Puah Tze Shyang, the man CapitaLand put in charge of its China investments, admits that he is something of an enigma. The newly appointed Chief Investment Officer of CapitaLand China (CLC) who is also the Regional General Manager of Southwest China has a Masters of Engineering (First Class Honours) degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. Yet he once harboured dreams of reading Law because of his “love of literature and the English language”. Having worked in China for years, he is effectively bilingual, drawing on Chinese proverbs to make his point, yet peppering his conversation with Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) phrases like a true Singapore son. He enjoys working and playing in teams yet spends every birthday in solitude.
“I don’t celebrate my birthday. It falls on 3 January. Since it is the beginning of the year, I will spend time alone by the breakwater at East Coast Park from dawn to dusk meditating and reflecting on the year past and the one to come,” he shares.
There must be something to be said about defying definition because everything 43-year-old Mr Puah touches has turned to gold.
Winning at Work
The HDB (Housing and Development Board of Singapore) overseas scholar who picked the statutory board over three other scholarship offers because he wanted a job that would let him “serve as many people as possible” joined CapitaLand through its acquisition of Surbana Corporation in 2011. Mr Puah was CEO of Surbana Land at the time.
When he became the CEO of CapitaLand Township, he led the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Group to grow over RMB 13 billion of residential sales. La Botanica Township became the best-selling project in residential unit sales in Xi’an in 2014 and putting it among the top 10 best-selling projects in Chengdu in 2010. It would seem that he had stumbled on a formula for success in the fiercely competitive China real estate market.
Among his most memorable triumphs was getting Chengdu Century Park, a residential development currently under construction, ready for sale within six months.
“In West China, it is quite common for local developers to take just six months from acquiring a piece of land to launching the project for sale. Due to our systematic processes we were sometimes taking up to 18 months. Management laid down the challenge to speed up our time-to-market,” explains Mr Puah who added the position of City General Manager of Chengdu to his responsibilities in 2013.
Speeding things up by a whole year may seem insurmountable but he managed to do it. Chengdu Century Park was ready for sale within six months.
“It took a lot of heart, working closely with people on the ground, and being meticulous about the things that really matter. When we thought out of the box, we were able to work on things concurrently instead of sequentially and that helped to shorten the time to market,” says Mr Puah who is currently based in Chengdu.
Another critical factor that helped Mr Puah make the tight timeline was a deep understanding of local market needs. Through his decade-long experience in Surbana Land, for example, he had learnt that the average Chinese buyer valued lush landscaping but would readily forgo the ensuite bathroom in the master bedroom in favour of lower pricing or simply more storage space.
“You can’t use the Singapore way to understand China. You have to constantly review what the local buyers want. Ultimately, Chinese buyers value functionality over aesthetics. You can turn an 80 sqm unit into a three-bedder at the expense of size and comfortable living space in each room. That extra room is important to them and it does not matter if it’s small. In China, creative design is about eking out more usable space in every unit, especially if the buyers do not have to pay for it.”
He elaborates, “These days, most buyers look for a home which will meet their mid- to long-term needs as policies in China tend to be quite restrictive. This reinforces the behaviour where their functional needs take priority over other considerations.”
Because of his breakthrough with Chengdu Century Park, Mr Puah has been tasked to lead a group within CapitaLand China to look into re-engineering business processes across regions for residential developments to hasten time to market and, thereby, increase the Group’s competitive advantage.
As for his views on the Southwest China market, Mr Puah shared, “China is about 50% urbanised now. This trend of urbanisation will continue to drive growth in the mid-term. While coastal cities like Shanghai have established themselves as urban hubs, there is still immense potential in the inner cities, for example those in the Southwest region. Chengdu is the provincial capital of Sichuan and it will be a future metropolis. People in Sichuan province aspire to move to Chengdu to seek better employment opportunities, better education and a better life in general. Chengdu, together with Chong Qing and Xi’an are primed to be gateway cities in future, generating fresh momentum and sustained demand for real estate.”
