Friday, August 31, 2012

Upward trajectory

Business Times: Fri, Aug 31

FAST cars, sleek yachts and luxury apartments are fairly typical wish-list items for anyone in search of the good life, and owning one or more of these big-ticket status symbols is likely to be a source of some satisfaction. For Ong Chih Ching, however, it's a little different: for her, it's just another day at the office.

As the CEO of high-end real estate development and lifestyle group KOP - which she co-founded in 2006 with business partner Leny Suparman, who heads KOP's property arm - Ong, 43, has played a significant role in helping to redefine the type of luxury home that people of means might want to live in, whether it's a highrise apartment building with drive-in "sky garages" (Hamilton Scotts), a family-style getaway (Montigo Resorts in Batam), recently introduced as an option in the affordable luxury category, or posh digs in District 9 attached to a recognisable brand name (Ritz-Carlton Residences).

KOP is also transforming 10 Trinity Square, a historical building opposite London's Tower Bridge, into an ultra-deluxe mixed-use development with residences, a hotel, boutiques, restaurants and a members' club. The company's portfolio includes yacht-charter business Aqua Voyages while in their personal capacities Ong and Suparman are also founders of Bezel, the Watch Collector's Guild - providing more than a hint of where Ms Ong's personal interests lie.

"I like the finer things in life," says Ms Ong, who lives on the 33rd floor of the Ritz-Carlton Residences and who admits to having a penchant for sports cars since she was very young (she currently owns an Aston Martin). Still, it's clear that the trappings of wealth are not what drive her - she started with a bold vision and simply had the conviction in her beliefs to see it through.

Ms Ong, the second in a family of four children, wanted to be an architect but ended up as a lawyer instead, starting her own firm Koh Ong & Partners in 1996 with a staff of three in a 753-square-foot space in Cecil Street. The company grew to include 20 lawyers and Ms Ong developed into a specialist at corporate and property law - the expertise gained then comes in pretty handy these days.

"The law can be dry and boring but the meeting of people and providing solutions to their problems - that's something I really love," she says. "One of the greatest joys is to put a smile on people's faces. They always come in frowning, and they always think I'm too young." But, as the saying goes, you're not too young if you can do the job and more often than not, that's what has happened.

"A lot of clients became friends," says Ms Ong. "I will always miss practising law but it's very stressful. When you're trying to please someone else you assume their problems and issues."

She adds, "As a lawyer you are responsible for providing the best solution but not for taking the decision - now, I make the decisions that affect people, so it's different."

The qualities that make her a good entrepreneur are also double-edged, says Ms Ong. "I think I'm very brave and I can read the market well, but the problem then is that you're in uncharted waters so there's no precedent." Forecasting the property market is a risky business, she adds. "When you read a market well, you're always reading a few years ahead, and even if you're right - there might be unforeseen circumstances that could impact the outcome."

Ong readily admits to making expensive mistakes in the past - unsold apartments and stagnant prices were part of the grand plan."Having learnt my lesson, when reading the market we also play safe and put in more risk factors," she says. "I think I'm more mature now, although most of the time I will go with my gut feel - I'm an intuitive person." She is also willing to cut losses and emerge stronger the next time around, she adds.

As a young child growing up, Ms Ong, whose family home was in Seletar Hills, recalls Saturdays spent visiting her grandparents in Emerald Hill. There, she would pass the time by sketching buildings in the area, and also buildings that sprouted from her imagination. "My parents thought I would become an architect and so did I," she says. "I've always liked beautiful structures and that's what motivated me to travel."

An early architecture pilgrimage brought her to Egypt to see the pyramids. In 1998, her interest in unique buildings led to Dubai and the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped luxury hotel seemingly rising out of the water's edge. It was still under construction then but she has stayed there on several occasions since, having done legal work for the Dubai government and private individuals.

Money was an issue when she was younger but nowadays, Ong is able to travel to remote corners of the world to indulge her passion. For instance, a recent visit was to the Tree Hotel close to Sweden's Arctic Circle - a series of individual rooms built at tree height in a pristine forest.

Her favourite designers are Frank Gehry and Andree Putman, marquee names that have been known to help sell a building or two. "When successful, architects build art forms, not buildings anymore," says Ms Ong. "What remains important is that the building must look nice." She adds, "When someone loves buildings, the natural thing is to become an architect, but being a developer is a better position because you get to pick and choose the building that you want."

Ong also had a healthy interest in watches and boats, which she turned into businesses. There can be a downside, however. "When you have a passion for something and you actually convert it into a business, you tend to lose the passion," she says. For instance, watch-collecting developed from a hobby into Bezel. "Your favourite watch then becomes the one that makes the most money for you."

She also has a love of fast boats. "Basically, I love speed. I love going out to sea with good friends but it takes time - which is a luxury." She adds, "When we started chartering yachts the business was viable but it requires a lot of maintenance and you just have to discount the bills that come your way."

Ms Ong says the part of the core real estate development business she enjoys the most is coming up with the vision for a project. The brief for transforming 10 Trinity Square - built in 1922 in the Beaux Arts style as the headquarters for the Port of London Authority - was to retain tradition but to add an English quirkiness to it, similar to British fashion designer Paul Smith's signature style for his men's suits. "When you're faced with a significant building there's a heavy burden to do it better - at least, don't ruin it," she says.

Ms Ong says that as a young consumer she was just as brand-conscious as the next person, but she has always had unconventional tastes. "I'm more niche, and constantly trying to discover new things," she says.

"I'm at this phase where it's not about the name, it's about the work. Nowadays there's too much emphasis on marketing and I'm not sure if you're buying the substance - I'm very sure you're buying the marketing." She adds, "I'd rather go for what I perceive as value - I don't need to know the name."

KOP's short-term objective is to expand the Montigo Resorts brand further in Indonesia and also in China. Since the Batam project was launched in 2008, prices have gone up by 60 per cent, says Ms Ong. "We're very excited about Montigo, I think it will make a difference in the hospitality world," she says, adding that catering to the family-friendly market puts KOP well ahead of the curve. Deciding to build in Batam was also a bold step because most people had a different perception of the location. "The cost of living is much lower there - you can have a good time in Batam for very little money."

The company plans to continue leading the way in upmarket residential developments and lifestyle concepts, but at a more measured pace, says Ms Ong. "Expansion has its own issues, and the way to propel forward is to consolidate, and then move up again."

The drive to succeed has been ingrained in her from a very young age. "I was the least favourite child, so my dad was very hard on me," says Ms Ong, whose father was in the roller-shutter business. He died in 1998. "I had the best scores but because I wasn't his favourite, I needed to prove myself. If he was alive it would be very different - he was safe and conservative, I'm like the complete opposite."

As for whether he would approve of her success and the way she's achieved it, Ms Ong smiles and says, "If he looked at it all now, he'd probably concede defeat."

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C
Senior Sales Director
DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA) Pte Ltd (L3006301G)

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