A born entrepreneur

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 6, 2017 - November 12, 2017.

Values create good people, good products and the overall company culture” — Ter

Ter (fourth from left) with EdgeProp.my managing director and editor-in-chief Au Foong Yee, The Edge Media Group publisher and group CEO Ho Kay Tat , president of the Malaysia-China Business Council and prime minister’s special envoy to China Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting, The Edge Malaysia editor-in-chief Azam Aris and City & Country editor Rosalynn Poh

Ter & Sunsurians after a tour of Xiamen University Malaysia Campus this year

Ter participating in a friendly football match in Xiamen University, organised by Sunsuria Recreational Club this year

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Tan Sri Ter Leong Yap | Executive Chairman of Sunsuria Bhd

Some people are born to be entrepreneurs. They have the drive and the need to succeed, and seem to have a knack for identifying and seizing opportunities often missed by others.

Tan Sri Ter Leong Yap, executive chairman of Sunsuria Bhd is a fine example. When he was in Standard 5, he saw an opportunity to make some money by organising trips for his friends.

“I would organise the trip, get a bus, get people to come and collect money to cover the cost, and at the end of the day, make a little profit. Then I would take photos, develop them, and sell them to make money,” he laughs.

Ter is one of the two recipients of The Edge Malaysia Outstanding Property Entrepreneur Award 2017. The award recognises the individual’s contribution to the property development industry. 

The son of teachers, Ter grew up in a Chinese new village in Meru, Klang. It is interesting to note that many of his family members are teachers.

“My parents taught in the Chinese school I attended during my primary years. That is actually where they met. My family has a lot of teachers — my wife, my brother’s wife, my mother’s brothers, my dad’s brothers…”

In fact, Ter himself worked as teacher for a few months before going to university.

“It was less than a year and it was just a temporary job while I waited for my results. But I enjoyed those few months teaching in the same primary school as my dad,” he recalls fondly.

But Ter did not see teaching as a career option, and it was his father who influenced him to start his own business. “My father is very passionate about teaching, but he would always say that if he weren’t teacher, he would be an entrepreneur. That influenced me and it was something that was subconsciously at the back of my mind,” he says.

Ter went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Malaya, even though he half-jokingly says that he did everything but study. Describing himself as an active and sociable person, Ter was involved in many sports including badminton, tennis, squash, ping pong, football, basketball and swimming as well as debating. He represented the university in some of these sports and in debating.

“I’m a Jack of all trades and master of none,” Ter laughs, “When I played games, I got to socialise and I enjoyed that. I was also the president of the art club, photography club and the Chinese Language Society. I acted in sketches on stage and was a student union representative. Basically, the only thing I didn’t do was study but, somehow, I managed to graduate.”

His gift for finding opportunities and sealing deals presented itself in university, making him the most sought-after person when it came to finding sponsorships for events and projects.

“Most of the funds for a project would come through me. That’s why the organisers loved to get me on board. I remember once we had to get advertisements for a programme book. At first I did the usual cold calling, then I went to all the hair salons in the area and told them that the University of Malaya had over 10,000 students,  and ‘if you advertise, you will definitely get some business’. We ended up with a good number of hair salon advertisements that year,” he says.

Upon graduation, Ter went to work for a German-based material handling equipment company as a sales engineer.

“I graduated in 1989, which was when the economy started picking up, so I had about 15 job offers. Some were in manufacturing, some were big companies, but I picked this one because I enjoyed meeting people and I liked the freedom in that sense,” says Ter.

The job enabled him to learn the whole ecosystem and process of the business, and slightly more than a year later, Ter started his own business.

Making property development the focus
Ter started off with a construction and material handling equipment business in the early 1990s, something he knew well. “I was very enthusiastic and optimistic. My attitude was like the Chinese proverb, ‘If the sky falls, then use it as a blanket’. I kept thinking of ideas and business models that would help us do better.”

About 1½ years after he started his business, Ter and his brother started ventures in property development, doing several projects in the Klang Valley. “I joined my brother to start the property business but I was still running my other company. It wasn’t until 14 or 15 years later that I decided to focus on the property development business. That was when I started thinking about branding instead of what we used to do, which was very much a project-by-project business.”

To kick-start the first project, which was a commercial development, Ter mortgaged his house and did a joint venture with the landowner.

“It was a pretty high-risk move but I believed it would be good for us. I moved very carefully and calculated the risks properly,” he says.

Sunsuria has grown by leaps and bound since then. Among its completed projects are Sunsuria Avenue, where its headquarters is located, in Kota Damansara, Suria Rafflesia in Shah Alam, and Suria Jelutong in Bukit Jelutong.

