He deals with millions of dollars on a daily basis. As the Chief Financial Officer of CapitaLand China, Steve Gong is the man behind the company’s finance, accounting, investment, and legal affairs. But Mr Gong is, at heart, a man of simple needs.
“Growing up, we were not well off. To be able to eat eggs and meat was a luxury we could only afford during the Chinese New Year. My favourite dish is my mom’s danjiao (蛋饺), egg dumplings with meat in the centre. Till today, this dish, however simple, is still the most delicious I have eaten. Nothing quite compares to it,” he reminisces.
He has an equally simple approach to life, one that has seen him through the worst and best of times.
“Life is about balance,” he shares. “Where there is good, there is also bad and vice versa. So, if you encounter a problem, know that there is good somewhere as well. Instead of sweating the little things, look ahead for solutions instead. Learn to look at the positive side of things. Then, you will be happy.”
The Right Place at the Right Time
This sanguine outlook was what kept him buoyant in his initial years at CapitaLand China. The year was 2002. Mr Gong had just joined the company. The world economy was in the doldrums and the property industry in China was looking less than upbeat. But CapitaLand China foresaw a recovery and decided to restart a major project – Raffles City Shanghai. Unfortunately, not everyone shared the same foresight.
“We talked to several banks but none of them wanted to support the project. We also faced challenges with the design of the development, and dealing with the shareholders,” he says about the mixed development.
“It was difficult but it was worth it. We worked hard as a team and we succeeded in the end.”
Eventually, he managed to convince DBS Bank, the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) Bank, and United Overseas Bank (UOB) to back the project. Today, Raffles City Shanghai is an iconic brand in China.
“Mention Raffles City Shanghai and everyone knows where it is,” he says with obvious pride.
The brand has been so well-received, there are now eight Raffles City developments throughout the country.
“It was sheer good timing on my part, being in the right industry at the right time. Shortly after I joined CapitaLand China, the property industry began to pick up. The last decade has been the golden era of real estate. I believe it was Fate and I was just taking advantage of the opportunities that arose,” says Mr Gong.
From acquiring the land to doing feasibility studies, negotiating with banks for good rates, managing the projects for maximum profits, dealing with stakeholders as well as local governing bodies – Mr Gong has done it all. As the Chief Financial Officer for CapitaLand China, Mr Gong is one of the highest ranking staff of CapitaLand in China and has become a role model for many Chinese employees of the company.
With over 5,000 employees in China, Mr Gong believes that CapitaLand, despite being a company headquartered in Singapore, provides equal opportunities to all staff.
“No matter where we are from, we are all part of the CapitaLand family. We are a team. Everything you do, you need to be passionate about it, be responsible and confident. Then, you can do well and grow with the company,” says Mr Gong.
Lessons from the West
Mr Gong’s style of leadership is surprisingly liberating. He believes that to build confidence in his staff, he has to let them try without fear of reproach when they fail.
“I tell them to try and not to be afraid of making mistakes. I tell them that if they fail, it isn’t their fault, it’s mine. I take the responsibility as their superior,” he says. “Of course, they can’t keep making the same mistakes.”
Knowing that he has their backs, he believes, frees his staff to stretch to their fullest potential.
“Knowing that I trust them makes them happy. When they are happy, they are more willing to try harder. Alone, I can only achieve so much. But if we think together and work as a team, we can do so much more for the company.”
This management philosophy is something he picked up from his years working with Xerox China. He was with the American company for close to a decade and was their Chief Financial Controller.
“I went to work with them at a time when China was opening up to the West. I happened to be there at the right time. From the Westerners, I learnt a more open style of management. I also learnt about risk management and how to spot challenges before they happen so as to better manage them,” says Mr Gong.
Lessons from the East
From the East, Mr Gong learnt the value of team work and communication. Like all youths of his generation, he was sent to live and work in a commune when he completed his secondary education. Then only 18, Mr Gong worked from dawn to dusk for the next five years growing anything from cotton to corn.
“It was good training for me,” he admits. “I am not afraid of hardships because I have lived through it. Living and working with so many youths, you learn how to communicate with people and get along with them.”
Some of his best friends today, says Mr Gong, are those he made while at the commune. There, he was given his first managerial role. He performed so well that he was given the responsibility of overseeing the group of over 100 workers.
Mr Gong is quick to see the good of it all. In fact, he has brought his 27-year-old daughter to visit his old commune to remind her of the importance of hard work.
“She was shocked at the living conditions. We slept on dirt floors then,” he chuckles.
But Mr Gong sees the balance in life.
“When we were young, life was difficult. But because of that we all learnt to be more independent. My five siblings and I can cook and do household chores. We had to because our parents worked. If we didn’t, there would be no one to do these things,” he says.
Even now, Mr Gong would cook simple dishes on weekends for his wife and daughter.
“I have a sweet tooth. So, my dishes tend to be on the sweet side. My daughter doesn’t appreciate my cooking, though. She says my repertoire is limited,” he laughs.
With a positive outlook in life, Mr Gong is able to see the positive side of things and and appreciate even the simplest things. Indeed, he is a man who has a firm grasp on the important things in life.