Never a dull moment at Sunway

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

We need to seek to understand before we can expect to be understood.” — Cheah

Cheah (fourth from left) with 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

Cheah at the Social Inclusion and Sustainability Initiative donation handover at Sunway Velocity Mall this year

Cheah at the annual World Environment Day Celebration 2017 in Sunway Iskandar

Cheah with the US ambassador Joseph Yun (third from left) and Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam (third from right) at the annual World Environment Day celebration, Race For A Better Planet 2015, in Sunway Iskandar

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Sarena Cheah | Managing director of Property Division, Malaysia and Singapore, Sunway Bhd

[If I am] busy, [it] means I need to improve on my time management.  Even the chairman (Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah) can find time for meetings. I really need to work on this,” Sarena Cheah says with a laugh when we point out that she is one of the busiest persons we know.

We have no doubt that Cheah is downplaying the scope of her duties in Sunway Bhd. Apart from being the managing director of Sunway’s property arm, Sunway Property for Malaysia and Singapore, the only daughter of Jeffrey Cheah is also an executive director of the group and has duties that extend beyond property. In fact, a few days after our interview, she flew to Europe to attend to non-property-related business.

Cheah is one of the two recipients of The Edge Malaysia Outstanding Property CEO Award 2017. The award is given to CEOs or professionals who have taken their company to an exceptional level.

Cheah has a long history with Sunway. She joined the group in 1995 after graduating from the University of Western Australia with a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting and Finance), starting off in the corporate finance and group internal audit divisions. She left in 2000 to pursue an MBA in Melbourne Business School and rejoined the group in the education and healthcare division before moving on to a few other divisions.

She was appointed joint managing director of the property arm for Malaysia and Singapore and took on the role of managing director of strategy and corporate development in 2013. In May 2015, she took on full responsibility as the managing director  of Sunway Property.

Joining the family business was not always on the radar screen for Cheah. “I only started thinking about joining Sunway after graduation. After I came back, I saw that the group was much diversified and there was a lot of opportunities. So it was not a difficult decision.”

Her time in the various departments has served her well, giving her a good understanding of the marketplace and where the business stands as a group.

“I gained a better understanding and appreciation of governance issues, listing issues, financial planning, risk management and such. But the greatest learning opportunity came at the group’s worst time — the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

“At that time, I had only been with the group for two years and had to work through the greatest crisis to hit the group. Everything seemed so bleak back then … we had to sell and reorganise. I was in corporate finance, which really was the right department to be in at that time. There was a lot of restructuring and much of my learning came from observation.

“There are good things that came out of that period. Sunway is now on a much stronger footing. It shows that we can all learn. Now, we can be more strategic and selective in terms of where we want to grow our space,” says Cheah.

She was also instrumental in the merger between Sunway Holdings Bhd and Sunway City Bhd. Putting two companies together is easier said than done, she says.

When the Sunway Real Estate Investment Trust was introduced, Cheah went on roadshows to sell its story. “That helped me gain international exposure on how to position our company for listing, see where our strengths were and how we could get our yields and such.”

She also headed the sales and marketing department for three years, which gave her on-the-ground experience in marketing and selling the company’s products. And her time in financial planning helped with her decision-making in terms of what was key and what were the critical success factors that could drive the profitability expected by the shareholders.

“So, all in all, coming from the group side gave me a wider perspective to be able to lead Sunway Property better,” says Cheah.

Starting on solid ground
Cheah considers herself fortunate to have taken over Sunway Property when it was standing on solid ground. “I didn’t take over an ailing company. We had a great foundation with visionary leadership from our chairman. We had good financial standing, a solid track record and good land bank. My role was really to see how we could take the company to the next level, given the competitive landscape and changing needs of the consumers.”

Since then, Cheah has done considerable work with Sunway Property. For one, it has entered into joint ventures with international developers such as Japan’s Mitsui Fudosan Co Ltd and Daiwa House Industry Co Ltd. “Mitsui Fudosan is the largest developer in Japan with several centuries worth of history. We have visited its offices and looked at its management philosophy and products. The company is great at detailing, there is so much we can learn.

“Daiwa comes with its technology and is Japan’s top prefabricated homebuilder. Moving forward, we will continue to learn from the best in the international arena to elevate our quality.”

