CEO of CapitaLand Vietnam Limited, Mr Chen Lian Pang, is, as one potential joint venture partner describes, ‘firm but friendly’. Beneath his down-to-earth accessibility lies a tough-as-nails character that has brought him far in his career.
A sportsman in his youth and a martial arts practitioner, Mr Chen has been the man at the forefront of CapitaLand’s ventures into new markets in the nearly 19 years that he has been with the organisation. Whether in China, Thailand, or now Vietnam, Mr Chen has been adept at establishing successful businesses, his adventurous spirit propelling him ever further.
Here, he shares with Insidefive tips that have ensured him success as he conquered new frontiers.
1. Open Yourself to Challenges
Being open to challenges was exactly how Mr Chen ended up heading a company in Taiwan, a place he had never worked or lived in.
It was 1995 and he was headhunted to join a listed company as its Deputy Chief Executive Officer / Country Director in the country. He did not ask a single question or express any doubt about the posting.
“I told the CEO: it’s okay, I will find out about it when I get there,” he laughs.
“The boss called me bo kia see (fearless in the Hokkien dialect). My colleagues joked that I was mm zai see (clueless about my limitations). I like challenges. I am always pushing my boundaries and asking: is there anything that I have not tried my hand at that I can do?”
That is how this engineer with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering First Class Honours from the University of Cardiff, United Kingdom and a Master of Science Civil Engineering from the National University of Singapore ended up venturing into new territories and making the world his oyster.
2. Never Give Up
New markets are often challenging ones. Tenacity is required to soldier through and see success. In his year in Taiwan, Mr Chen faced insurmountable problems.
“When I joined, the company had been losing money for six consecutive years. We were TWD$60 million in the red. We had no money to pay staff,” he recounts.
“At times, I asked myself why I was carrying on and working so hard. It wasn’t even my own company. But something inside me refused to let me give up.”
His strong belief in “a solution for every problem” and his resolute to persist and find that solution bore fruit. Within a year, Mr Chen turned the company around and it broke even. Perseverance won the day.
To stay steadfast and face difficulties in every new market he enters, Mr Chen often goes on ‘hardship holidays’. His last trip was to the Wudang Mountains for a martial arts camp which lasted two weeks.
“We wake up at five in the morning and train till 10 at night. The living conditions were bare – a timbre bed with a straw mattress, simple vegetarian meals. I came home with bug bites all over my hands. But it helps to build up endurance and perseverance in the face of difficulties,” reveals Mr Chen.
3. Get the Right Partner
Very often, working with a partner is a necessity when moving into a new market. Getting one with corporate values aligned with your own and someone you can trust are key criteria for Mr Chen.
“I always try to learn as much as I can about my potential joint venture partners. Even if I have no deals with them yet, I try to interact with them to find out how they work with other people and how their business is doing,” he says.
And when a partnership arises, Mr Chen has a few tried and tested methods to make the joint venture in the new market a success.
“I put aside my personal pride, try to be patient and explain my rationale for doing things. Over time, I gain their trust. They will then see that I am not fighting for my side at their expense and that I am transparent.”
4. Hire a Good Driver and Secretary
In each new place he goes to, hiring a good driver is usually his first order of business.
“You can ask your driver a lot of questions about locations. The driver I hired in Thailand used to be a taxi driver so he could give me the insider scoop on things such as which places had gang ties, which are the places that locals don’t like.”
A secretary fluent in English and the local language is another must-have. Then comes the Human Resource (HR) Manager.
“They are necessary because a good HR manager knows which recruitment agencies to approach, where to advertise for new employees. That is how you build up a new office.”
Once the office is settled, someone to oversee development sites is the next consideration. For this, Mr Chen trains his project managers and then deploys them to new cities he goes to.
Finally, he advises, “Get the right local people, inculcate them with the company’s core values and emphasise integrity. Without integrity, you cannot ensure quality, you will lose money.”
5. Listen to the Locals
Every market is unique. Talking to the locals for an insider’s take on the area is pertinent.
“They always say that in real estate the three key things are: location, location, location. But in Vietnam, it is ‘affordability, affordability, affordability’. You have to build something that the Vietnamese can afford. The Thai people, on the other hand, like bigger kitchens for entertaining and bigger bedrooms. So, don’t go into new markets with preconceived ideas,” says Mr Chen, underscoring the importance of understanding the local market.
“I tell my Singaporean staff: don’t say, we don’t do this in Singapore because the locals will tell you: this is not Singapore.”
Instead, he believes in talking to the locals to understand consumer psyche and market sentiments.
“I conduct workshops, I ask my local staff during sales and marketing meetings and I listen. Staff diversity is, therefore, very important when extracting knowledge. It gives you a good representation of the ground and a variety of viewpoints to work with.”