EN­TREPRENEUR­SHIP: Craft­ing a Legacy

From build­ing en­dur­ing homes to in­vest­ing in blockchain, vet­eran en­tre­pre­neur Eric Cheng is fear­lessly look­ing for­ward to the fu­ture, dis­cov­ers Hong Xinyi

Singapore Tatler - - SINGAPORE TATLER INDUSTRY INSIDER - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAR­REN GABRIEL LEOW Art Di­rec­tion MATILDA AU

From build­ing en­dur­ing homes to bet­ting on blockchain, en­tre­pre­neur Eric Cheng is fear­lessly look­ing for­ward to the fu­ture

I make de­ci­sions very fast,” Eric Cheng tells us at one point dur­ing this in­ter­view. “That is my strength.” Friendly and easy­go­ing in per­son, there is lit­tle sense dur­ing our cover shoot that this en­tre­pre­neur is a man in a hurry. But the ev­i­dence of his in­cli­na­tion for swift ac­tion is ac­tu­ally all around us—we are talk­ing in a 1940s in­ter-ter­race house along Make­peace Road, a prop­erty he de­cided to ac­quire on the spot dur­ing his first view­ing last year. “I have very strong in­stincts when it comes to houses; they com­mu­ni­cate with me. And when I saw this one, my first in­stinct was to buy it,” he ex­plains. Firstly, the house is lo­cated in the well-heeled Dis­trict 9, where prop­er­ties don’t change hands of­ten. “In the last eight years, there have been no trans­ac­tions along this en­tire lane. So I signed the op­tion agree­ment on the spot with­out ne­go­ti­at­ing the price at all. I knew this was a good buy.” He was proven right just a few days later, when a keen buyer of­fered him a higher price for the place. “But I re­fused to sell. Some­times, good things can­not be re­placed.” In fact, Eric scrapped his orig­i­nal plan to erect a new house on this plot of land. In­stead, he lav­ished some ten­der lov­ing care on the orig­i­nal prop­erty’s vin­tage charms, spiff­ing up dis­tinc­tive fea­tures such as the orig­i­nal floor­ing and wooden front door, and adding con­tem­po­rary flour­ishes such as dra­matic flo­ral wall­pa­per. “I wanted to keep the char­ac­ter of the prop­erty, while also bring­ing a mod­ern touch to it.”

FROM THE GROUND UP

Pay­ing metic­u­lous at­ten­tion to aes­thetic de­tail is Eric’s hall­mark as a real es­tate de­vel­oper. With his ex­pe­ri­ence in ar­chi­tec­tural plan­ning, he is able to per­son­alise his prop­er­ties through con­cep­tual plan­ning and by match­ing them to con­cepts and de­signs. Eric is also very par­tic­u­lar about space plan­ning—from how the shape of a plot of land should in­flu­ence the de­sign of a house, to how the size of a house should im­pact its flow. “Of­ten when I go to one of my con­struc­tion sites, I can feel the house com­mu­ni­cat­ing with me, as it gives off a cer­tain vibe that I am able to in­ter­pret,” he en­thuses. “To cre­ate a per­fect home for my clients, there are many small de­tails we need to take into con­sid­er­a­tion. Do you have enough pri­vacy from your neigh­bours if I placed the swim­ming pool at a cer­tain spot? If it’s a multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­ily home, can you look down from one floor and see your child’s room, and also be within hear­ing dis­tance of your par­ents’ liv­ing space? Un­der­stand­ing th­ese things re­quires years of ex­pe­ri­ence as a de­vel­oper.” The el­dest of four chil­dren, Eric grew up in Chi­na­town, where his busi­ness in­stincts were ev­i­dent from a young age. He re­mem­bers walk­ing past money chang­ers as a child, and be­ing in­trigued by the dif­fer­ence be­tween the buy­ing and sell­ing prices of dif­fer­ent cur­ren­cies, and how th­ese num­bers would fluc­tu­ate over time. “I saw that there was an op­por­tu­nity to make a profit there,” he re­calls with a laugh. With­out a fam­ily busi­ness to in­herit or ac­cess to cap­i­tal, how­ever, he had a long way to travel be­fore he would be­come a full-fledged en­tre­pre­neur. At age 20, he be­came an air ste­ward, reck­on­ing that it of­fered a com­par­a­tively high salary for some­one his age. After eight years, he segued into real es­tate, mak­ing his first mil­lion within his first two years as a prop­erty agent. Steadily climb­ing the ranks of his new in­dus­try, he was soon man­ag­ing a team of 7,000 agents. In 2009, he launched his own prop­erty agency. Even­tu­ally, he ex­panded his busi­ness into a group of com­pa­nies that also dealt in real es­tate con­sul­tancy, val­u­a­tion and as­set man­age­ment. Along the way, he won a clutch of ac­co­lades such as be­ing named Young En­tre­pre­neur of the Year at the 2011 Asia-pa­cific En­trepreneur­ship Awards, one of the Ten Out­stand­ing Young Per­sons hon­ourees by non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion JCI Sin­ga­pore in

