Articulate, urbane, and sharp as a tack, Chris Chong, 42, is just what you would expect of the man helming ION Orchard, one of Singapore’s most luxurious malls. The CEO of Orchard Turn Developments, Mr Chong manages both ION Orchard, and oversees the marketing for high-end residential development, The Orchard Residences which sits above the mall. A quick glance at his background and one can see why he seems perfectly suited for the job. He speaks fluent French, a legacy of years spent in France; rattles off the names of luxury brands with ease; and is constantly in touch with the latest shopping trends. What does not quite match the picture is the fact that Mr Chong is really an engineer by training.
“But I have not worked a day in my life as an engineer,” he confesses with a laugh.
The former Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College boy who excels in Mathematics and who would go on to win an EDB (Economic Development Board) scholarship maintains that, contrary to popular belief, his engineering training laid a solid foundation for what he does today.
“Retail is more a science than an art,” he explains.
“You need to look at the numbers to provide useful data to the tenants – how many tourists, how much they spend, what they spend on. It can be quite scientific combing through the data to come up with a strategy.”
Creating Blue Ocean Opportunities
Mr Chong’s unique perspective on the retail business is not the only time he has had a different take on things. While his peers picked the United States and Britain for their tertiary education, Mr Chong picked France. The choice would create blue ocean opportunities for him throughout his career.
“I had studied French as a third language but had never travelled to Europe. I thought it would be a good opportunity and the sense of adventure drew me there,” he says.
The French system’s strong emphasis on pure mathematics prepared him for more than just the rigorous national exams.
“It gave me good grounding on how to look at things critically, how to solve problems, and how to apply it in the business world.”
Studying in French also brought other benefits. Recently when top executives of a French luxury label visited their flagship store at ION Orchard, Mr Chong was able to host them entirely in French.
“It certainly made an impression and helped them to remember us better,” he quipped.
Upon graduation, Mr Chong served his bond with EDB by working in its Paris office for about five years. But the desire to “control my own profit and loss so I can see the results directly” led him on another path. Once again, he picked the seemingly unexpected – luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH, which saw him working in Paris and Hong Kong.
“It felt natural to work for a French company given my background. Since luxury retail is one of the things the French are good at, it was the obvious choice. I thought: there had to be something to learn and see from the experience.”
Developing the ION Orchard Story
Now, 18 months into his job since joining Orchard Turn Developments in 2013, Mr Chong has put his knack for taking the more creative route to great effect. For him, managing the mammoth ION Orchard is more than marketing mall space.
“Creating an ideal tenant mix is not just about fetching high rents. It is an expression of who we think we are, it is about developing our story for our shoppers and investors, and remaining true to that story when we think about our tenant mix. We need to convince tenants why they need to be at ION even if they already have a store in another mall. It is almost like curating a museum. If you have uninteresting artefacts, would people come?” he reasons.
Mr Chong is firm about the ION Orchard story. “ION Orchard is about the experience. We offer our customers the best of that brand or franchise. Even if the same brand exists in another mall, we offer them a unique range they cannot find elsewhere. When we curate retailers, we are sensitive to this story,” he says.
Because of this intimate understanding of managing a mall, Mr Chong is very careful that the ION Orchard story is consistent from the choice of location to service standards. Every month, tenants’ frontline staff who provide excellent service are recognised and given CapitaVouchers as a form of reward. Just as he gives the best to his tenants, he expects the same from them. Mr Chong has been known to take service staff to task for their less-than-spectacular service.
“If you ask for the best space in the mall, you should be prepared to put your best store manager there.”
Leading from ground up
Being hands-on is Mr Chong’s preferred style of leadership. He devotes an afternoon every week catching up with different store managers. Sometimes on weekends, with his wife and two girls aged 10 and 12 in tow; he would spend some time walking through the mall.
“Retail is detail,” he says of his ground-up style.
“We have a diverse tenant mix – four floors of high street, four floors of luxury. They all require different touch points, different leasing and marketing approaches. In terms of operations, we have to walk the ground and get our hands dirty.”
In fact, one of the things Mr Chong did when he took over the business was to go straight to the back room – the M&E; (Mechanical and Engineering) room.
“I learnt this from my previous jobs – the things you should first look at when you come to a new building are the things you don’t usually see, like the back rooms. It will tell you about the state of maintenance and what more needs to be done.”
But his vision is for bigger changes – to take on the challenges he is sure the retail business will face in the future.
“The tech-savvy youths of today are already shopping online. In five to eight years, they will grow up and have their own disposable income. There’s no turning back, the trend will stay and become even more prevalent. To remain relevant, we need to be serious about implementing e-commerce,” he notes.
Mr Chong believes omni-channel retailing where several platforms – retail stores, online stores, mobile and mobile app stores, as well as social media – may be the way forward. And, he is unafraid to challenge norms. For example, he envisions an ION Orchard app that allows shoppers to make purchases from changing rooms or after they have left the store. E-lookbooks is another idea he is toying with. The digital catalogue will link shoppers to an e-commerce site for easy purchases and items in the lookbook can only be bought via this site. At the ION food court where tourists make up 40% of customers every day, an electronic, multi-lingual menu to teach these foreign visitors how to order local food will be very handy.
Mr Chong admits that going the high tech way may mean re-thinking leasing terms and rental structures to make broadband and wireless technologies standard clauses; or re-inventing how space in the malls is used. For someone accustomed to taking a different path from his peers, changes are but par for the course.
“When I was in Secondary 2, I had to represent my class in a Chinese oratorical competition and I was scared. But my teacher told me that when you take the mike, you have to take the stage. You need to have confidence to do the job given to you and do your best.”
With his global mindset, inclusive leadership style and a penchant for spotting trends and challenging norms, Mr Chong is set to make waves in the blue ocean of retail real estate.