Ascott, one of the world’s leading international serviced residence owner-operators, has a remarkable global footprint. Today, its presence spans over 100 cities across 28 countries, a feat that Mr Tan Lai Seng, the company’s Regional General Manager for Japan and Korea, believes is possible because of the strong partnerships it forges in different markets.
“Entering a market, especially a mature one, can be challenging in numerous ways. When the industry is dominated by a few large players, for example, collaborating with local partners makes it much easier for us to get a foot in,” said Mr Tan.
To illustrate this, Mr Tan points to Ascott Marunouchi Tokyo — the first luxury serviced residence in Japan under the Ascott The Residence brand, which is slated to open on 30 March this year. The property, which Ascott manages under a master lease agreement, is part of a new integrated development by Mitsubishi Estate Company (MEC).
“For a long time, the Otamechi-Marunouchi area was a pure business district. MEC, as one of Japan’s top real estate developers, owns about 30% of the properties there. Its development vision for this area is based on the ‘work, live, play’ concept that many leading global business districts have adopted. It started by introducing retail and dining into the scene and, when it was time to bring living into the picture, MEC turned to us.”
“This is a win-win situation because MEC does not have experience operating serviced residences, and we were able to add value, given our track rcord, proven expertise and global network. For us, it was an exciting opportunity to bring our premier Ascott The Residence brand to Tokyo. On our own, it may have taken longer to plant our flag in the Otemachi-Marunouchi area.”
Mr Tan explains that the CapitaLand and MEC relationship dates back some 15 years. The partnership started when CapitaLand ventured into the Japanese market, aided by MEC. In turn, when MEC began its Asian expansion — setting up a regional office in Singapore, and investing here and in regional markets like Vietnam, CapitaLand provided a helping hand.
In Singapore, CapitaLand and MEC have forged a close working relationship; being joint venture partners for projects like CapitaGreen, a distinctive Grade A office building in Singapore’s central business district that has been lauded for its sustainable design, and Sky Habitat, an iconic residential development in the city-fringe estate of Bishan.
Marching to the same beat
The cross-cultural collaboration that has made Ascott Marunouchi Tokyo a reality has been several years in the making, with conceptual discussions starting as early as in 2010, and Ascott signing the lease agreement in 2014.
“It does seem like a long time, doesn’t it? There are several reasons for this and some of them are cultural in nature. First is scale. Ascott Marunouchi Tokyo is part of a bigger integrated development and the plot was previously occupied by office buildings that had to be demolished. The development, which is beside the Imperial Palace, also incorporated a filtration system for cleaning the Palace moat and bringing the first “living” element into Otemachi - which requires close co-ordination and planning with the Chiyoda ward government and the Imperial Household Agency,” said Mr Tan, who also happens to be the only member of the original project team to see this venture through from conceptualisation to fruition.
“There are also differences in work culture. The Japanese are highly meticulous planners. The first two to three years were dedicated to planning — we made sure that every single aspect had been carefully thought through before we even began design work. This is quite a departure from how I would work. For me, once a plan is almost complete and the risks are mitigated, I like to push forward. This approach gains time and gives us the room to make changes along the way. Both approaches have their pros and cons, of course, so learning to respect cultural differences is an important aspect of a successful partnership,” he said.
A second home
It helps that Mr Tan has had a long time to get used to life in Japan. His introduction to the Land of the Rising Sun was in April 1984, when he went to Japan for his tertiary education. He enrolled in Osaka University the following year.
“I fell in love with the country right away. Maybe it’s because I arrived during sakura season,” he said with a laugh. “Cherry blossoms were in full bloom; it was such a beautiful sight.”
After earning a degree in naval architecture, Mr Tan returned to Singapore to serve in the navy. Not long after, when he heard that the Singapore Embassy in Japan was looking for a commercial affairs officer, he raised his hand, packed his bags and returned to Japan.
He has built a career there ever since, representing a banking payment software company in Japan before joining then-CapitaLand Financial Limited in 2005. There, he was involved in managing a JV fund investing in rental apartments in Japan. In 2009, Mr Tan joined Ascott, and subsequently took up the responsibility to oversee the company’s operations and business growth in Japan and Korea.
“Perhaps it was because I was young when I first moved to Japan, but I found it easier then to assimilate into the local culture. I also spent a year learning the language before beginning my studies, so that really helped too,” said Mr Tan.
He laments that his mid-life attempts at picking up the Korean language has produced less favourable results, although he continues to try.
“I think speaking the local language makes a huge difference, especially when doing business. It’s much easier to build rapport with local partners when you can communicate without relying on an interpreter. Acquiring information first-hand also makes me feel more confident when making business decisions. I’m sure our local partners feel the same way too,” he said.
In Korea, partnerships have proven invaluable for Ascott too. Through management contracts, its Somerset and Citadines brands have established themselves in the key gateway cities of Seoul and Busan since the opening of Somerset Palace Seoul in 2005, and Mr Tan hints at further expansion in the near future.
Partners for life
Today, Mr Tan lives in Tokyo alone. His wife and one of his daughters live in Singapore where the latter studies. His other daughter is an undergraduate at an American University.
“As a family, we are committed to spend at least one holiday together every year. This year, we were in Tokyo for the new year. We ate toshikogi soba (traditional Japanese noodle dish) on New Year’s Eve, and went to the temple to ring the bell to welcome 2017. We also had osechi ryori (traditional Japanese New Year foods) on New Year’s Day in the traditional Japanese way. My girls spent much of their childhood in Japan, so it was a homecoming of sorts for them too,” said Mr Tan.
On his part, Mr Tan makes the effort to shuttle between Japan, Korea and Singapore on an almost weekly basis to spend precious weekends with his wife.
“I’m glad we have a cat to keep her company when I’m away. Cookie has been in the family for a long time, living with us in Japan and moving back to Singapore with my wife,” he said. The dutiful husband also makes sure that he comes home with his wife’s shopping list fulfilled — especially Cookie’s favourite Japanese canned food and cat litter.
“I think it’s the least I can do to make her happy. Marriage is a partnership too — an exclusive, lifelong one. Like in business collaborations, it takes effort to keep it going, to learn to respect our differences, and to give as much as you take,” said Mr Tan.
It looks like this collaborative mindset is certainly serving him well, at home and in the boardroom.