Hard work, sacrifice and perseverance

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

The key qualities of a CEO ... number one is, to be able to take care of all the stakeholders, and among them are the employees.” — Khor

Khor (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

S P Setia Bhd corporate headquarters in Setia Alam

Khor with (from left) S P Setia COO Datuk Wong Tuck Wai, chairman Datuk Seri Wan Mohd Zahid Mohd Noordin and executive vice president Datuk Koe Peng Kang during 2017 World Environment Day

With employees during a CEO dialogue session

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Datuk Khor Chap Jen | President and Chief Executive Officer of S P Setia Bhd

The massive S P Setia Bhd corporate headquarters building in Setia Alam is a testament to the hard work the group has put in over the years to become one of the top developers in the country.

Despite numerous challenges, the group continues to defy expectations and grow its market share, especially with the recent acquisition of I&P Group Sdn Bhd for RM3.65 billion. President and CEO Datuk Khor Chap Jen is taking it all in his stride, leading the group with quiet determination and focus. This has earned him the recognition as The Edge Malaysia Outstanding Property CEO for 2017.

Khor grew up in Parit Buntar, Perak, with his shopkeeper father, homemaker mother and 11 siblings. He is the ninth child and the youngest son. He attended primary and secondary school in his hometown before doing Form Six in Taiping. Then, he studied Engineering at Universiti Malaya.

“During my time, you could count the number of graduates. When someone’s child went to university, it was big news,” Khor recalls. “Back then, you had only four choices of profession, the Big Four — doctor, lawyer, accountant and engineer. I didn’t like the first three, so by default, I ended up in engineering.”

Khor says he always had an inkling that he was destined for a career in the property development sector as his favourite subject was Industrial Arts. He also enjoyed studying Physics and Mathematics. But upon graduation, he decided to take a different path first.

“I made a conscious decision not to go into property development first, but into consultancy. I ended up working 10 years in Jurutera Perunding Kemajuan Sdn Bhd,” he says. 

“They were doing a lot of KL traffic dispersal projects. I learnt about highway design and bridge design, and ventured into housing, civil design, water … the whole gamut. I was involved in building the North-South Expressway, Shah Alam Expressway and some housing estates.

Then in 1995, he was asked to join S P Setia. He took the offer and has not looked back since. 

Believe it or not, S P Setia is only Khor’s second job, and he has been with the group for 22 years now — an amazing feat, considering that many people, especially the young ones, tend to change jobs frequently nowadays. Khor believes that staying put in a company and learning as much as one can will stand him or her in good stead later in life.

“There is no substitute for hard work. I hope the young ones will be more patient. I see a lot of young people looking for instant gratification,” he says, adding that while they have some experience, their knowledge is not deep enough.

“For me, I made a decision to work 10 years in a mid-size consulting firm. Why? Because you’ll find that you have the opportunity to learn a lot of things … volunteer yourself to learn new things.

“And during that period, when I compared myself with some of my colleagues, they moved up very fast. [Going by] my way, the rewards don’t look as good initially. But over the years, you accumulate experience, which will help you in your later life ... the rewards will come.”

Clear communication
It is no surprise then, that Khor has been able to steer S P Setia to greater heights. As CEO, he believes in setting a clear direction, communicating the intention and taking care of the employees’ well-being.

“The key qualities of a CEO ... number one is, to be able to take care of all the stakeholders, and among them are the employees,” Khor says. “The CEO must be able to give the employees hope. For most people joining a company, it becomes  their second home, and it is also where their careers grow. Most people would like to work in a company where they can grow and acquire knowledge, status and meaning. Some have high aspirations, so you need to give them that hope.”

He says clear communication is vital in ensuring that the staff and management carry out their tasks without stress or fear. “You have to be open. I tell [the staff] where we are heading, what is happening to us and how we should go about doing things, so everyone has some kind of ownership.

“Communication is very important ... I have dialogues with the staff and my door is always open.

“I also believe in trust and empowerment. If you want an employee to do something, you must trust him or her. We will provide the resources and support. We always encourage our staff to come back to us if they need help and we will guide them. You cannot assume they know everything. A lot of problems occur when you assume. Clarification is good.”

However, as a leader, how does one ensure conflict is managed and kept at a minimum?

“For Setia, we always emphasise teamwork. There are three things, actually. One, you must have integrity — your word is your bond; what you promise you must deliver. Two, you must have respect for yourself and your colleagues. And three, you must acknowledge that you alone cannot do anything; there must be teamwork and you must be humble. There is no shame in saying ‘I do not know’,” says Khor.

“These three things are drummed into our employees. So, it is easier to work together. We also tell them three office taboos — one should not talk about religion, should not talk about politics and should not gossip.”

He says he would sometimes ask his staff to summarise information he has shared with them to ensure that they are on the same page.

Khor believes that it is important to uphold the company’s core values and vision. “There is no such thing as being cheong hei (long-winded) ... when there is an opportunity, repeat it,” he says.

New beginnings
The values that have guided S P Setia over the years will now be shared with the employees of I&P Group.

Khor says generally, it is easier to steer a company when it is new and small, and its headcount is low. But now with the inclusion of I&P Group — an established entity — there could be some challenges, but he is confident that the transition will be smooth.

“We [S P Setia] have over 1,800 employees and they [I&P Group], about 350. So, being bigger, it will be easier to disseminate our values to them,” he explains. “It is also easier because I&P is in the same industry. They will know what to do, but they must follow our SOP [standard operating procedure].”

Khor reveals that even before the acquisition was completed, several integration and town hall sessions were held. 

“Initially, there was some apprehension, but it is fading. Recently, a survey revealed that 79% of I&P’s employees are ready to embrace the change,” he says. “I believe they want to learn and grow with us, and we are willing to share our values with them. We see a lot of positive vibes as well.”

Having been with S P Setia for so long — starting out as a technical manager before rising to where he is today — what is it about property development that Khor likes most?

“Seeing families move into their new homes … I think that is gives me the greatest satisfaction — you have made people’s dream come true,” he says.

“These days, we are sponsoring new owners’ house-warming parties. This is a good marketing tool because people who do not want to travel to an unfamiliar area are likely to do so if invited by friends. So, they are introduced not only to the area but also to the lifestyle there. This could make them consider buying a Setia unit later.”

So does Khor look to anyone for inspiration? “No, not any particular person,” he says. “I meet many good people and emulate their values. I think the most important thing is, be honest with your people. Call a spade a spade; people will understand. I believe in open communication, and people will work together.”

Soft-spoken and affable, Khor exudes confidence — a trait honed through years of hard work, sacrifice and perseverance — which will spur S P Setia to attain new heights

Setia Seraya Residences

Tel: +603 8861 6500
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Ovalis, Bandar Setia Alam

Tel: +603 3343 2255
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