The Asana

The Asana is an exclusive 48-apartment residential development by Aurum Land. Source: Aurum Land

Family businesses in Singapore are not all that uncommon, but how do they fare in the property market? We speak to a couple of industry players at the helm of their respective family businesses in their second and fourth generations.

by Cheryl Marie Tay

Any family business involves plenty of heritage and tradition, and keeping things close to home has certain advantages: the family legacy is preserved, and the business has time to create and establish a solid reputation for itself over the years.

Furthermore, a successful family business is essentially a secure future for the next generation: should they decide to continue in the proud tradition of the generations before them, they have a career, inheritance and connections many others can only dream about.

But the ambitions of later generations do not always coincide with the practices of their forefathers, and mixing the old and the new can be a tricky process. In Singapore, it is rare for a family business to last beyond three generations.

In the country’s much-hyped property industry, however, several family businesses have managed to step into modern times and still retain their traditions by flourishing where others fear to tread: the area of diversification.

Transcending generations

Woh Hup is one such example. Founded in 1927 by the late Yong Yit Lin, its early construction contracts from the Seremban government elevated its status as a pioneer building contractor in Malaya. It went on to build some of Singapore’s most significant developments, including Clifford Pier, Changi Prison, the Royal Airforce Base in Kuala Lumpur (the company’s first overseas project), Great World City, Reflections at Keppel Bay, Gardens by the Bay and Jewel Changi Airport.

Today, in its 89th year of operations, Woh Hup is an industry stalwart and one of the few family businesses in Singapore to have carried on into the fourth generation. Its subsidiaries include WH International, Aurum Investments and WH Precast Sdn Bhd.

Another successful family property business here is contractor Evan Lim & Co., which was established in 1963. Its development arm, EL Development, is headed by Managing Director Lim Yew Soon, who joined the family business at his late father Evan’s persuasion.

Though younger and smaller than Woh Hup, it has done well for itself in Singapore, having built boutique residential developments such as Parc Centennial and industrial projects like Eldix, where its headquarters are.

Faces of the future

Woh Hup’s Michelle Yong, Director and acting COO of Aurum Land, is going places. Aurum Land is a boutique residential property developer incorporated in 1982, and its projects include 1919, 21 Richards and The Orient. Its latest residential project is The Asana, an exclusive 48-unit development on Queen’s Road.

Working with a team of seven, she takes a hands-on approach to the business. Her clear ideas and dedication to executing them have brought Aurum Land a great degree of success. She says: “The Black and White 1919 residences that got us noticed was my idea, and it did really well.

“The Orient was inspired by 1920s Shanghai, and the idea of The Asana is very spa-like. It’s a good differentiating factor when you put a lot of thought into the design, and the buyers really connect with it.”

Likewise, Lim Yew Soon has been responsible for popular boutique residential projects such as Rhapsody on Mount Elizabeth and Stevens Suites, as well as industrial developments like Nordix and Jurong Food Hub.

Resistance and reluctance

As Aurum Land is a wholly owned subsidiary of Woh Hup, Yong reports to the latter’s board. She says, “I answer mainly to my uncle, father and grandfather, but they give me quite a lot of freedom to run the business. It is only strategic decisions like buying land that I have to discuss with them.”

However, things were not always so straightforward for her. She initially had no intention of joining the family business, and started off as an economist for a private sector think tank in the UK. “I thought I would become an academic, so I went to Oxford to do my masters. But writing my thesis drove me crazy, so I didn’t want to be an academic anymore.”

Despite her father’s eagerness for her to join Woh Hup, she was hesitant. But when his brother, who was leading Aurum Land, suddenly passed away at the age of 40, he approached her again. Instead of working for Woh Hup, however, she took over Aurum Land in 2007.

Yong had a rocky start: “For the first few years, I felt my hands were tied. I was relying a lot on my uncle Eugene (an accomplished architect) and learning from him. They agreed to let me grow the business but were cautious about letting me take charge. Apart from our HQ, I wasn’t allowed to buy any property in the first two years. I wanted to assert myself but was met with some resistance.”

She had begun to entertain the idea of starting her own café when the management relented. She then bought 21 Richards at Kovan, which sold out within six to eight months. Its performance was impressive, given that the government had started to clamp down on the property market with the cooling measures then.

“With the success of 21 Richards and 1919, I earned the trust of the board and everything else became easier.”

Similarly, Lim was at first reluctant to follow in his older siblings’ footsteps and join the family business. The civil engineering graduate had been working in the IT sector before giving in to the senior Lim’s persistent requests for him to work for Evan Lim & Co.

Unlike Yong, however, Lim was encouraged to steer the company in a new direction. Forex risks and developers defaulting on payment proved to be his biggest obstacles, leading him to propose the establishment of a property development arm to his father, who was supportive of the idea.

But his early years in the industry were not easy. EL Development’s first project was Rhapsody on Mount Elizabeth, and its limited capital, alongside Lim’s relatively young age, somewhat hindered the process. “It was 2006 and I was just 31 years old. One of the buyers asked for my IC to verify that I was in charge; they had never heard of Evan Lim as a developer.”

In-house independence

Now that Yong has far more autonomy in handling Aurum Land, the business is going places. With 10 residential developments under its belt, it has ventured into the commercial property world with Collision 8, a membership-based co-working space with an innovation focus.

Yong says of the project: “I wanted to build co-working spaces, as opposed to serviced or traditional offices. (Together with a venture capitalist friend) I decided to bring the traditional and tech worlds together to differentiate the space, which is a membership-based business club of sorts. I want to help make connections in the industry and provide a co-working space for them.”

Furthering her foray into commercial property, Yong has embarked on a “passion project” with Da Paolo Group, a café called Dot and Dash at High Street Centre, where Collision 8’s office is. She is also looking into building retirement resorts for the elderly, complete with 24-hour medical care and elderly-friendly apartments.

Michelle Yong

Aurum Land Director Michelle Yong took the reins in 2007. (Photo: Jaslyn Seah)

What lies ahead

Lim prefers to be conservative in his business plans, developing a new project once every two to three years and focusing on mass-market developments. Ironically, his initial plan for Evan Lim & Co. was to take the company overseas, but the challenges he faced in Singapore and the subsequent establishment of EL Development have put that plan on hold for now.

Yong, on the other hand, says: “I don’t see the cooling measures easing anytime soon. I think the government has created a problem for itself; liquidity in the market has increased and as soon as they relax the measures, prices will go through the roof again. I understand the government wants to prevent runaway prices but there’s no free market here, and it seems its motivation has become increasingly political. I don’t feel very positive about the market, and am exploring opportunities elsewhere.”

Graciousness and gratitude

Success does not come without difficulty and hard work, and despite the challenges they’ve faced, Lim and Yong are not shy about expressing their gratitude for the opportunities their families have given them.

According to Lim, his late father was his “spiritual and moral support”, allowing him to “compete with the big boys”, which he deems one of his greatest career achievements.

Yong says, “Earning the trust and respect of my family has been fundamental in being able to do anything. It has put me in a better position. As the only person who has worked outside the family business, I’ve brought different perspectives to the business and stood my ground. But ultimately, I also need their support and backing.”

She is thankful for her position in the company, and hopes to one day do for her two young sons what her father did for her. “Aurum Land has been one of the greatest gifts to me, even though there were many problems when I first joined. Starting Collision 8 from scratch was so much more work, but I want this to be my legacy. I want to be able to tell my kids: ‘Here are 20 businesses. Make something of it.’”


The PropertyGuru News & Views This article was first published in the print version PropertyGuru News & Views. Download PDFs of full print issues or read more stories now!