There are many people he looks up to. But if Mr Edmund Cheng, Deputy Chairman of Wing Tai Holdings Limited, has to single out a person he admires the most, it would be his late father, Mr Cheng Yik Hung.
Says Mr Cheng, with a hint of pride of his father: “Without any education, he just worked his way up, through hard work…He was a refugee from China. He was very well-off in China and then lost everything. Empty-handed, he swam across the waters to Hong Kong and started all over again.”
The senior Cheng started a humble garment manufacturing company – which would eventually become Wing Tai Holdings -- in Hong Kong in the 1950s. At that time, he clocked in 16-hour work days and walked 40 minutes from his house to the workplace six times a day, so he could save money on food and bus fares and have meals with his family.
In 1963 at the age of 52, keenly aware of how the tide would eventually turn against garment manufacturing, he decided to move out of his comfort zone and came over to Singapore to diversify the business. “My father always wanted to diversify, knowing that the garment business, one day, would be phased out in a mature economy…We thought it was important to look for another business and so strategically, we looked at property as the one we want to go into.”
The senior Cheng then got Mr Cheng to spearhead Wing Tai’s foray into the Asian property market in the 1980s. Recalling the demands of plunging into an industry the Cheng family knew nothing of, he says: “One of the key challenges that we have is finding the right people because none of us had experience in it. Finding the right talent is always the key to a successful business.”
Today, Wing Tai is Singapore's leading property developer and lifestyle company whose total assets exceed S$3.7 billion. The core businesses of the WingTai Asia Group which includes Wing Tai Properties Limited in Hong Kong, Wing Tai Malaysia Berhad in Malaysia ad Wing Tai (China) Investment Pte Ltd in China comprise property development and investment, hospitality management and lifestyle retail.
Sporting a pair of round-rimmed tortoise shell glasses and a skinny tie, Mr Cheng emanates a quiet and refreshing air of quirkiness – quite befitting of one who was trained as an architect and is Chairman of the National Arts Council. He has also held chairmanship of the DesignSingapore Council from 2003 to 2008. His openness for ideas and love for design and the arts are amplified in Wing Tai’s projects. In one of its first residential high-rises, Flame Tree Park in Upper Thomson Road, it chose to feature artist Lim Leong Seng’s Happy Family sculpture at the entrance space. Since then, the company has incorporated art in all of its projects.
Amidst the backdrop of a highly competitive property development market, Mr Cheng reveals how Wing Tai, a champion for environmentally sustainable practices, manages the delicate marriage of inventive design, environmental consciousness and a healthy business bottom-line. “Innovation in design and environmental sustainability must work in synergy, supporting cost efficiency. If not, we won’t be competitive. So there must be a balance in that. But we believe the more we innovate, the more we’ll be able to find solutions to raise productivity and to ensure our operations can achieve efficiency so we are able to create better value and pass it on to the customers on a long-term basis,” he reasons.
Born in Hong Kong, Mr Cheng stayed in the United States for 11 years before settling down in Singapore 33 years ago. Home in Hong Kong was a 700-square-feet space – the equivalent of a three-room HDB flat in Singapore -- that housed 14 to15 people. “In those days, there was no toilet. You had to go out of the house. No TV, no telephone, no refrigerator.” He jokes about having learnt conflict management since young - having to negotiate with family members and cousins in day-to-day interactions.
He came to Singapore when he was 27 to be trained as an architect. He speaks fondly of his days of “running for the bus, working under the hot sun, stationed at the job site” with his mentor, whom he credits for helping him learn the ropes without having to plough through piles of guidelines and regulations to get his license to practise. He then went on to work on the job site of a construction company in Hong Kong for a year to gain more experience.
Mr Cheng’s on-the-job training was not part of his father’s succession plan. However, perhaps part of Mr Cheng knew what he had to do to help expand his father’s business: “Maybe sub-consciously, I knew I would go into the industry. It wasn’t my father’s requirement. He didn’t even know what I was doing. He knew I was an architect but he didn’t know the details.”
He continues: “You have to think for yourself, how you can be useful to the company, to the new job, to the new challenge and arm yourself with experience. That’s exactly what I did. I got my solid foundation first without being asked.”
Being the head honcho of an organisation that is constantly innovating to stay ahead, one would expect him to have pre-occupations with work, even after the lights go out. When asked what keeps him up at night, he chuckles and says: “Nothing. I sleep very well. I’ve never brought any problems into my dreams or sleep. Nothing keeps me awake.
“Even when I try to think of something, when I think of problems, those are not urgent problems. Those are happy problems. I’d have fallen asleep before I could think of a solution. There were a few financial crises, like the SARS (episode). We thought business was bad it couldn’t be worse,” he says good-humouredly.
Perhaps, before the senior Cheng asked his son to spearhead Wing Tai’s foray into the Asian property market in the 1980s, he already knew his son would have the guts and gumption to stomach downturns and setbacks without being ruffled. Come what may, he will prevail, somehow. And he did.
Join Distinguished Business Leader, Mr Edmund Cheng, in Sydney on 21st September. Register for the event now!
By Yee Wei Zhen