There is an energy and directness about Ms Cheng Ming that makes it easy to understand how this lady has managed to thrive in the largely male-dominated world of Design Management. The General Manager of Design management with CapitaLand China has been with the Group for 13 years and counting. That her favourite flower is the sunflower is telling of her vibrant approach to life and work.
“You can’t call it a beautiful flower. It’s more of a handsome flower. It has a lot of presence and it’s so striking. This is a flower that follows the sun and that is such a great concept,” said Ms Cheng.
Fearless in Managing Challenges
Much like the sunflower that follows the brilliant sun, Ms Cheng is one who recognises and embraces a great opportunity when she sees one. When she joined CapitaLand in 2001, she was responsible for the design management of primarily residential projects in Shanghai, China.
“Thereafter, I was offered the chance to do the design management for Raffles City Bejing and I said: yes! I thought it would be a challenge and a great experience,” she recalled.
Indeed, the project was a challenge for this trained architect. At more than 150,000 square metres, Raffles City Beijing was the first mixed-use development she had ever worked on and there was a lot to learn.
“We had to consider all the different users: how they would come and go in the building, which parts of the building would be assigned for what purposes and how much space to give for each purpose. We had to balance all their needs,” said Ms Cheng.
“Everyone lives in a home. So when it comes to residential projects, everyone knows what they want. But with mixed-used developments, not everyone knows how to select offices or retail spaces, what are the considerations or the specifications.”
Like the sunflower that reaches towards the best resource for its growth, Ms Cheng reached for the best resource for her work – market research. Learning about market needs and trends helped her to create residential properties sensitive to its users. So, she sought to discover what was in the market to help her in managing the design of Raffles City Beijing.
“We identified several projects we felt we should benchmark ourselves against and learnt from them – their lobby size, the size of their lift car, their car park space. Everything. That became our guide.”
Passionate in Pursuing a Vision
Working in China is nothing new to Ms Cheng. She was posted to Shanghai as early as 1996 when she was with architectural firm, Nikken Sekkei International.There, she had the opportunity to work on Xintiandi, a shopping and entertainment development in the city. The area is made up of reconstituted traditional mid-19 th century stone gate houses ( shikumen ) that have been transformed into cafes, restaurants, and shops.
It was a difficult time for Ms Cheng because she was put in charge of starting a branch office in Shanghai to manage the project. However, it was one that changed her career.
“Because of the project, I realised how important design management was, how important it was to be a good client. We would not have been able to do the project if the client didn’t have an in-house architect who understood what we wanted to achieve.”
In 2010, when Ms Cheng worked for CapitaLand China on Raffles City Changning, the experience she gained from dealing with buildings with historical value stood her in good stead.
“The development had an old school (the historic St. Mary's Girls School) in the middle. The architect didn’t want to deal with the building anymore because they had encountered so many problems in the past trying to work conservation into the project. It took me quite a long time to persuade them to engage the school’s open space and to incorporate the history of the site into the design.”
Her persistence not only paid off, it inspired the team as well.
“When we re-presented the design to the planning authority, they complimented our architect on the much-improved design,” said Ms Cheng with pride.
“To have everyone, not just me, take ownership of the project and want to do their best for it; that is so important.”
Today, that historical aspect of Raffles City Changning is the story that gives the development its unique character.
“I get a lot of satisfaction creating value like that,” she said of her projects to conserve old buildings and their history while giving them a new lease of life.
Understanding in Managing People
Ms Cheng may be determined but she does not believe in bull-dozing her way through. She maintained that being a working woman in China has not been an issue and there are many women in authority within the government as well.
“Being over-assertive as a woman is not necessary. Of course, you cannot speak with such a small voice that no one can hear you,” she laughed.
It is with this same balance of tough and tender that Ms Cheng deals with her staff.
“I try to bring out the best of my staff. I may set very high standards for them but it is because I believe that they can do it. I try to make them self-motivated. However, even as I push them, I also guide them. I tell them I am there if they need me to support them, and to help them.”
Determined in Living the Dream
Ms Cheng comes from a family of business people and architects. Her father owned an art gallery and her uncle is well-known architect, William Lim.
“I have always liked drawing. I always wanted to be in a design-related industry,” she confided.”
At that time, the only design-related course at the National University of Singapore was Architecture.
“I suppose if there were other design courses like product design, fashion or graphic design, I would have become something else.”
As it was, not only Ms Cheng but her older brother studied Architecture.
“Architecture provided me with a wonderful education. It teaches people to think because if you can’t think you can’t create. You learn from history and from yourself to create. It is art and science rolled into one,” she enthused.
She is not sure if her seven-year-old daughter will be an architect. But, like her, the little girl loves to draw.
“She likes to draw princesses. She makes me draw them with her but she tells me I cannot copy hers,” Ms Cheng laughed.
Her little girl, apparently, is as feisty as she is. Like the sunflower reaching towards the sun, Ms Cheng is one who reaches towards life and work with verve and vitality. She is fearless in the face of challenges and passionate in the pursuit of her vision, just like her favourite flower.