Mr Lim Hua Tiong, General Manager of North Vietnam, CapitaLand Vietnam is a man on the move. In his 11 years with CapitaLand, he has worked in various business units and has been posted to different countries.
Knowing CapitaLand even before he joined the company certainly helped. Back in 2001, Mr Lim was one of the KPMG auditors who audited CapitaLand’s residential business for two years. So when the opportunity came to join the real estate giant as Senior Finance Manager, it seemed like a logical next step.
After three years in Finance, Mr Lim took on a new role to explore Vietnam as a potential market.
“I enjoy new challenges,” he admits. Despite the constant change, Mr Lim is not one to be easily fazed.
“My colleagues say it’s hard to tell whether I’m stressed because even if the sky falls down, I’m still smiling,” he says.
Indeed, a look at what he enjoys says a lot about the kind of man he is.
“I like driving long distances at night as I enjoy the quiet solitude,” he confesses.
Before he was based in Vietnam, the Alor Star native would drive from Singapore back to Malaysia to be with his extended family. The 12-hour journey would start at 9pm and end as the skies take on some colour.
“I love it. When the whole family is asleep in the car and I am left alone to reflect on my life, my job, what I’ve done right or wrong, and how I can improve myself. I also enjoy the challenge of staying awake all night. After these trips, I usually end up with a clearer sense of purpose.”
Changes of the Season
The University of Malaya graduate with an Accountancy Degree joined CapitaLand in August 2004 after five years as an auditor. His first role in finance set a good foundation which enabled him to take on bigger challenge. In early 2008, Mr Lim was tasked to head the investment team in Vietnam, a new market which CapitaLand was starting to expand into.
“That was an extremely challenging assignment,” he says. “Vietnam was a very new market for CapitaLand in 2008. While we had a lot of experience investing in, developing and marketing projects in Singapore, we had not gone through a full cycle of property development in Vietnam yet. So, there was a lot of ground to cover and things to learn about operating in Vietnam. For example, how we do make sure that our feasibility studies and investment assumptions would actually work? Back then, not many Vietnamese spoke good English so language was a real barrier. We couldn’t do anything without a translator.”
At that time, the new father of a baby boy was commuting to Ho Chi Minh City every week, spending half of the week there. It was tough juggling work and a young family, but his perseverance was rewarded when CapitaLand successfully acquired land for two residential properties – Vista Verde in Ho Chi Minh City and Mulberry Lane in Hanoi.
Different Seasons, Different Challenges
In 2012, Mr Lim took on a stint in CapitaLand China as VP Finance and Fund Management. His family moved to join him in Shanghai. In March 2013, they moved again to Ho Chi Minh City when he became General Manager of South Vietnam. His second sojourn into this emerging market was equally challenging compared to his first in 2008 when he helped set up the Vietnam office.
“Vietnam was going through an economic downturn back then. The years 2011 and 2012 were some of its most challenging years. The team spent the first six months having lots of discussions and doing market research just to decide what to do next,” he recalls.
“I’m a Finance guy. I’m good with numbers and strategy planning, but dealing with people was a whole new ballgame. We had to engage and motivate staff regularly as morale was low then. I also had to look into marketing strategies to determine where the gaps were and to make changes accordingly. There is one thing I learnt though, that is never give up no matter how difficult things may be because there’s always an opportunity to make a difference if you put your heart to tackle it wisely.”
What came next was a lot of hard work. Mr Lim learnt to work the ground to gain buyers’ confidence. Without any background in property management, he rolled up his sleeves and looked into improving building operations and even followed up on residents’ feedback. It was not easy, but eventually the team managed to turn complaints into compliments.
“In the end, these residents became our greatest advocates, promoting our brand,” he smiles.
In addition to operational reviews, Mr Lim and his team worked the local media to grow awareness and enhance CapitaLand’s brand positioning in Vietnam. Through media interviews and tours of CapitaLand properties, Mr Lim conveyed the brand attributes that CapitaLand is known for in Singapore and China – its multi-sector real estate development expertise, and its reputation for producing quality homes.
By the time the market showed signs of a turnaround, CapitaLand had won significant mindshare amongst home-buyers in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I’d say this role in Vietnam has been the most meaningful in my career thus far. Changing perceptions and turning a slow market to our advantage was very hard work, so I am particularly proud of the team for rising above the challenges and making things happen in the end.”
Today, CapitaLand has built an impressive portfolio of 7,850 quality homes across eight developments in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi as at September 2015. This is largely due to the vision and perseverance of the management.
Asked to describe his leadership style, Mr Lim said: “Leading a team is like sailing a ship. Everyone on-board must share the same vision and head in the same direction in order to move ahead.”
Expecting a New Season
For Mr Lim, the challenge is not over yet. He is wooing Hanoi next, spending three days a week in that city.
“In Hanoi, the people tend to be more nationalistic; that makes them resistant to foreign products and brands. This is a hurdle we need to cross."
The other challenge is how to have more quality time with his family, despite his hectic schedule.
“I travel every week and work late sometimes when I’m not travelling. I am grateful that Joyce and my boys have been very supportive of my work commitments. As a husband and father, I always try to make time for them.”
Every Saturday, Mr Lim will go to the driving range with his older boy, Xiang Jie.
“As he is still young, he would just swing the club wildly. What really matters is those few hours of bonding time for us. ”
Having been part of the team to steer CapitaLand’s Vietnam business through different seasons, Mr Lim’s adaptability and never-say-die spirit will continue to serve him well as he takes the business to new heights.