Successful women in real estate industry share their experiences
By Joseph Wong
Men may have historically dominated the real estate market but women are stepping up to the occasion and they might perhaps one day supersede their male counterparts if their trajectory continues skywards.
It is undeniable that throughout its inception, women have contributed to the real estate sector albeit in more administrative capacities. Since the early 1900s, an increasing number of women started to work as brokers and agents worldwide. While developed nations had an early start compared to the rest of the world, many developing countries did not lag too far. In Malaysia, the number of prominent women in the real estate industry has also grown tremendously.
Moreover, daughters of prominent property developers have entered the limelight, stepping out of their fathers’ shadows. And many have risen to positions of leadership.
Among them are Mah Sing Group Bhd (Mah Sing) group strategy and operations director Jane Leong, KIP Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) executive director Valerie Ong, Selangor Dredging Bhd (SDB) managing director Teh Lip Kim and Titijaya Land Bhd executive director Charmaine Lim Puay Fung.
Tropicana Corporation Bhd (Tropicana) deputy chief executive officer (CEO) Joanne Lee was the exception of the five leaders interviewed by StarProperty, as her pathway took a different route.
“I’ve had strong interest in the industry since my childhood of visiting property galleries with my father. I thought that it was a normal family weekend bonding activity. Malaysia was experiencing a property boom in 2009/2010 where you can see a huge jump in the value of transactions - RM81 billion in 2009 vs RM107.44 billion in 2010.
“Mah Sing was also seeing tremendous growth with numerous new launches and land acquisitions, and it was a good time to join then as I could see through the whole development cycle of a project, and I’ve not looked back since,” said Leong.
Similarly, Ong also tagged along with her father Datuk Eric Ong for property launches and mall visits to understand the intricacies behind the property business and in building a successful mall.
“I had a keen interest in our business and was fortunate enough to have various mentors to show me the ropes early on. I kickstarted my KIP career under our tourism arm, Summit Holiday, whereby I lead its digitalisation efforts. It is hard to believe this was almost 12 years ago,” she said.
Ong became KIP Group chief executive officer in 2017 and in 2022, she also became the KIP REIT executive director of KIP REIT.
Titijaya Land’s Lim also accompanied her father at a young age to various site visits and business meetings.
“My father did not intend to influence me to take over his business one day by bringing me to all business events. It was merely a bonding time for both of us. But indirectly, this has sparked my ever-lasting passion for property development.
“In many ways, my father is a role model for me in this business, as his journey from humble beginnings has always inspired me to take on challenges. Because of my father, I had the privilege of learning about the nuances of the property sector. I also learnt about his perseverance and hard work along the way,” she told StarProperty.
Taking the leadership role
For Teh, it was a trial by fire when she took over as SDB managing director in 1998, a period when the tin market had collapsed and it was no longer viable to continue mining. On top of that, it was the height of the 1997/1998 Asian Financial Crisis.
“I opted to do something else that will put the company back on the path to profitability. Back then, we were a diversified group. But eventually, we had most of the unprofitable businesses sold off and were left with the core businesses of property leasing, property management and the hotel. That enabled us to look for other areas in which to invest, leading us to property development.
“At that time, we already had Wisma Selangor Dredging, built in 1985. And I thought that it was only natural that we go into property development – because we already had the experience. It was a bold decision made in a very challenging period, but it helped to transform SDB and propelled us to success for the long-term greater good of shareholders, stakeholders and employees,” said Teh.
A different path
For Tropicana’s Lee, she went on a different path. Lee, with over 30 years of professional experience across various industries linked to the property industry, worked her way up the corporate ladder.
In 2010, she joined Tropicana where she was entrusted to establish and strengthen the procurement and sourcing strategy for the group. After working 10 years in Tropicana, the group recognised her potential in driving the Sales and marketing division and she became the division’s managing director. Her solid performance and approachable leadership style propelled her to her current position as deputy CEO.
On the male-female ratio in the property industry, Lee believed that there is a good gender balance nowadays. “For example, our project division, marketing and sales division and finance division have a good mix of males and females,” she said.
Lim added: “When I started my first project 20 years ago, I was already working with female architects, female interior designers, and female contractors. We visited construction sites and had various meetings at the site. I have also seen some of them walking steadily with high heels at the construction site. So, it is not uncommon for women to play important in this industry except at male-dominated construction sites.
“I am fortunate that I did not experience any significant prejudice being a woman in this industry. Today, I am working with many fantastic women in my industry and within my organisation. The gender gap has also narrowed over time.”
This is not a male-dominated industry per se, but there are certain professions which have remained more male-dominated, for example, site project managers, interjected Leong.
