The mention of time and space in the same sentence may make one think of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and how it introduced a new framework for Physics and proposed new concepts of space and time.
For Wong Car Wha, Regional General Manager of Northeast and Central China at CapitaLand Mall Asia, his perspective on time and space is a unique one. He has spent the past 19 years opening and managing 38 malls in 32 Chinese cities and watching its retail scene evolve.
Mr Wong recounts how he started his first day at work for Liang Court Holdings on January 28, 1996, at the Changi International Airport. Liang Court Holdings was later acquired by Pidemco Land which eventually merged with DBS Land to form CapitaLand in 2000.
“On my first day of work, the company sent me to Wuhan. So, I didn’t report to the office; I reported to my GM at the airport. I still remember that day vividly because it was also my birthday!” he recalls with a chuckle.
The Wuhan that Mr Wong landed in 19 years ago was a very different place from what it is today. “It was like Singapore decades ago. We were supposed to get a mall opened within a year but basic infrastructure was lacking. Wuhan was also experiencing a power shortage so different parts of the city had no power almost every night. On my first night, I looked out of my hotel room window and I saw total darkness. I asked myself: how are we going to open a shopping mall within a year? It was such a trying task that on my second day of work, I told my boss I wanted to resign but he convinced me to stay. We recruited a good team and managed to get the mall opened in 1997. Those were very challenging times because we had to start from ground zero,” he recounted.
That mall was CapitaMall Minzhongleyuan, the first of many shopping malls which Mr Wong would be involved in over his two-decade career with CapitaLand.
Of Trials and Triumphs
One of his biggest tests came in 2001, when he was assigned as General Manger (Retail) to open CapitaLand’s first Raffles City outside of Singapore.
“I was relocated from Wuhan to Shanghai mid-2001 to start preparation work for Raffles City Shanghai. The timing could not be worse. The development was scheduled to open in 2003. That same year, China was struck with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the economy was bad and sentiments were down. Travel was minimised so our tenants, partners and staff could not fly into or out of Shanghai. Our tenants’ confidence of the market was definitely shaken. So we were faced with a very tough task of securing tenants and getting the mall opened by the third quarter of that year,” Mr Wong related.
But the teams from China and Singapore worked relentlessly to convince its tenants and partners to get the mall ready for when the SARS situation eventually abated. “We had to be patient and stay focused. Slowly the tenants’ confidence picked up. Raffles City Shanghai had positioned itself as a mall that caters to the young and trendy in Shanghai – such niche marketing was a new concept in the market at that time. The leasing, marcom and operation teams together with the Singapore team and bosses helped to push this through. Our formula proved to be a hit among the young consumers of Shanghai. Today, Raffles City Shanghai remains one of the most iconic malls in China.” he proudly shared.
As if an epidemic wasn’t a big enough hurdle, Mr Wong had to take on the elements in another project. In 2011, when he took over as the Regional General Manager of CapitaLand Mall Asia’s Northeast China portfolio, he was tasked to open CapitaMall Xuefu which was then under construction in Harbin, a place heralded as the Ice City and well known for its winter tourism. "The mall was opened in one year despite all the construction challenges of building a mall in -30 degrees Celsius conditions. As you can imagine, a lot of the construction technology was new to us. For instance, we had to cater for three to four layers of insulation elements between us and the external environment due to the climate. We also learned that we needed to get the mall 100% air-tight. At -30 degree Celsius, if there is even a small hole that allows air in from the outside, the fire sprinklers will freeze and break. The water coming out of those burst sprinklers will freeze and we will have an indoor ice skating rink,” he says.
Besides that, the entire underground carpark had to have indoor heating so that the cars parked there would not get frozen. “The team had to study and take on board construction technologies and techniques unique to this part of the world. We learnt a lot and made some mistakes. But we are very proud that we actually constructed a mall under such harsh conditions. So if there is ever a project in Russia, I’m up for it!” he said in jest.
Same Space, Different Times and Tastes
CapitaLand’s latest mall in China opened in Wuhan in September 2015. The vibrant CapitaMall 1818 opened with an occupancy rate of over 90%. The mall is ideally situated in one of the three CBDs in Wuhan and has a direct subway connection, a rarity for a shopping mall there. Many first-to-market brands in Wuhan like Nanjing Impressions (南京大牌档), Meizhou Dongpo (眉州东坡), and Sushi Express, were also brought in.
“Because of these first-to-market brands, we managed to attract good office crowds during the weekdays and very good family crowds on the weekends.”
Times have indeed changed, Mr Wong observes of the retail landscape in China. In the early years, malls were mainly filled with fashion tenants. “There were very few F&B; tenants then because the market was not ready for it and the supply was not available either. These days, F&B;, children’s products and services as well as cinemas are crowd pullers and key revenue drivers,” he elaborated.
What has also changed is the way CapitaLand markets its malls. Mr Wong says, “19 years ago, we had to organise a lot of parties or events like sales to attract customers to the malls. Today, we engage them through mobile platforms like WeChat and CapitaStar - our multi-mall, multi-store rewards programme, to engage and keep our shoppers updated on latest promotions and events. Using CapitaStar, customers can do e-pre-queue to obtain coupons, accumulate reward points and find parking space in addition to other O2O (online to offline) experiences .”
He shared about plans to train the malls’ management teams to inculcate in them an Internet of Things mindset. The aim is to get them thinking about ways to leverage digital strategies for better engagement with shoppers and tenants. Strengthening collaboration with other mobile and online platforms is also in the pipeline.
When asked how he manages his time among the huge network of malls under his wings, Mr Wong stresses that teamwork and empowerment are key.
Understanding the cultural nuances in each city or region also helps.
The Group has strategically relied on a strong network of contractors and partners who have worked with them over the years. “They know and understand our concept of time as well as our expectations. For example, to work on a project in Qingdao, we engaged contractors from Shanghai and Shenzhen who are familiar with our pace and working style. We have also worked with tenants like Starbucks, Tai Hing and Watsons for the past 10-15 years so when we say we have to open the mall on a particular date, they understand immediately and will get their shops ready by then.”
Time Stands Still
For someone who has personally witnessed the urbanisation of various cities in China, Mr Wong observes that there are still pockets of places where time stands still. “Beijing is very interesting; amidst the skyscrapers, you will find century-old temples and teahouses that are steeped in history.”
If time permits and he could have a whole day to himself, Mr Wong would opt for the two-wheeler to take him on an adventure. “I would cycle down the hutongs (back lanes and alley ways) of the less touristy areas and into the outskirts and taste local street foods and capture the scenes with my iPhone,” the once kampong boy said.
Originally from Johor, Malaysia, Mr Wong graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in Real Estate in 1991. He recalls a time gone by, “I grew up in Johor. My kampong was very far away from town and we didn’t have electricity until we moved into town so that I could go to school. The first time I watched TV was when I was 6 years old. I remember back in the kampong we had outdoor screenings of Hindi and Tamil movies during the weekends, so I grew up watching those movies!”
So what has kept him motivated these past 19 years? “People say I am a positive person. In China, everyday is filled with challenges and surprises. You have to stay positive in order to overcome challenges or move on from a setback to find the solution to your problem. That has been my guiding principle since coming here 19 years ago.”
From almost throwing in the towel on his second day on the job, to staying the course for 19 years and making a lasting contribution to its retail landscape, this lifetime supply of positivity will continue to serve Wong Car Wha well.