“If I don’t do this then I will be a preacher!” so he exclaims with a wide smile when asked if not for his property development path.
Just a few minutes ago, “Bhutan,” I said.
“Bhutan, yes, it’s one of the countries where it measures their success by the high happiness index that they achieve.”
A man worth his salt is a man well traveled, widely read, diligent and certainly a friend worth keeping.
By Ivan Tan
The name Charlie Chia may or may not be among the hall of famers of Malaysia’s property development but with all due respect, this man has a journey that comes from the best of both worlds. As the Group Chief Executive Officer of United Malayan Land Bhd, he runs the ship from a familiar spot. The familiarity comes a few folds too.
One, he was once an employee back in 1997 of this very company before making a return in June 2012 to commence his current role and responsibilities.
Two, when he returned the second time, most of the faces he knew from his first stint were still in office. This speaks of the impeccable caliber of the company in both business and talent management.
Three, he came back knowing that rookies joining UMLand today can hit the ground running the very next day because the Standard Operating Procedure he so designed thoughtfully, drawn from his experience as a civil servant, is still very much in the veins of the company.
Four, as a property development company with a big foot print in Johor, thanks to the nation’s Iskandar Malaysia initiative, it should take him to the state more regularly than he had hoped for if he was in another outfit. Why would this be familiar then? Because Charlie is a proud son of the state.
The Second Coming
The work at UMLand was almost cut out for him when he returned the second time. He had stepped out to lead the charge and even taken on advisory role at other development companies. Among the feathers on his cap were as the CEO of Malton Bhd in 2011, advisor to the Group Managing Director of Naza TTDI Sdn Bhd in 2009, Chief Operating Officer of Vihajico in Vietnam with a 1,200 acres township project in 2008, to name just a few. But before the private adventures, he already held a successful career in the government sector at Jabatan Kerja Raya, rising through the ranks as a Quantity Surveyor before taking the Optional Retirement scheme and bowing out as the Assistant Director in September 1995. His 18 civil service years proved valuable when he went into the private territories.
So what’s the main difference between the private and public sectors?
“Government has its way of enforcing and at the same time makes its policy and procedures very detailed, but it helps in getting your mind very focused in what you want to do. So I think the training in government policies and procedures actually helps to reorganize some of the private sector’s strategic tool.
“Now for example when I first came out to work in the private sector, I find that a lot of things are very haphazard, according to circumstances. Now when things happen, you have not been able to trace a lot of your records. But the government has a very good way of filing, very good way of documentation. So with this, actually it keeps you on track of what you intend to do and what you have done. So I believe sometimes you have to adopt certain government policies and procedures in some of the private sector.”
Having seen such occurrence from both sides of the fence, Charlie led his team by creating the first and very detailed project implementation SOP at his maiden private office so that everyone involved will know what to do when a project submission is on the cards.
“The first SOP that we have was almost the replica of the JKR SOP, it was only a change of name and a change of title.”
Judging from the string of projects from UMLand, the effectiveness of the SOP can safely be left unquestionable. But what is rather intriguing to the curious mind is its recent foray into the elite segment of the market, different from its township background. From just a handful of high rise condominium projects like Suasana Loft and Suasana Bangsar both in Kuala Lumpur, the company is now the proud joint-developer of Somerset Puteri Harbour in Iskandar Malaysia and its very own Suasana Bukit Ceylon in the heart of the city centre in Kuala Lumpur.
The seasoned developer has also kept the public’s eye tingling with the highly anticipated Star Residences on Jalan Yap Kwan Seng within the vicinity of KLCC. Down south, the collection includes Suasana Iskandar in Johor Bahru City Centre, The Waves at Puteri Harbour and even setting up a gallery in Singapore. So what’s the game plan?
“Basically we were a township developer from the very beginning. UMLand was formed as a result of a reverse takeover of Seri Alam Properties.
“At that time we have three big partners, DBS Land, Pernas (Perbandanan Nasional Bhd) and Chee Tat Plantations, so these three big partners were actually the main shareholders. And they’ve decided to only focus their attention on township development.
“Then sometime in 2003, the company decided that we should be able to move upwards to more niche developments and that’s the first time we took on a project called Seri Bukit Ceylon which is our first major high-rise where we launched and sold very well. That marks the beginning of our foray into niche development.”
Suasana Loft in KL Sentral was the next in a joint-venture with MRCB (Malaysia Resources Corporation Bhd) and then followed by another condominium project called Suasana Bangsar where UMLand discerns strategically to revive what was once an abandoned project. This led to another joint-venture with Bolton Bhd (now known as Symphony Life Bhd) along Jalan Yap Kwan Seng and within the real estate epicenter of KLCC in 2006 in a project called Star Residences. But it wasn’t released to the public until only recently when it was granted a higher plot ratio.
