As a fresh graduate from civil engineering whose first job was to study soil samples, Teresa Teow did not imagine that, one day, she would be making a living studying shopping trends instead. Indeed her path into the retail industry was purely accidental and not planned. Windows of opportunities opened for her along the way and one thing led to another. Yet, this is how she has carved out a career for herself for well over two decades, beginning in the early 1990s as Senior Marketing Officer with DBS Land (which merged with Pidemco Land to form CapitaLand in 2000), to becoming Head of Retail Management, CapitaLand Mall Asia three years ago. Today, Teresa oversees the centre management and group functions including leasing, marketing communications and operations in CapitaLand’s operational malls across the island.
“I enjoy what I do very much because the retail industry is very dynamic. It involves understanding the different aspects of the mall business from the trade mix to the tenant mix, shopper catchment, shopping trends, emerging brands, challenges faced by retailers and the evolving retail scene here and abroad,” says the 50-year-old mother of three.
“I love the challenge of interacting with different retailers and prospects. At the same time, shoppers are another group of customers we need to manage well. Both groups are important stakeholders in our business.”
It is her ability to keep a cool head when things gets tough that has made Teresa particularly adept at navigating the sensitivities of retailers and shoppers alike.
Cool at the Negotiating Table
Teresa recalls the days when asset enhancement initiatives at shopping malls were first introduced, and considered revolutionary at that time. An asset enhancement initiative refers to a proactive asset management approach, which includes, but is not limited to renovation, facility refurbishment and space reconfiguration that serves to unlock value in properties.
“It was tough then, having to change mindsets of not only tenants, but staff as well. Sometimes we get tenants who refuse to cooperate. We need to keep cool and remain patient during our negotiations, strategising how best to meet their needs without compromising on our objectives.”
Teresa believes in learning from the best in class. Hence there is no one person who has particularly shaped her leadership philosophy. “Over the years, I am grateful for the bosses I have worked for and who have mentored me. There have been bosses who are visionary and strategic, and also bosses who excelled in relationship building.”
Through all these experiences, Teresa has learned to strike a good balance of the different leadership styles, and this has helped her tremendously to adapt to tough situations at the negotiating table.
From Cold Calls to Firm Friends
A self-confessed introvert whose ideal day is one spent relaxing at home, Teresa says she still has to step out of her comfort zone to connect with people.
Doing so comes with its own rewards, though. Over the years, she has forged friendships with business contacts, something she finds very fulfilling.
“I recall a tenant, who runs a chain of ladies’ fitness centres, telling me how grateful he is for something that I had done for him many years ago, without which he would not be what he is today”, Teresa shares.
Teresa shared that she is now working with the “second generation” of some tenants, as their children are learning the ropes of their businesses. “It is almost like working with families, because I know the parents and now their children. Sometimes they even invite my colleagues and me to their children’s weddings!” she laughs.
Cool ideas to jazz up the shopping experience
Teresa and her team have to constantly try to create new and cool offerings targeted at different shoppers. In 2014, Lot One Shoppers’ Mall partnered Singapore Discovery Centre to celebrate Singapore’s 49 th birthday with an exhibition about being Singaporean. To cater to shoppers’ penchant for inter-activity, the mall added fringe activities such as opportunities to design their own tote bag and take selfies with the cartoon character cut-outs from the “So Singaporean” show.
Westgate, the newest of CapitaLand’s three malls in Jurong Gateway, brings Orchard Road to the heartlands. Apart from offering brands that are more commonly seen in the city, Teresa and her team added edgy attractions to enhance the shopping experience.
“We placed 3D art on the floors so shoppers could take photographs that immersed them in the picture. We created a Social Wall in the courtyard so people could share their pictures via social media on the spot.”
Being in the mall business also means keeping an eye out for developments around the malls. So Teresa is watching with great interest the upcoming development of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail that will have its Singapore terminus in Jurong East.
“We have three malls in Jurong Gateway – Westgate, JCube and IMM Building. There is already a lot of buzz in the area as Jurong Gateway develops into Singapore’s second Central Business District. Looking ahead, we are exploring how we can tweak our malls to tap on the business and leisure travelers using the High Speed Rail as well as to complement the amenities at the terminus.”
The Secret to Staying Cool
Through it all, Teresa has displayed a cool and calm demeanour.
This, she attributes to her supportive husband and three independent boys, aged 16, 18 and 20.
For someone who spends more than 12 hours away from home on week days, weekends are especially precious. The family makes it a point to have a meal together during weekends to make up for time apart during weekdays.
“Sometimes we also cycle as a family. We live in the East, so we cycle to the beach and followed by dinner at the hawker centre. It is really good bonding time for the family, and it also helps the three brothers get closer to one another”, Teresa observed.
The retail scene may be hot but keeping a cool head has ensured that Ms Teow continues to maintain CapitaLand’s position as one of the largest mall developers, owners, and managers in Asia. And that is certainly a cool feat.