Haute Living, 27 June 2007
Kwek Leng Beng is pure business.
He is known for being highly driven, and addicted to making deals. This billionaire magnate and international property developer has amassed a plethora of hotels that span the globe from London to New York to China, but Kwek’s real passion is making an indelible mark on his beloved city of Singapore’s dynamic, changing skyline.
Kwek, whose UK-based Millennium & Copthorne (M&C) Hotels Plc group once owned half of the prestigious Plaza hotel in New York, is taking his hotel know-how and developing the St. Regis Residences, Singapore, among other projects. As Singapore’s first hotel and residence property, St. Regis Residences will introduce world-class designs to this island nation, and set the country’s new luxury real estate benchmark.
Executive chairman of City Developments Limited (CDL), Southeast Asia’s second largest property developer with 20,000 homes and 100 developments in Singapore, and Executive Chairman of Hong Leong Group of companies (parent co to CDL), Kwek’s acumen as a businessman and entrepreneur is renowned worldwide. Chairman Kwek, having just returned from his first holiday in years-he doesn’t enjoy taking time off, claiming, “I love business more.”-outlines his vision for Singapore during an interview with Haute Living, a vision that rings with an enthusiasm that is nothing less than contagious. “We want to be a biotech city, the medicinal hub, a city of amazing integrated resorts with downsized casinos,” he exclaims. He gets excited when talking about Singapore’s rapidly changing landscape, which will position the city as the leading dynamic business and tourism hub in Asia.
Once dubbed ‘Kwek Land Bank’ for his group’s sizable land bank in Singapore, Kwek is the country’s second-richest man, ranked 185th on Forbes 2006 list of the wealthiest people wordwide, and stands to gain as Singapore lures the jet-set with private banking services and new tax laws. He heads up an empire worth more than US$20 billion, with a worldwide staff of 30,000. One of the most influential players in Singapore’s luxury real estate boom that has led to a massive investment by developers in residential, hotel, office, and real estate markets, Kwek has his hands full with the St. Regis, Sentosa Cove, and Marina Bay projects, and as an advisor to the new US$3.6 billion integrated resort being built in Singapore by Las Vegas Sands corporation, set to open in 2009.
Kwek’s twin investment strategy- hotels with a residential component-has been taken to a new level with the St. Regis Hotel & Residences. Situated close to famed shopping district of Orchard Road, Kwek says that he has tried to create an iconic design and a concept of luxury lifestyle living at the St. Regis. Kwek himself loves luxury. He says, “I enjoy the finer things in life; I enjoy a good lifestyle and sense of design. I have the Maybach and the Bentley, Aston Martins and Ferraris.” His main residence is a mansion on one-acre in the prime district of Singapore, but he may choose to live at the St. Regis, where he has already purchased two sky villas. He describes these residences as exclusive, limited edition, and world class. “The arrival of a branded development where residents can enjoy the extended privileges and services from the adjoining six-star St. Regis hotel is a first in Singapore, and very exciting,” Kwek says.
The 20-story St. Regis Hotel, with 299 guestrooms, is planned to open in 2007, while the residences are expected to be ready in 2008. CDL will develop the residences along with Hong Leong Holdings Ltd and TID Pte Ltd (a joint venture company with Mitsui Fudosan, a leading real estate company in Japan), managed by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. The estimated price-range for the 173 chic three- and four-bedroom residences start at around US$3.1 million, ranging in size from 1,500 to 4,000 square feet. Residents will have a private elevator lobby leading directly into their suites. Owners of the illustrious residences will also have access to the prestigious St. Regis Hotel’s Bespoke services, which includes personal butlers, chauffeurs, and flower arrangements. Those with truly deep pockets (a la Kwek) can opt for a sky villa, upper roof decks that will house bedrooms, a private pool, and steam room, coming in between 5,000 to 7,200 square feet each.
CDL has created some of the most extravagant show suites in Singapore for the property’s launch, designed to show off handpicked furnishings and fittings. Kwek says, “I have seen condos in New York and London, and without boasting, I can say that the standard of finishing at St. Regis is far better than I have seen elsewhere. We have the best imported marble, the best of everything… New York might have showrooms and a sales office where you can see the type of material that will be used, but in Singapore, potential buyers get to see the actual showroom apartments.
“At the end of the day, it has to be functional and beautiful.” Kwek brings this philosophy to several other high-end projects in the city, all in very strategic locations. He is building a sail-shaped skyscraper, called The Sail @ Marina Bay, part of the multi-billion dollar waterfront that will include the casino, a marina, and parks. Kwek explains, “I wanted a design of my own. I wanted a ship sailing out into the harbor in the form of a sculpture.” He created this twin-tower project with 1,111 luxury apartments, and managed to sell out within weeks of launch.
His iconic project, One Shenton, was launched in January 2007, and sold out in mere hours. Next to be launched? Quayside Isle, a marina-lifestyle project featuring waterfront homes on Sentosa Island, complete with W Hotel & Residences.
Singapore’s high-end market began taking off in late 2005, after steep declines from a property crash ten years ago. With a slew of new luxury projects, Kwek bullishly predicts a 10-20 percent rise in home prices next year. “Singapore is seeing a buying frenzy,” he says. “We are just at the start of an upward trend as the economy expands.” He also sees a lot more foreigners purchasing in Singapore. “In the old days, it would be about 20 percent, but with the St. Regis, foreigners are 65 percent. Because the population base in Singapore is small, the government has been promoting [the country] to foreign talent as a wonderful place to live and enjoy, and the people are listening.”
