Globetrotter, highly successful property investor and Real Estate Personality 2016, the CapitaLand Vietnam CEO talks about the country’s exciting future, top investment tips and his humble origins in Malaysia’s rubber plantation country
The chic surrounds of The Deck in Ho Chi Minh City where Chen Lian Pang arranges to meet for a sunset coffee is far removed from the CapitaLand Vietnam CEO’s roots in rural northern Malaysia. Taking a seat at a shaded table with sweeping views of the Saigon River and the city’s crane- studded skyline beyond it, 59-year-old Chen recalls his upbringing in the rubber plantation town of Sitiawan.
“My mother worked two shifts every day as a rubber tapper, so I hardly saw her,” he recalls. “My five siblings and I essentially grew up on our own. My older sister cooked for me, took me to school and stuff like that – we took care of each other.”
Yet learning to fend solo is a trait that has led Chen, who was recently named the Vietnam Property Awards 2016 Real Estate Personality of the Year, on an adventurous and often unpredictable path.
The long hours his mother, who Chen holds up as a great inspiration, invested clearly paid off, when at the age of 18, he traded the plantations for the bright lights of London.
“At that point, I’d never been to Kuala Lumpur, in fact I’d never even left my hometown! And there I was in London, waiting for my brother to pick me up,” Chen says. “It was a huge culture shock, a brand new environment, but I immediately liked it.”
He credits his upbringing for his passion for taking on fresh challenges.
“I grew up with minimal supervision and I think that’s why I find it easy to adapt to new environments. It is probably why my bosses have always sent me to new frontiers.”
Chen had stints in Taiwan, Vietnam, China and Thailand over the last three decades before assuming his current role in with CapitaLand. But he wasn’t always such a journeyman.
After studying in the UK, Chen was headhunted by Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) and headed for the island state – another country he’d never before stepped foot in. Over the following decade, Singapore became the stage for many defining acts in Chen’s life and career.
Starting out initially as a design engineer, he later moved into the Profit and Loss department and learned about the business end of the industry. He also gathered skills that would prove invaluable in the emerging markets where he’d later carve out a reputation.
“I learned about the procedures and process of controlling a big company,” he says. “Everybody was very strict on corruption, so I was educated on how bad it can be for a person, for a company and for a country.”
It was in Singapore that Chen met his future wife. Their first joint venture – even prior to marriage – was an investment in a condominium project. Chen continues to invest in property and believes that Singapore remains the best bet for buyers looking for strong returns.
“Over the last 30 years, Singapore has been one of the only places in the region where property prices have constantly appreciated,” he says. “Buy property in a good location. It might be expensive but stretch your dollar because during the good times the value of property in a prime location will always go up, and during bad times it doesn’t depreciate too much.”
After 11 successful years with the HDB, Chen joined a family-run construction firm as general manager and relocated to Taiwan shortly after.
“It was a really rough place back then… nobody wanted to work there apart from me,” he recalls.
His first time at the helm of a company, Chen describes it as a challenging period, albeit one that taught him the value of managing different cultures and volatile personalities. He transformed the two loss-making units he was overseeing to break even by the time CapitaLand came calling in mid-90s.
Chen went on to spend five years in Thailand with the developer where he was instrumental in the development of 10 landmark properties, including the Athenee Residences. He also managed three start-ups in three different Chinese cities and was involved in the inception of Singapore’s iconic Clarke Quay.
Chen made his first significant mark in Vietnam real estate in 1996 as project manager for Hanoi’s Westlake Hotel before returning in 2013 to take up the mantle of country CEO for CapitaLand.
Reflecting on how the property industry has changed in the two decades since he first visited, he says: “At that point in time the business environment in Vietnam was pretty tough, there were a lot of teething problems, but nowadays the rules and regulations are more transparent, it’s easier to operate and far easier to find knowledgeable staff.”
Plans are already underway for CapitaLand Vietnam – best known for developing high-end condo projects in Ho Chi Minh City, such as the upcoming Vista Verde and The Krista – to introduce office and retail properties to its portfolio. With the country touted as one of the region’s most exciting markets, this would appear to be a no-brainer for such a successful property developer. Citing the crash that stunted the market in Vietnam for the best part of the last 10 years, Chen, however, signs off with words of caution.
“People, capital and frugal investment are what make good real estate developments,” he says. “We saw in the last few cycles that some developers came out and went bust because they didn’t invest carefully. Don’t overstretch and watch your cash flow.