Cheah also rebalanced Sunway Property’s portfolio to have a good mix of property types. It is needed for sustainable growth, she explains. “We had townships. Then we went into integrated developments such as Sunway Velocity. Such developments have a lot of value because they are often located in the city. Standalones like condominium developments or transit-oriented developments (TODs) are the same. They can be sold and completed faster.  That is why we purchased more land recently. The timing is good.” 

Recognising that more than 50% of growth will be in the cities, Cheah says the key is to develop a stronger presence around TODs and ride the wave of urbanisation. “I think there really is opportunity in recreating and redoing spaces to drive productivity for city centres. TODs are definitely the way to go. Sunway Velocity is a good example and it has done very well.”

She hopes to replicate Sunway Velocity in more locations and build more community-style living projects. The other space where she sees opportunity for growth is senior living. “It’s funny. We used to say that we have a young demographic, yet in another 5 to 10 years, we will turn into an ageing economy just by pure percentage. Having healthcare, hospitality and property development arms presents a good platform for us to start senior living in a sustainable way.”

Cheah also plans to diversify into foreign markets. Sunway already has a presence in Singapore, China and Australia.

“We don’t want to jump into anything. We will continue to watch the markets and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a development product, it could be an investment product. We hope to have a stronger presence overseas. Hopefully, we will have 30% contribution from foreign markets in five years’ time.”

Digital space is a new exciting area as it gives new meaning to connectivity and convenience, says Cheah. “The digital space comes with so many opportunities but at the same time, we need to be careful to be holistic in our approach as there will be risks and negative factors. But the low hanging fruit is about digitally connecting people. Developers will be challenged to see how they can introduce new kinds of products that will enable people to walk around while digitally connected, as well as being fed information so they can make decisions better and faster.”

Being in a diversified group has also helped greatly as it allows the company to tap the expertise of other businesses in Sunway’s stable.

“If we develop senior living projects, having the healthcare division at our doorstep is a luxury not many have. This is one contributing factor to Sunway Property’s ability to stand out as a good developer with holistic offerings,” says Cheah.

The job, of course, comes with its fair share of challenges. “We are very clear about what we want and what we are supposed to deliver, but we have to do it in a way that meets all the stakeholders’ requirements. Of course, I can launch projects at a slower pace but I need to deliver the profitability and meet the sales numbers. It is about keeping that balance. Property development is more long term, so proper planning and getting it right from the very start is important in this business,” says Cheah.

“Behind every success is a great team,” says Cheah. She considers herself fortunate to have a team of committed, dynamic and passionate people who are willing to go the extra mile.

“The team is clearly a contributing factor but it is also important to have a clear vision. We have that in place. I think any achievement is team-based. I suppose delivering the financial numbers and getting awards are also key but having said that, I don’t think the job is done yet.”

Cheah also attributes her success to her mentors. “I have had great mentors. They are all different, with different styles and expertise. I have been able to learn so much from them.”

It is important to Cheah to maintain an open channel of communication, especially in this digital age. The personable lady describes herself as people-oriented and many who have met her would likely agree.

“In the digital era, I believe we need more face-to-face communication. Management is about people and because people are always so busy, so much communication is done through emails or texts. There is a need to be able to see a person and communicate.

“My philosophy is that we need to seek to understand before we can expect to be understood. People come from different perspectives. Sometimes, a person can have a great idea but we may never hear it because we pushed too hard.

“I would like to be, or hope that I am, approachable. I always keep my door open and people can come in and give ideas. So far, it has been good. The ability to listen is very important,” says Cheah.

It is crucial to have meaning and purpose in what one is doing, because after all, we spend a large part of our lives working, she points out. “I truly believe in the value and direction of Sunway Group and where we are going. It has been set by our chairman and founder; it is about community building and enriching lives. He is very clear about the direction, and the foundation that has been built has allowed us to do so much. That really motivates me.”

Finding downtime
Taking charge of one of Malaysia’s largest property developers is no easy task. “Life in Sunway is actually very interesting. There is never a dull moment. You just have to have the heart and energy for it. I think I need more time,” laughs Cheah.

Of course, it is not all work and no play for her. “I exercise. I take tennis lessons and yoga lessons … when I have the time. Spending time with my daughter and husband and meeting up with friends are great ways to relax. To be successful, I think you need a good balance and a very understanding family. I am very lucky to have that.”

In the end, one has to be true to oneself, says Cheah. “To do well in your career, you have to be true to yourself and find a space that allows you to align [with people] and share similar philosophies. I am a true believer in our group’s core values — integrity, humility and excellence — and expect them to continue to be the guiding philosophy for the future.”