According to Charlie, UMLand will be turning the three-tower Star Residences into something of an elite landmark. The boutique shops shall see Michelin-rated and gourmet restaurants as well as a walk of fame to set itself apart from the crowd. This Charlie says will be a tourist destination and a social hub for the high society and celebrities.
A wave of excitement is also happening in the south at Suasana Iskandar where Charlie and his team will introduce what could possibly be the first Thai hotel operator in the country – The Amari Group. The rationale he says is credited to the Thai’s courteous hospitality background renowned the world over.
“At the same time, the retail space on the podium, we intend to create it into a high end entertainment and as well as an F&B hub. Because at Johor Bahru at the moment lacks this kind of hangout places for the rich and famous and for the elites. So that would be our intention to transform the retail mall into such a destination.”
Asked if UMLand is setting its sights overseas now that it also has a gallery in Singapore, Charlie says, “The gallery in Singapore is more of our outreach in introducing and making Singaporeans aware of our products in Johor Bahru and KL.”
“The Galleria is also doubling up as a service centre so that our Singapore customers can enjoy a lot of services where they can pay their bills, sign their documents as well as attend seminars.
As for developing overseas, “our focus now at the moment is more in Malaysia especially KL and Johor Bahru. The foreign markets are still out of our focus but that does not deter us from looking at other opportunities.
“We are also looking at places like Vietnam, we are looking at Jakarta. So if there are opportunities we will definitely move into this area.”
As a homegrown property developer who began as just a vast land owner in the plantation sector back in the 1970s in the plantation estates of Johor Bahru, UMLand had indeed become part of Malaysia’s real estate history with big names as among its shareholders even before the advent of efficient building technologies and the sustainable agenda taking prime spot in the development space. Singapore’s DBS Land which later merged with Pidemco Land to form Capitaland in year 2000 was among the stakeholders of this company.
Driven by a philosophy to move in unison by practicing a common ideology among the staff members at the UMLand family, this company is a respected outfit despite its privatization exercise two years ago. Its strength is not unfounded as it partners well backed corporations such as MRCB, UEM Land Bhd (now known as UEM Sunrise Bhd) and even garnered the Iskandar Investment Bhd blessings to strengthen its foothold beyond just the City of Knowledge of Bandar Seri Alam. Hence the birth of its fourth township, “Seri Alam 2, an industrial park with complimentary residential.”
To Charlie, the subdued market performance off late is but only “temporary hiccups looking at the potential of the country.” He opines Malaysia’s golden key resides in its liberal property laws which allows foreign ownership into its freehold and landed real assets as the most attractive. He also commended the cheaper property price when compared to the region’s as another clear advantage. And this he said is influencing the patterns of real estate consumption as he witnessed 70 to 80 units taken up at the landed Sapphire 8 at Bandar Seri Alam by the usually condo-inclined Japanese.
At the end of the interview, I could sense one thing from this man and his stable at UMLand – that although he’s been back for just over two years and a lot of work has gone underway, the game has truly only just begun. And if my senses are right, there is then more than fireworks and waves that will come out of this company – there will be good news preached all over with glittering stars filling the headlines and dressed across its wall of fame.
On Jalan Yap Kwan Seng, Kuala Lumpur.
Averagely RM1,600psf, GDV RM1.2 billion.
Freehold, about 80% taken up so far.
3 towers; 1 Soho tower, 2 high-end small residences towers; 625 to 722sf.
Boutique Shops, Michelin-rated and Gourmet F&B, Walk of Fame.
Medini Lakeside – UMCity
Medini, Nusajaya, Iskandar Malaysia.
First phase – Medini Lakeside, 30 acres with a 13 acres lake. Mixed development of residential, hospitality, business and retail.
Second phase – Viridea Lakeside, aligned towards the Great Green Idea with sustainable features.
The Waves @ Puteri Harbour
Puteri Harbour, Nusajaya, Iskandar Malaysia.
GDV RM1 billion, mixed development.
Bandar Seri Alam, Iskandar Malaysia
Upcoming is a new family lifestyle mall at 350,000sf. Comes with boutique retail, offices, supermarket, food court, 8 screens Cineplex and rooftop water playground.
Bandar Seri Putra, Bangi, Selangor
Upcoming is a business park and the first retail and shopping centre for the vicinity. See page 16 for Putra 1 Apartments.
Bandar Seri Austin, Iskandar Malaysia
A new shopping mall and some high-end cluster homes, semi-detached and bungalows within the next one to two years.
Bandar Seri Alam 2, Iskandar Malaysia (upcoming)
United Malayan Land Bhd
Suasana Bukit Ceylon,
No. 2, Persiaran Raja Chulan,
50200 Kuala Lumpur.
Telephone +603 2036 8188
Fax +603 2036 8000