“In many other roles and most certainly in leadership roles, it is still the right job fit trumping over gender. Tan Sri Leong is a strong proponent of the right person for the right job and this gender blindness and respect for both genders is reflected in the company.
“In Mah Sing, our head of legal, head of investor relations and corporate finance, head of people operations, head of business development, head of interior design and fit out, head of strategic communications, sustainability and corporate
responsibility are all ladies, and it is not their gender but their capabilities which put them in these roles. On the board Level, 43% of our directors are ladies. I do not deny that there are challenges but perhaps it is less apparent where we work,” she said.
From a woman’s perspective
At SDB, women make up 50% of its workforce, including those in senior management roles and on the Board.
“As a woman myself, I believe that women can bring diversity to the table, which is invaluable in any business. We have different life experiences, perspectives, and approaches to problem-solving as compared to our men counterparts, which can lead to new and innovative ideas. To add on, women’s abilities to multitask can be beneficial and many of us are very detail-oriented and thorough in our work - especially when attention to detail is critical or is what sets us apart from our competitors,” said Teh.
“We have implemented flexible working hours whereby the SDB team can avoid the evening rush hour and leave earlier before the traffic congestion starts. This enables our colleagues especially women to pick up the children and spent more quality time with their families at home.
“It is also important for women, not just in the property sector, but in whatever industry they may be in, to be able to handle and deal with pressure. Having the right mindset is important. With positive thoughts, you can remain calm and stay focused on what needs to be accomplished. For me, practising meditation three times daily has helped a lot as it allows me to detach from things that are negative. Through meditation, I learn to be grateful and appreciative of all the good things,” she added.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has its challenges, said Ong, who had a different experience.
“The lack of representation and diversity often meant that I was the only woman in the room. This required me to be assertive and confident in my abilities to ensure that my ideas were heard and valued.
“Additionally, there were times when I felt like I had to work harder to prove myself and my capabilities, as the expectations of women in this industry can be sometimes higher than those for men. However, I have always been committed to working hard, continuously developing my skills and knowledge, and building relationships with my colleagues, which has helped me to establish myself as a respected and valued member of the team,” she said.
On a brighter note, Ong believed that the challenges faced have made her a stronger and more resilient professional. This sentiment is clearly shared with the other women leaders.
Adversity strengthens a person, as the proverb goes. And it has not only made these great leaders stronger but also more resilient. They have acquired new knowledge and viewpoints over time, which has increased their appreciation for what they already have.
Advice they would have loved
If a time machine were to have been invented, these five property women would have greatly appreciated the following advice from themselves to their younger selves.
Mah Sing Group Bhd group strategy and operations director Jane Leong is grateful to have met several good mentors in the office who guided and taught her the end-to-end process in a property development cycle as well as the people management side of the business.
“Looking back, I would have advised myself to find a good coach who could continuously build me to be a better version of myself as I believe this could have helped me reach my work and life goals. Sometimes, it takes a person from outside looking in to give fresh perspectives and share their life experiences,” she said.
KIP REIT executive director Valerie Ong does not want to change what she has done, pointing out that “life is a journey, not a destination” and this rings true in her life. “I would not have wanted to do anything differently. I would have told myself to embrace the journey as learning never stops,” she said.
“Essentially, it is about choices made along the way. I would advise my younger self to focus on learning and be open to new opportunities. It is important to stay up to date with the latest technology and trends. Be open and not be afraid to try out new things, even if it is beyond your comfort zone – be a trailblazer,” said Selangor Dredging Bhd managing director Teh Lip Kim.
She said: “It is also important to be confident in your own abilities yet at the same time be able to embrace failure. Failure will always be part of the learning process and it is very important to not let it discourage you. Take for example the recent pandemic and how it has impacted and disrupted our lives in unprecedented ways. Many people lost their jobs and businesses. We never saw it coming but as we are now healing from it, we take this as an opportunity to learn and grow.
“Last but not least, I would advise myself to prioritise work-life balance. Even if the work is demanding, it is important to prioritise your physical and mental health. Nothing is more important than your own well-being.”
For Titijaya Land Bhd executive director Charmaine Lim Puay Fung, she wishes to tell her younger self to be present more at construction sites and not be constrained by physical differences, even with all the surrounding male construction workers at the sites.
As for Tropicana Corporation Bhd deputy chief executive officer Joanne Lee, she said: “On the business front, I will review our landbank acquisitions with our team and buy more quality landbank across Malaysia. We will also roll out more sustainable townships anchored by our Tropicana unique development DNA while staying committed to our ESG pillars. We will also continue to improve our group's strategy and business model, capitalising on local and global market trends.”
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