2011 and the Plat­inum Cat­e­gory Award at the 2012 Promis­ing SME 500 Awards. He also wrote a cou­ple of best­sellers on prop­erty in­vest­ment and busi­ness lead­er­ship. After sell­ing off his real es­tate group to an Sgx-listed com­pany for $45m in 2014, he took a short hia­tus to spend time with his fam­ily. Last Jan­uary, he lis­tened to his heart and launched real es­tate de­vel­op­ment com­pany Sevens Group with a fo­cus on build­ing lux­ury homes. The launch of the Sevens Group marks both a con­sol­i­da­tion of his decades of ex­pe­ri­ence as an en­tre­pre­neur and a shift in his mind­set. While real es­tate has al­ways been a ma­jor fo­cus, Eric was also well-known in the past for in­vest­ing in a wide va­ri­ety of busi­nesses. “I have no re­grets about ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent busi­nesses. I learned a lot from each ex­pe­ri­ence, and I was able to ex­pand my net­work. I al­ways be­lieve that your net­work is equal to your net worth. But I also learned that prop­erty is still my pas­sion.” With Sevens Group, he wants to cre­ate a brand that is syn­ony­mous with be­spoke landed prop­erty. It is a niche area with a lot of po­ten­tial, and one that is a good fit for his strengths in de­sign, lay­out and, above all, pro­vid­ing the per­sonal touch. Hav­ing worked his way up from be­ing a prop­erty agent, Eric un­der­stands his tar­get home­own­ers well and still goes the ex­tra mile to get to know prospec­tive buy­ers. The high-net-worth clien­tele he serves aren’t drawn to cook­iecut­ter de­vel­op­ments. “They are very so­phis­ti­cated. We push the bound­aries of ar­chi­tec­tural cre­ativ­ity and in­cor­po­rate tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, to be recog­nised as a premium and trusted de­vel­oper of con­tem­po­rary homes. We build great houses you can proudly call home. I am not here just for the short term. What I want is to cre­ate homes that ev­ery­one will love to be in.” The Sevens Group, which cur­rently boasts a gross de­vel­op­ment value of $135m for its ex­ist­ing projects, has also ex­panded into Aus­tralia. It is build­ing houses in Perth and Mel­bourne, where Eric sees a de­mand for lux­ury houses. With a high stan­dard of liv­ing and a rel­a­tively stable po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and fi­nan­cial en­vi­ron­ment, he be­lieves Aus­tralia’s prop­erty mar­ket has much room for growth, and is con­fi­dent that homes with so­phis­ti­cated de­sign con­cepts will match the mar­ket’s needs. When his team of ar­chi­tects asked if he was con­cerned about

“I have very strong in­stincts when it comes to houses; they com­mu­ni­cate with me. And when I saw this one, my first in­stinct was to buy it”

the use of ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als, such as im­ported Ital­ian tiles, bump­ing up his prop­er­ties’ prices, the car lover replied with an­other anal­ogy. “No mat­ter what car you choose, you can still ar­rive at the same des­ti­na­tion. Why do some peo­ple choose a lux­ury sports car? It’s be­cause they are pay­ing for the so­phis­ti­cated fin­ishes and the brand.”

