“Life is an adventure and I am an adventurous person,” declared Mr Chen Lian Pang, Chief Executive Officer, CapitaLand Vietnam at the start of the first-ever In Conversation with CEOs outside of Singapore.
The informal talk is part of a series initiated a year ago to allow the Group’s Gen Y employees to get to know their bosses beyond the workplace. The In Conversation talk in Ho Chi Minh City saw about 80 of the company’s employees there gather to learn from the veteran CapitaLand leader whose career spanned nearly 30 years and covered different aspects of the property industry.
The Malaysian-born Mr Chen certainly demonstrated a spirit of adventure when, as an 18-year-old small-town boy from Sitiawan, Malaysia, he headed for the United Kingdom to pursue a Civil Engineering degree. That same spirit of adventure later propelled him to take up a job offer from the Housing Development Board (HDB) in Singapore after graduating with a First Class Honours from the University of Cardiff even though he had never been to Singapore before.
Adventures Begin With A Plan
But the decision to join Singapore’s largest property developer then was not made in haste. Mr Chen had a plan to start off with a bang.
“Join a good company,” he advised the young participants. “A large company will allow you to try different things. Then, you can learn.”
And learn he did. His nine-year tenure at HBD allowed him to be involved in various facets of property development, from structural design and technical work in the early years, to managing the rental of metal forms to contractors, and, finally, to heading the piling section. It also gave him his first taste of the business end of construction, a lesson that would come in handy later in his career.
“I had to take care of the P & L (profit and loss) and even came up with a system to check on the quality of work being done by the contractors,” said Mr Chen.
Dare To Explore
His ventures into property development did not stop at his work life.
“I started investing in property as early as 1985, before I even got married,” he said.
His first investment was with his then girlfriend and now wife.
“We borrowed $23,000 from my mom and co-invested in a private apartment. I never thought about what would happen if we were to break-up,” he told the participants with a laugh.
The investment turned out to be a profitable one on all fronts. He got the girl and the cash.
“We sold it after three years and made good money,” Mr Chen revealed.
Since then, the Chens have not stopped investing in property (sell high, buy low), and they have never lived in a place for more than three years.
Persevere on Your Path
Soon his adventures would take him to another country altogether. He joined an engineering and contracting services firm company and was sent to Taiwan to oversee two of its loss-making construction companies there.
“That was my first time running a company, being totally responsible. I had no training in finance. I didn’t even know how to read the Profit and Loss finance sheet in the beginning. That was a challenging time,” Mr Chen recalled.
But he persevered.
“I learnt to manage different working cultures.”
By the time he left, the operations had turned around from loss making to break even.
“Perseverance is very important,” he shared with his attentive listeners.
The perseverance that refused to let him give up in Taiwan was the same one that saw him through numerous projects with Pidemco Land and then with CapitaLand when it merged with DBS Land in 2000, including Westlake Hotel in Vietnam to Capital Tower, One George Street and Clarke Quay in Singapore and Raffles City Shanghai in China.
“Working on Westlake Hotel in Vietnam and Raffles City Shanghai was a challenge. This is where I gained in-depth experience as a project manager,” said Mr Chen.
The desire to learn was one of the reasons why he took up the offer to go to Thailand to be a CEO of a joint venture, his next adventure.
“Don’t be afraid to try new things. When you do different things, that’s when you learn.”
In what he admitted was his “most challenging assignment in CapitaLand”, Mr Chen learnt how to start a company from scratch – forming a board, starting a Human Resource department, putting together a marketing team, recruiting and training the staff. But because of what he learnt there, going to China to manage three start-ups in three separate cities – Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan – was a cinch. In his nearly three decades of his career, Mr Chen was also involved in setting up another three start-ups, namely in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok.
Looking back, Mr Chen has few regrets.
“Most things worked like how I hoped it would,” he said of his career path. “If I had to do it again, I would still be a civil engineer. It trains you to be practical. A lot of what I do relates to the kind of training I got as a civil engineering.”
His son, he shared, is studying to be a Civil Engineer, too.
When pushed to reveal something personal about himself, Mr Chen let on with a smile, “Maybe I would have liked to be a musician. I play the guitar. I even wrote a song when I was young. I like sentimental songs. I’m a sentimental person. I like romantic movies especially Korean dramas. It is very relaxing.”
Plan, explore, persevere – these were lessons this adventurer in life imparted to his Vietnam counterparts. These and the fact that at the heart of every adventurer is a sensitive soul and his strength to chart new frontiers.