His friendly, open manner is not what one would expect of a man of his position. Neither is his youthfulness. After all, he holds the positions of Chief Investment Officer of The Ascott Limited, Managing Director of Ascott China Fund Management Private Limited and Head of Business Development and Asset Management for Ascott REIT Management Limited. But Mr Gerald Yong is nothing if not affable.
“Maybe it’s because I come from a humble background,” says the 43-year-old whose parents were struggling clothes stall owners.
The youngest of 12 children has since come a long way from the days when he would follow his parents to their stall at pasar malams (night markets). His journey, he believes, is proof that in meritocratic Singapore, the sky is really the limit for someone willing to put in the effort.
“I believe in putting your heart into your job, and having a good work life balance at the same time. The process of giving your best at work is important – overcoming the challenges and whatever limitations we think we may have. We cannot dictate the outcome. But we can do our best,” he philosophises.
Maximising the Art of Persuasion
Mr Yong certainly has a knack for taking what he has and making the best of things, and he has the results to show for it. Early in his career with the real estate giant, he was given the responsibility of streamlining The Ascott Limited’s assets.
“It was a challenge because to get things off the ground, there was a fair amount of lobbying for support from internal staff, and getting people to take a fresh look at things,” he confesses.
He came through swimmingly, though. The next year, in 2006, he became a key member of the team that led the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of the Ascott Residence Trust (ART), a real estate investment trust with an initial portfolio size of S$860 million. At its inception, he headed the investment and asset management division with the REIT, spearheading the acquisition of several yield accretive properties in countries like Australia, China, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The negotiation skills he picked up in his years in Business Development were put to good use as he brokered deal after deal with different nationalities.
“In negotiations, you have to be sincere. You cannot approach them from an adversarial standpoint because you have to think long-term – what goes around comes around. I believe in being straight forward, genuine and transparent,” Mr Yong shares.
“Every company wants everything. So you have to discern what it is that each side truly needs from the deal and then find a balance. You have to be focussed on the big picture, and know when to let go.”
Mr Yong counts his four-year posting to Shanghai between 2008 and 2012 to head the Business Development unit in Ascott China as another highlight of his career in CapitaLand. Despite the unfortunate timing, because the Great Financial Crisis coincided with the first two years of his stay there, he managed to fully invest the fund. By 2011, the fund had fully deployed the US$500 million committed equity across 10 serviced residences and one branded residential project in China.
“But I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I don’t play mahjong,” he says with reference to the activities favoured by the Chinese when entertaining business partners.
He does, however, have one thing that has helped to smooth talks with the locals. Mr Yong is a talented singer, which comes in handy since the Chinese love to karaoke. He has taken voice lessons and even came in second in the national singing competition, Sing Singapore in 1998.
Rising Above a Simple Past
Coming from a family that was so poor that three of his sisters had to be given away, Mr Yong learnt early in life that the way to a better future was through doing well in school. After his PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), he went from a neighbourhood school to Raffles Institution.
“My father was a great fan of the former Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew,” says Mr Gerald Yong, explaining his choice of the alma mater of modern Singapore’s founding father.
Two years at Raffles Junior College followed before he received a SembCorp Industries scholarship to study Mechanical Engineering at the National University of Singapore. He obtained an Honours degree and spent some years serving his bond. But Mr Yong never felt Engineering was his passion.
“I’m a failed engineer,” he jokes. “I had done Engineering because it was a pragmatic thing to do and I am a pragmatic person. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do then.”
A few years in the workforce soon sorted that out.
“I realised I wanted to learn more about business and finance.”
So, he got a Chevening scholarship offered by the British Foreign Commonwealth Office and earned a Master of Business Administration (Distinction) degree specialising in Corporate Finance and Financial Markets from the Imperial College Business School.
Going Beyond the Formalities
Since making the switch to Business, Mr Yong has found his bliss.
“I am someone who loves my job and pursues it,” he says.
His dedication has put him in one managerial position after another. But he maintains he not one who likes formalities.
“In negotiations, the other party is always treated as your equal because we are all ambassadors of our respective companies no matter what our positions within the organisations are,” explains the bachelor who owns two dogs whom he spends time with when not making million-dollar deals.
“So, I am used to treating people as equals. I value sharing and open dialogue. I enjoy debate and I am not afraid of being corrected if I am wrong. I’m naturally inquisitive so I want to find out the truth and learn.”
Just as Mr Yong refuses to limit others to their positions or backgrounds but instead lets them share their opinions with him as equals, his life is also evidence that he has not been limited by his humble background. He has proved that career choices can be changed with great success and that, if you put your heart and soul into it, you can achieve your potential and more. The sky is truly the limit.