While other developers now race to launch new projects, Kwek understands that success depends on the design the developer can offer. “Buyers are very discerning,” he explains. “They understand if you want to sell your project at good prices, you have to do something more than what you have done in the past. A lot of that depends on creativity.”
Creativity is something that Kwek has brought to virtually every project he has gotten his hands on since he entered the real estate world at a very young age. Kwek is 53% owner of M&C, which currently owns 112 hotels and operates around a dozen. M&C’s origins come from the Hong Leong Group Singapore, an empire built from rubber plantations, cement, and property in the 1940′s and 1950′s by Kwek’s father, Kwek Hong Pong. Upon returning to Singapore from London with his law degree in 1963, young Kwek already had a knack of rising to the occasion. “At the age of 30, I took over a company called City Developments Limited, then a loss-making company,” recalled Kwek. Kwek was able to turn the business around, allowing the company-purchased for US$3 million in 1971-to become a favorite blue chip company in Singapore, with a capitalization of US$8.5 billion. “This deal was the start, combining my love for takeovers and property. It was very inspiring.”
He credits his father, whom he described as a tough master, for teaching him high standards. “When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I ran away to Malaysia, and he told someone to go and bring me back,” Kwek jokes. “His way of teaching was not actually explaining. He would ring at any time of the day and say ‘I want you to do this.’ Usually, I would not do it straight away, and within ten minutes, he would ring back and want to know how anything could be more important than what he asked me to do.”
Hiromichi Iwasa, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mitsui Fudosan, has known Kwek and his family for years. He says, “The late Mr. Kwek passed on his legacy of being a far-sighted entrepreneur. Kwek looks after joint venture partners.”
From his father, Kwek learned the importance of following up quickly, how to be innovative, and how to get the best customer. He also credits Leslie Grossman, a man from New York, as being a mentor, along with his father. “Both have passed away,” says Kwek, “but I learned a lot from them, especially that you must be passionate about what you do. If you are passionate, you can push the envelope farther, and be better than others.” He sets high standards, and has a competitive streak that extends to his morning bouts on the tennis courts. But regardless of where he is, his focus is always on work. He explains, “I work ten hours a day, but sometimes, I am so interested in something that I can’t sleep. My wife understands what makes the difference between an outstanding person and an average person, and is very understanding.” His wife, Cecilia is qualified as a barrister. She offers Kwek design tips inspired by her travels to art museums and concert halls, and her trips to art auctions in Paris and Venice. Her main advice is to not be carried away by minimalist or overly modern designs. “I always tell him to respect the local aesthetic, lifestyle, and Feng Shui principals.” She best sums up Kwek when asked what he really is like: “Kwek will not take no for an answer. He discusses five different topics in five minutes, and has extraordinary vision.”
These sentiments are echoed by others who have had the pleasure of doing business with this real estate mastermind. Dolly Lenz, Vice Chairman for Douglas Elliman says, “During my many trips to Asia over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity to meet practically all the movers and shakers shaping the Asian landscape. None has impressed me more with his vision and drive than Kwek. He is truly a man on a mission. He is simply the savviest and most brilliant developer in the Far East.”
Kwek’s talent for identifying trends, and following his gut feeling in business dealings has earned him tremendous respect from others in the industry. “The first time I met Kwek, I flew to Singapore with an offer to buy The Plaza [hotel in New York],” says Mike Naftali, President and CEO of Elad Properties. “My first impression was that he was a very savvy businessman-extremely smart, and knows the business upside down. But he was also a person you could talk to, and try to negotiate with in good faith.” Naftali’s partial condo-conversion plans as a way to boost the hotel fortunes at The Plaza sat well with Kwek, and the deal was completed before Naftali flew back to New York. Currently, the two are involved in other projects together, including a high-end residential condo development in Singapore. “I see he really cares about details; he personally looks into every detail. What I admire about him most is that he’s very focused, very smart, and he is tough with the numbers-Tough in a good way.”
Another friend and co-investor, Dr. K.S. Lo, deputy Chairman and Managing Director of Great Eagle Holdings Ltd in Hong Kong, backs that view. “Kwek does not have the air of a big tycoon, even though he was then already one of the richest men in Asia. He’s very, very intelligent, but he would pretend he doesn’t know anything, and would keep asking questions, and playing devil’s advocate… Kwek drives a hard bargain while negotiating a deal, but he’s reasonable and he’s trustworthy. He always keeps his word.”
For the future, Kwek is keeping an eye on China, where M&C has been awarded its first hotel management contract, with the Millennium Hongqiao Hotel in Shanghai in the prime business district. This move comes years after M&C first moved into China. “We were the first to have gone to Beijing and developed a gated community with single-family homes in 1994. It was very profitable, but then we stopped.” Just last year, he purchased a hotel in Beijing, to be ready in 2008.
In Los Angeles, Kwek is considering creating condos at his Millennium Biltmore Hotel; In London, he is being courted by developers to do condos at five of his hotels. He is considering a hotel/residence project with a partner in Japan as well. Kwek also has a solid presence in Thailand, including a 600-unit residential project, and an additional hotel development in Bangkok as well as the largest shopping mall in Phuket.
His various projects have led him to travel the world, but Singapore is where he chooses to spend the majority of his time. Here, he settles in with his two sons. One son, age 26, just graduated from Wharton Business School, and is studying International Relations and Comparative Politics at Columbia. His other son worked at Credit Suisse, then at one of Kwek’s New York hotels. Now he is in China, trying to take a loss-making company recently acquired and turn a profit. Do we have yet another Kwek that will one day be changing the global landscape in such a dynamic way? One can only hope.