Photo Credit Aznan Johary
clock 29-11-2017
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Father-Daughter Interview: Planting the Roots

Every woman may not be a queen to her husband, but she is always a princess to her father. Taking over a family's business and living up to one's family legacy is not an easy thing to do. We sat down with Mr Chew Sang Hai and his daughter Emily Chew Fei Sean, pioneers of Grand Merdeka Sdn Bhd, to learn of their father-daughter working relationship.

PH: Emily, your field of study is in Accounts and Management, right? What made you move into mall management instead? Emily: Yes. I graduated with a Bachelor in E-Commerce. Accountancy and management were never my forte. In fact, I had wanted to become a lawyer. It had never occurred to me that one day, I'd follow into my dad's footsteps. He was always encouraging me to learn new things. I guess you can say my mall management journey started by accident. Of course every parent would want their children to take over their family business and preserve the family legacy, and I think I'm doing just that.

PH: How close do you both work together in terms of managing the mall? Emily: Managing the mall can be a very challenging task. My dad and I work closely together but, yet, at the same time, we do work independently too. My dad would be the architect of the masterplan in terms of organising the direction of the mall, while I would be assisting him in the execution part. Mr Chew: The mall is basically managed by Fei Sean from advertising to promoting and operating the mall. My job is to get financing and approval like constructing and completing the Cineplex and to look for joint venture partnerships or anchor tenants to fill up the remaining units in the mall. I'm also in charge of monitoring the progression and completion of GM Home, which is targeted for completion by the end of 2017.

PH: What is it like to have a father-daughter working relationship? Emily: I'm grateful to be working together with my dad by my side every day. Of course, I feel a sense of humility too, but he is a man of wisdom and knowledge. I believe that there is still so much more for me to learn from him. There are times when we fall into disagreements and have different opinions but at the end of the day, it all boils back down to the bigger picture; the bigger purpose of the business and of course, our family. Mr Chew: I'd say we have a harmonious and workable relationship. As a father, I feel it's only necessary for me to be a mentor to my daughter and to guide her through any shortcomings.

PH: What do you think are the key points in maintaining a healthy father-daughter working relationship? Emily: In my opinion, I am still learning to improve and learning new ways to make our working relationship effective. I believe that the mutual respect and admiration help in making a good working relationship. Mr Chew: For me, I think that trust and a fully delegated approach with fatherly mentorship would make a good relationship.

PH: Grand Merdeka received some criticism from the public for being too far and not having tenants. What do you say to them in response? Emily: The city centre has been rapidly developing for the past 5-10 years and we felt the need to diversify from that. Grand Merdeka Mall aims to provide a convenience and serve the needs of the 380,000 people living in the Northern part of Kota Kinabalu. Mr Chew: We're conservative developers and have been blessed with financial stability. In any stratified mall, especially a suburban mall, filling up 80%-100% of retail space with a snap of the finger is impossible. Most suburban and urban malls take 5 years to reach its heights. Having said that, we and other friendly parties own more than 60% of the mall and have offered incentives to attract tenants.

Since our opening in June, the occupancy rate of the mall stands at around 30% to date. We expect a 45% occupancy rate in the first half of 2018, and by mid-2018, we expect to open our 42,000 sqft hypermart and electrical appliance hub. Emily: It is a challenge for us to have an edge in getting bigger and branded tenants because most retailers would not be interested in stratified malls simply due to the possible tenancy complications with unit owners. Despite all these, we are not deterred by the negative feedback from the public because we know we must work harder to make the mall a success.

PH: How do you plan to gain the public's confidence? Emily: We organize various events and activities throughout the year and we will celebrate all sorts of events from Valentine's Day to Hari Raya to Summer Festivals, Christmas, you name it. We want to encourage people to come to the mall. I believe that will be a stepping stone in giving confidence to future retailers and of course, our existing retailers. We have also worked out various strategies such as joint ventures and special rental packages with retailers to convince them to take up the tenancy with us.

PH: Wisma Merdeka is an adored shopping mall in KK. What do you see in its future? Emily: Wisma Merdeka has been a household name for more than 30 years in Sabah. The mall has experienced its fair share of ups and downs but has continuously served the surrounding community. With the existence of newer malls, Wisma Merdeka has seen a decline in its occupancy rate and has lost some of its market share to the newer malls. Despite all that, it has been observed that many patrons that throng Wisma Merdeka are mainly tourists. So, I still believe that there is hope for the mall to do well. Mr Chew: Being the oldest mall in KK is a bit of a disadvantage for Wisma Merdeka. It is difficult to expand and compete for new anchor mixes and to attract new trends now, and it's sad because the mall would slowly lose its glory. This can already be seen in the decrease of rentals.

PH: What can Wisma Merdeka do to keep up with the newer malls around it? Emily: In order to stay in the game, Wisma Merdeka would need to give the mall some revamping work or a "makeover”. Wisma Merdeka is a stratified mall and getting the consensus from all owners of the mall for a "makeover” can be a very daunting matter. My humble suggestion for Wisma Merdeka would be to revisit the demography of the catchment and re-strategize its marketing approach and exposure. This will surely give confidence back to the market. Mr Chew: Unit owners have deep pockets and most of them have their own loyal customers, hence they're able to withstand the retail challenges. I think that the management corporation of Wisma Merdeka should be innovative and try to bring back the mall's glory because it is, after all, situated in the best location in town.

PH: Emily, do you feel pressured to take over and follow your dad's footsteps? Emily: I would be lying if I say that I'm not pressured. It is a big shoe to fill. It is definitely a steep learning curve for me to follow in his footsteps. All I can hope for is to learn as much as I can from him, and be inspired by his triumphs and tribulations.

PH: Mr Chew, what are your hopes for your daughter, in terms of progressing in the company as well as her role(s) in SHAREDA? Mr Chew: Through the many learning processes in SHAREDA and Grand Merdeka Group, I hope Fei Sean would grab the opportunity to develop herself and develop her own entrepreneurship in the future. But nonetheless, I'm very proud of her.

PH: Emily, what is the most valuable lesson or advice you picked up from your father? Emily: My dad is a man of his word and he will never back down even when the road gets tough. Through my working journey with him, he has showed me the importance of being trustworthy and reliable. And it is only natural that with his selflessness and teachings, that I too, honour my promise and never go back on my words when it comes to delivering to our clients. I believe that, when we are given an obligation, it is our responsibility to honour it.

PH: Lastly, where do you see the company heading and what are your ambitions for the company? Emily: The Company is still in its infancy stage. There are lots of work that still needs to be done. I believe that while we're building this company, we're also building capacity and cultivating talents. We recruit and train our supporting team, nurturing and developing independent and capable team of young, enthusiastic people.

We are in the midst of developing the 2nd and 3rd phase of Grand Merdeka. Amongst others, we are looking forward to the development of the water theme park and the four towers of business haven and retail commercial outlets. Mr Chew: Property development is a highly challenging and capitalised industry. We are planning to launch the next phase of development in Grand Merdeka, which has a Gross Development Value of RM1.2 billion. To date, we are planning to acquire more land banks and to explore new innovative fund-raising methods like an initial public offering or joint ventures with strategic partners for future developments.

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