Its crown jewel is the 525-acre flagship, Sunsuria City in Salak Tinggi, Putrajaya South. Launched in 2013, the integrated township comprises the first overseas campus of China’s Xiamen University, apartments, landed homes, a convention centre, retail malls, hotels and shoplots.

In its financial year ended Sept 30, 2016 (FY2016), Sunsuria recorded revenue of RM214.8 million and a net profit of RM49.3 million. This was a significant increase over its FY2015 revenue (18-month financial period) of RM135.5 million and net profit of RM15.1 million.

Some 93% of the revenue came from Sunsuria’s property development business, which is in line with its focus as a property-centric company.

Sunsuria was recently awarded the Highest Returns to Shareholders Over Three Years (Property) at The Edge Malaysia Billion Ringgit Club Corporate Awards 2017 and was placed in The Edge Malaysia Top 30 Property Developers Awards 2016.

‘It’s in the values’
While many would attribute the success of a company to the team, Ter says that it is the values imprinted in the company.

“Values create good people, good products and the overall company culture. Right from the beginning, in everything we are creating, every time we talk about training and the company, we always start with the values, which are respect, commitment and being progressive. Even with my children, I tell them ‘set your values and it will help you make decisions easier’.”

Ter believes that the company’s values keep it focused on the long term. “We are not looking for short-term growth, we want long-term, sustainable growth. At times we may have to sacrifice some profit, but that’s fine. We certainly would not sacrifice our long-term sustainability for short-term gains.”

Sustainable is a key word for Sunsuria as Ter wants to build a company that employees take pride in and is respected by others, one that will contribute positively to the nation.

“We are constantly improving. It is important that we contribute to the places we go into and the communities there. We always say that we must be respectful, not only to each other but to place and people,” he says.

Each project must be commercially viable because it cannot be sustainable if it is not, he adds.

“If you build shops, you want to make sure people will come and there is a good chance of profitability for the businesses. The same goes for residences — you build a community for people to live in, you want a good environment.

“When we go into an area, we give it a lot of thought. We believe not just in customer satisfaction but in customer success. Even before we start selling a commercial development, we talk to people about coming in. We work with organisations such as the Malaysia Retailers Association. We want to make sure the development will become a happening place. We find the catalyst,” says Ter.

Sunsuria even hired a placemaking specialist from New York to train the team in this area.

“Place-making means that when we create a place, we have to make sure it becomes a place that people will go to. It has to be vibrant and it has to make sense for people so it can grow,” says Ter.

One of the things he has noticed since he started in property development — and is still an issue today — is quality in construction.

“I have visited many countries and have seen how they build, so I have to say we have a lot to improve on in Malaysia. We struggled in the past with our contractors, so we took the initiative to streamline our quality by ensuring our contractors deliver according to our product concept. We do this by having an attitude of continuous improvement, with many parties involved in the project, and by placing emphasis on selecting the right contractors,” he says.

Building good things
Ter is a believer in work-life balance. Even though he is strict about the targets the company sets, he wants to create a humane work environment.

“Every company wants to be good and sustainable and have efficient employees with the right attitude. But at the same time, we want it to be a humane place. We call ourselves Sunsurians, we want to work together as a family. Sometimes we spend more time at work than at home, so it is important to create a good work environment,” he says.

So, how does a man who is as busy as Ter relax? He leans back and smiles, “I’m a real breakfast person. I love taking the children to school and after that, I enjoy a nice breakfast and a cup of coffee with my loved ones. In fact, I love coffee so much that I developed acid reflux. I could drink five or six cups a day, but now I order a cup and enjoy the smell but I cannot drink it. If I really can’t resist, though, I have my Gaviscon ready.”

At 53, Ter is still very much a sportsman and plays football and futsal regularly. Sunsuria, as many might know, built Sunsuria Ampang Sports Complex and there is a sports complex within Sunsuria Avenue. Ter has also built himself a futsal pitch at home.

“It is just enough for a three or four-member team on one side, so our drivers, security guards, my children all play. Some days, when I have a football match and the staff are still sending me documents at 6pm, I get a bit agitated,” he laughs.

The other thing Ter does like clockwork is to see his parents every evening. “Yes, the teachers are still around and healthy. I visit them, sometimes with my wife and children, every evening. It is a routine I love. If I don’t go for a day or two, my mum calls me or my wife and asks if everything is okay.”

And if there is one thing that Ter has learnt after all these years, it is that money can’t buy everything.

“I guess I just enjoy building good things. Being with my family, friends and our team keeps me going. I want leave a good legacy and I hope that one day, someone will take over and the company will continue on the path that has been set,” he concludes.