FEATURES Arm in Arm, Cheek to Cheek
People say, “Don’t get your work and personal life mixed up,” but DATUK SETH YAP and DATIN LEA CHAN make a strong case (pun intended) for the naysayers
A tale of how this dynamic couple, who are also business partners, met and their plans for their company
ALL IS FAIR in love and war—while some may extend that saying to business. And when one addresses business, one prefers to not mix business and pleasure, let alone blur the lines between work and personal affairs. However, the affable and humorous Datuk Seth Yap together with the elegant and warm Datin Lea Chan seem to have cracked the code for the perfect partnership in all aspects of their life as husband and wife, as well as business partners. Here’s the story of how the lawyers-turned-developers met, and how they are now seeing through the success and plans for their company, M101.
MT: First, an introduction of yourselves.
Datuk Seth Yap (SY): I spent my early years until I was 12 growing up in Malaysia, then Singapore to study, and finally England to read law. I’ve always known I wanted to be a lawyer—i like to talk! But I also considered teaching, so before I decided to go to England to become a lawyer, I had a brief stint as a tutor. I did so well that my mother opened a teaching centre! But then, after that I saw through my dreams of becoming a lawyer, and eventually qualified as a barrister. I just felt like that was who I should be. Not to forget, that was also how I met my wife, close to 13 years ago. We chambered together, she had a boyfriend, married the boyfriend, many years down the road I got married too, then we both divorced, and we got together! That’s the long story short! [laughs]
Datin Lea Chan (LC): I’m a working mother of four, and a practising lawyer. In fact, as you know, my husband is also legally trained—as he said, that’s how we met. But I resigned from that post a year ago to take over M101’s hospitality arm, which is a totally new industry for me. But, I do enjoy what I’m doing now as it is very challenging, interesting and rewarding.
MT: And what of the romance?
SY: [laughs] Of course, I had always thought she was the love of my life since I was very young, but she had a boyfriend and then a husband… Although, looking back, I think if we got together then, we would have probably gotten divorced. Timing is very important, I feel. We both had experienced married life, and this is our second marriage. We are more matured, and I quite like it.
LC: He was a very good friend during my chambering years. He liked me first, for sure! Everyone can tell you that he has liked me forever. But yes, because we were both good friends, we decided to open a law firm. Of course, at that time my first marriage didn’t work out. We were there for each other, and it seemed like the next move! The transition of being very good friends to very good business partners helped a lot in our marriage—not many marriages would have the wife play such a big role in the company!
I see MORE GOOD than bad when you’re married to your BUSINESS PARTNER, because there are just so many things to talk about
MT: What’s that one thing about the other that you love the most?
SY: There are many pretty girls and different personalities, but there is just one person that would suit just me. I would have to say this… Lea is not only pretty, but she puts in a lot of effort into work and family—stepdaughters included.
LC: Seth totally respects what I say, values my opinion and that’s very important to me. We found a way to complement each other. Of course, we did have a bit of practice beforehand as we were business partners!
MT: How do you balance work and relationship, as you see each other all the time?
SY: I see more good than bad when you’re married to your business partner because there are just so many things to talk about. I’m not just talking about the romance part, but everything in general. A lot of friends think this is hard to juggle, but she and I, we have come to an understanding. We know not to overstep when it comes to work.
LC: I had to start learning the role of the wife, actually. But even in business, we learn to say the same things, and if there are any disagreements or clashes, we will talk discreetly. At work, he heads the company and makes all the decisions and calls all the shots. I eventually became the wife-cum-business partner, and so we always present a united front. Even if I strongly disagree with something, I will have a private word with him and then convince him, as he always welcomes my thoughts and ideas. It’s all quite balanced. Being together at work, and at home, also means that we have a lot to talk
about—we’re never bored of each other. Plus of course, it’s very good for him that his lawyer sleeps next to him!
MT: Tell us about your children.
SY: I have four kids, who know the difference between half-brothers and stepbrothers. This I did not know until my daughter told me. But I’m quite happy. We sit together during the weekends, around the dining table. They genuinely love each other and treat each other like real siblings.
LC: The funny thing is, when I got married to Seth, my daughter [from my previous marriage] was six years old. Shortly after, I gave birth to my baby with Seth. My aunt had asked my six-year-old how she felt about it, and she responded with a sigh and said, “My life is so complicated. I have so many kinds of siblings. There is Jayden, who is my real blood brother where my father and mother are the same. Then I have Gwen, who is my stepsister because we don’t share the same parents—her father married my mother. And then I have a half-brother, who has the same mother but different father. So complicated!”
On the other spectrum, how’s work?
SY: We have Malaysia Tourism City coming up! As developers, we are very small players but we are very aggressive. That’s why we take a very different positioning for ourselves. My ultimate aim is for the tourism city to have a huge impact on the country.
LC: Monopoly Mansion by Sirocco is opening this year, and that’s very exciting because it’s the first in the world. We got the team together and brainstormed, presented it to Hasbro, and they fell in love. They immediately awarded us with the brand IP. We don’t believe in brand-tagging—for example getting a building and smacking the monopoly board up there. That’s not what we do. What we want to do is get to know who Mr Monopoly is. So we came from his angle—born in the 1920s, during the Great Depression, so the whole decor will be very Great Gatsby-like. For example, we have
WORK-WISE, we are looking forward to the opening of the MONOPOLY MANSION and Malaysia Tourism City this year
thought about having the room keys designed like the property cards in the game. And instead of customers throwing it away, we plan on offering rewards to those who collect them—for example, redeem a free room or free merchandise. So, I’m really looking forward to its opening in Q2.
What would success be to you?
SY: The day I get a call from a Middle Eastern country’s ministry of tourism, saying that they’d like us to come in and build an ecotourism city for them.
LC: The Sirocco hospitality brand opening plus managing many more hotels—we plan on having 20 properties under our name in 10 years’ time. If everything is in place, this brand will be something else!
What do you hope to achieve through your company in the next 5, 10 or 15 years?
DY: Again, I’m hoping that someone from the Middle East would give me that phone call! [laughs]
LC: Our next project for Malaysia Tourism City is going to keep us very busy. I hope that it will be the place to be enjoyed by not only international tourists but also Malaysians, too. We have a theme park, 3000-stall weekend markets, Gokart track designed by our partner Studio F.A. Porsche, G.I Joe Bootcamp, a university... It really is a fully-integrated city, and we’d like to see that become a reality.