­ing homes, nice res­i­den­tial homes,” he says.

When he joined, his first project was to de­velop a mixed-use prop­erty in Dalian, where they con­verted an aban­doned build­ing into a mall and res­i­den­tial apart­ments. He says: “With real es­tate development, there is the ex­cite­ment of see­ing some­thing start­ing from scratch — from you hav­ing a vi­sion and putting it down on pa­per, plan­ning it out and through a very long process, ma­te­ri­al­is­ing this vi­sion grad­u­ally.”

Al­though he is of Burmese her­itage, he has only just set up res­i­dence in Yan­gon over the last three years. But his con­nec­tion to the coun­try is grow­ing at a steady clip. For one, his wife hails from Myan­mar — they were in­tro­duced through business con­tacts — but he de­clines to speak more about her. “I’ve al­ways known about Myan­mar through fam­ily ties, but never had a chance to live there,” he says. “The peo­ple of Myan­mar are very charm­ing, very re­li­gious, calm and peace­ful as a cul­ture and there’s a lot of ap­peal in that area.”

He vis­i­bly lights up when talk­ing about the Land­mark project in the heart of down­town Yan­gon, which he says has the “po­ten­tial to de­fine the cen­tral business dis­trict of Yan­gon”. This 10-acre project com­prises a lux­ury res­i­den­tial con­do­minium tower, ser­viced apart­ment build­ing, business ho­tel, two of­fice tow­ers and a re­tail podium. The jewel will be the restora­tion and con­ver­sion of the for­mer Burma Rail­way Com­pany Head­quar­ters, which was built in 1877, into the Yan­gon Penin­sula Ho­tel.

“It is a beau­ti­ful red build­ing that ev­ery Yan­gon res­i­dent knows. It has so much his­tory be­hind it and it is very ex­cit­ing to re­store it to its for­mer grandeur with a mix of moder­nity with the old,” he says.

In­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, lo­cal knowl­edge

It is this com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal in­sights with in­ter­na­tional ap­peal that has made Yoma Strate­gic so suc­cess­ful, says Pun. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the com­pany is listed in Sin­ga­pore.

“Sin­ga­pore ranks as one of the world’s main fi­nan­cial hubs. It has the right in­fra­struc­ture, frame­work and cor­po­rate gov­er­nance, and it is im­por­tant that we list in a place where in­vestors have a lot of con­fi­dence in, given that Myan­mar is an emerg­ing mar­ket where there are a lot of un­cer­tain­ties,” says Pun, who flies into Sin­ga­pore once a month. “Myan­mar has al­ways been fairly close to Sin­ga­pore and with Sin­ga­pore be­ing a land­ing spot for re­gional in­vest­ment, this helps bring in a lot of in­vest­ments into Myan­mar from here.”

The com­pany’s in­ter­na­tional out­look is also an ad­van­tage when work­ing with for­eign part­ners. “You can re­late to the same things and talk the same business lan­guage,” he says, not­ing that Yoma Strate­gic has a long-stand­ing strict anti-cor­rup­tion pol­icy that for­eign in­vestors value. At the same time, “any for­eign in­vestor go­ing into Myan­mar wants to make sure their part­ner sub­scribes to the lo­cal val­ues, un­der­stands the sen­si­tiv­ity of the peo­ple and to be there in help­ing the coun­try grow”.

This clear sense of di­rec­tion keeps him go­ing. “Some of the projects that we do may not be any­thing spe­cial in an in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ment, but in the Myan­mar con­text, they are in ev­ery way ground­break­ing,” he says.

For ex­am­ple, the Star City satel­lite town project is Yan­gon’s big­gest real es­tate development for a rea­son. He points out that in­fras­truc­tural is­sues con­tinue to plague the city, such as elec­tric­ity and wa­ter short­ages, as well as cramped liv­ing con­di­tions, and then out­lines how the satel­lite town will al­le­vi­ate these prob­lems.

He ex­plains: “A lot of these peo­ple live in these con­di­tions not be­cause they can’t af­ford to live any­where else, but it is be­cause they don’t have any­where else to move to. We re­ally see this as an op­por­tu­nity to im­prove liv­ing con­di­tions and im­prove life­styles. The only way you can do this in an ef­fec­tive man­ner is to build on a larger plot of land where you can pro­vide all the in­fra­struc­ture.”

This is why at Star City, the com­pany has in­vested in not just a wa­ter treat­ment fa­cil­ity and back-up elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tors, but also a hos­pi­tal and an in­ter­na­tional school within the es­tate.

“The satel­lite town can change the way peo­ple live — by tak­ing peo­ple out­side the city cen­tre, where they have more fo­cus on health, sport and bring­ing up their chil­dren up in a healthy, green man­ner,” he says.

But be­ing a trail­blazer can come with its draw­backs, he ac­knowl­edges. From de­trac­tors who say the satel­lite towns are too far away from the city cen­tre to take off, to com­peti­tors who im­i­tate them, he’s ex­pe­ri­enced it all. “We’ve even seen sales con­tracts where it is ex­actly a cut-and­paste ver­sion of mine,” he says. “I take it as a com­pli­ment.”

He brings up the ex­am­ple of the Lou­vre pyra­mid in Paris, which was de­signed by Chi­nese Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect I M Pei, an ar­chi­tect he par­tic­u­larly ad­mires. “When I talk about be­ing dar­ing with a development, that’s what it is. When it was built, it was such a con­tentious is­sue, but now you con­sider it a land­mark of Paris.”

“These things will come be­cause if you are dar­ing with your mis­sion, you will cre­ate some­thing at that time that no one has thought about. Be­cause it is such a new con­cept, peo­ple re­ject it,” he says. “But if it is truly some­thing of beauty, very quickly peo­ple will turn around.”

“any for­eign in­vestor go­ing into Myan­mar wants to Make sure their part­ner sub­scribes to the lo­cal val­ues, un­der­stands the sen­si­tiv­ity of the peo­ple and to be there in help­ing the coun­try grow”

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