FU­TURE READY

By fo­cus­ing on tan­gi­ble de­sign and the in­tan­gi­ble sense of ease and com­fort that it can evoke, Eric is also pre-empt­ing the short life­span of trendy tech­nol­ogy. This is an­other area where his ex­pe­ri­ence has proved valu­able. “We were one of the first to in­stall touch­screens in our prop­er­ties, and now ev­ery­one is do­ing that. If I fo­cus solely on tech­nol­ogy, I’ll end up sell­ing peo­ple prod­ucts of the past be­cause tech­nol­ogy al­ways ex­pires,” he ex­plains. That doesn’t mean that he is averse to tap­ping on the power of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion. Quite the con­trary, in fact—eric has a diploma in com­puter stud­ies and one of his ear­li­est busi­nesses was a firm that de­vel­oped soft­ware and hard­ware to im­prove his prop­erty busi­ness op­er­a­tions. Th­ese days, his in­ter­est in tech­nol­ogy is fo­cused on the bleed­ing edge of change. In May 2018, he ac­quired Ja­panese for­eign ex­change trad­ing com­pany, FX Trade Fi­nan­cial Co, and its af­fil­i­ate cryp­tocur­rency trad­ing com­pany, Bit­trade. That made him the first for­eign in­vestor to hold a 100 per cent stake in a Ja­panese Fi­nan­cial Ser­vice Agency-li­censed reg­u­lated ex­change, of which there are only 16 in Ja­pan. A few months later, dig­i­tal as­set ex­change Huobi Ja­pan took a ma­jor­ity stake in Bit­trade. Through this strate­gic part­ner­ship, both par­ties plan to ag­gres­sively scale Bit­trade in terms of its range of ser­vices and global reach. That same year, Eric also started a ven­ture cap­i­tal fund, Cap­i­talx, to in­vest in dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions of blockchain, the tech­nol­ogy at the heart of cryp­tocur­ren­cies. A dig­i­tal ledger com­pris­ing cryp­to­graph­i­cally linked data stored across a de­cen­tralised com­puter net­work, blockchain’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties for pro­vid­ing a trans­par­ent and se­cure data­base is in­creas­ingly viewed as a po­ten­tial game changer for many in­dus­tries. Many gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions are now in­vest­ing in re­search and de­vel­op­ment in this area, and Eric firmly be­lieves that blockchain will be­come widely adopted. “A stream­lined, con­nected and trans­par­ent work­flow sys­tem is what most peo­ple want,” he says. “If I don’t en­ter this space to­day, I think I’ll look back in three years’ time and re­gret it.” This is an­other in­stance of his pen­chant to make quick de­ci­sions, and while build­ing lux­ury homes and in­vest­ing in blockchain may seem like very dif­fer­ent busi­nesses, both ven­tures re­veal an en­tre­pre­neur who is think­ing long-term. With blockchain, Eric be­lieves that a new tech­no­log­i­cal par­a­digm will soon emerge. With Sevens Group, he has a more per­sonal as­pi­ra­tion. His two sons are aged 13 and 11, and he is al­ready bring­ing them to build­ing sites “to con­nect with them by shar­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence”, he says. “I hope that one day my sons can take over this busi­ness and bring it to greater heights.” For the present mo­ment, though, Eric has a much sim­pler goal in mind. “I want to spend more time with my fam­ily. Ev­ery suc­cess­ful man has a lov­ing fam­ily be­hind him, and I am very blessed to have their sup­port”.

HER­ITAGE CHARM This Make­peace Road in­ter-ter­race house is prop­erty de­vel­oper Eric Cheng’s first restora­tion project, and fea­tures such as its orig­i­nal wooden doors have been lov­ingly con­served

FULL OF DRIVE An avid car lover, Eric ap­pre­ci­ates the at­ten­tion that mar­ques such as Rolls-royce and Fer­rari pay to the finer de­tails—a re­flec­tion of his phi­los­o­phy when it comes to build­ing houses

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