Aside from quality residential developments, CapitaLand has also left its mark in the Chengdu skyline with its iconic Raffles City Chengdu which opened in September 2012. In June 2015, the sprawling integrated development comprising a mall, Grade A offices, an Ascott serviced residence and premium residential apartments – was crowned the World Gold Winner, Retail category at the FIABCI Prix d'Excellence Awards 2015. “FIABCI is the Oscars-equivalent of the property world and Raffles City Chengdu is the first commercial development in China to win a FIABCI Gold award for Retail.”, Mr Puah beams as he proudly declares.
Winning Leadership Style
Asked about his leadership style, Mr Puah paused to consider.
“I strongly believe in leading by example. I like to work with teams and enjoy working shoulder to shoulder with everyone. Something I learnt during National Service (NS) continues to stand me in good stead – just because someone gives you a rank doesn’t make you a leader. You have to gain their respect through your actions.”
While earning his Executive Masters of Business Administration (Honours) degree from Chicago Booth School of Business in 2010, his professor also gave him a piece of advice about leadership that he has taken to heart.
“He told me: incentives drive behavior. It works for economies, companies, at home, in fact, all aspects of life. Offer people the right incentives and they will generate behavior to achieve the set goal,” says Mr Puah.
“With my team in China, I used pride to incentivise them to meet the six-month timeline for Chengdu Century Park. I told them: wouldn’t you feel proud to be the first to achieve this goal?”
The formula also works well at home.
“My wife complains that our 10-year-old son refuses to obey her. But I tell him: do your work and you get one hour on the iPad, and it works,” laughs Mr Puah whose wife, son, and eight-year-old daughter live in Singapore. Whenever he is back in Singapore for meetings, he will squeeze in some precious family time with them.
On the Winning Team
An alumnus of premium schools – Nanyang Primary, Chinese High, and Hwa Chong Junior College – Mr Puah has always excelled academically.
“I believe in hard work. It is part of my work ethic.”
He has also been a winner in the sporting arena. He represented his primary school in badminton and table tennis, was the captain of his secondary school track and field team, and competed for his college in football and cross country. Once, he even donned national colours in a regional age-group competition for middle-distance racing.
“I prefer working in teams. I feel energised when I am with people, working shoulder-to-shoulder with them. The type of sports I pick are usually team sports including dragon boating and soccer. On my own, I am quite low-key and private. I also believe in humility because ego can bring a leader down so you constantly remind yourself to care for people and show respect.”
The only solo sport he truly enjoys is skiing, something he picked up as an undergraduate. Every winter, he will travel to Japan, Korea or the US to ski. He shares with exuberance about his first skiing experience in Andorra, Spain.
“I was bored with the lesson which was compulsory for all first-timers. In my restlessness, I sneaked to the intermediate "reds" before venturing to the toughest "black slopes". When I looked down, I realised that it was too steep but there was no way down except to ski down or to walk down which would take five hours,” he recalls with mirth.
“The chair-lift operator told me: If you get lost in the darkness, we will send a St. Bernard after you. His barrel of rum will keep you warm!”
Unfazzled, and not willing to risk the five-hour hike down the mountain, he chose to challenge the slope and managed to make it down safely, albeit with several scrapes and bruises.
“After that, I said: ok, only black slopes for me from now on!”
Winning Against the Odds
In a life seemingly paved with only success, Mr Puah admits there have been moments when the odds were stacked against him. Although he was assigned to the elite Officer Cadet School during his NS, that turned out to be one of the toughest times in his life. His officer was particularly tough on the cadets. In fact, Mr Puah still bears scars from a particularly torturous training session during which the flesh on his fingers was ripped off when he had to crawl through thickets full of thorns while being taunted by his officer.
“I refused to give up. I was fighting for my place in OCS, for my integrity, and my personal pride in my ability,” says Mr Puah who was the fittest recruit in his company and its top marksman.
He also had to rise above family poverty in his youth.
“My mother had to take on three jobs sometimes to provide for my older sister and I,” he says.
Perseverance, hard work, and team work - these factors make up Mr Puah’s winning formula in life, one which looks set to prolong his winning streak as he pursues his new role as Chief Investment Officer of CapitaLand China and Regional GM of Southwest China.