When Mr Lim Ming Yan was asked to head CapitaLand's business in China 15 years ago, some of his colleagues wondered if he had taken a misstep in his fledgling career.
After all, China was a minefield for CapitaLand back in 2000.
Several projects were fraught with planning approval issues, while many partners had major disagreements with the company. There was even a list of some 200 unhappy customers.
In short, many viewed the posting as a poisoned chalice, and not as a step up to the next big thing.
"People asked me why I would go. At that time, nobody wanted to go to China," he said.
But the former civil servant and military man saw opportunity in adversity. He worked hard to turn the business around, addressing each of the problems and talking to every disgruntled customer. He also took a year to build a core team and, eventually, he turned the business from a cost centre into a profitable unit.
The results speak for themselves. Back in 2000, China accounted for less than 9 per cent of the group's assets; today, its share is about 46 per cent, larger than its Singapore business.
Now, as CapitaLand's president and group chief executive officer, he looks back on his nine years in China as a tough but instructive period. "During difficult times, that's when you learn the most... about how to deal with all the different situations, and you learn that alone, you can only do so much."
EYE ON EXPANSION OVERSEAS
But CapitaLand is not resting on the laurels of its successful China venture, Mr Lim is already eyeing the next big market: India.
Speaking to The Straits Times in an interview in CapitaLand's sales office for Singapore condo project Marine Blue after a trip back from India, the 52-year-old is clearly enthusiastic about the prospects of the fast-growing economy. He noted that many big multinational firms have set up global support centres in Bangalore, for example, taking up several buildings at a go.
The company's presence in the country is still small. It has four shopping centres and one serviced apartment in operation, but more are on the way.
Mr Lim also sees both China and South-east Asia as growth engines for CapitaLand. Urbanisation and China's economic growth will continue to provide opportunities for the company, he said.
"A lot of people were asking me at the time, 'How long will you stay in China?' I'd say that I would be happy to stay as long as there is good business we can do in China. Until today, we continue to see good opportunities there."
Similarly, the region holds many opportunities for expansion and the company has started to invest in a big way in the neighbouring countries. In Vietnam, CapitaLand is selling more apartments and considering mixed developments and office assets. In Indonesia, it has started a pilot project for a mixed development.
But going overseas is also tough for a large firm such as CapitaLand as it is no longer enough to rely on a brand name.
"When we were first in China, when we put out something like this, it really wows the market. But after a few years, your local competitors will visit your showflat and they will learn everything and try to do exactly the same thing."
Instead, in today's globally competitive market, the key advantage has to be about adapting and continually adding value, something that Mr Lim believes CapitaLand excels at. He cites serviced apartment arm Ascott - which he helmed for about 21/2 years after his China posting - as a key strength. "We have a global network and the right branding that allows us to add value to our properties, not just our own but that of third-party owners'."
Similarly, the company remains strong on shopping malls - it has a network of 15,000 different retailers that it works with - and it is a key component of the firm's overall business. "I think we can bring in the right touch and feel, and design of the mall."
As for Singapore, even though the company has been relatively quiet here, the home front will remain an anchor for the company. "We are confident that in the medium to longer term, the Singapore market will continue to do well... We will continue to invest in it," he said.
A 'REAL' JOB
Asked about why he chose to join CapitaLand as a second career, following his stint in the civil service, Mr Lim said he was drawn to putting real estate - a capital-intensive business - and capital markets together, to do much more on the property front.
"In itself, real estate is already interesting. It's something you can see, touch and feel, and the space you create is only limited by your imagination. On top of that, if you can make better use of capital markets to help fund some of these developments and give the required return to all the stakeholders, that's where the possibilities are almost limitless," he said.
This drive to make a real difference in people's lives is what made him take the decision to step into the shoes of his former boss, Mr Liew Mun Leong, a stalwart of the firm who led CapitaLand for 12 years till he retired in 2012.
"The most important thing is whether you can make a difference," said Mr Lim. "I suppose when I was asked whether I wanted to be considered for this role, the first thing which came to my mind was, it's not going to be easy... Looking at the issues, I could not be 100 per cent sure I could solve all of them."
So far, though, the work he has done has been promising. The company, with $70.6 billion of real estate assets under management, reported net profits of $1.16 billion last year, up 38 per cent from 2013.
The punishing nature of his job, filled with daily meetings and regular trips overseas, means that there is little time for himself. When he does get some free time, Mr Lim, who is married with three sons in their 20s, turns to nature to free his mind and relax.
He often takes long walks at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to reflect on the more important things in life.
Said Mr Lim: "You realise how small you are, how temporary and transient human beings and you as an individual are. All your problems become small problems relative to the mountains you are seeing."
This article was first published on December 14, 2015.
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