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Ong Chih Ching expands KOP Group

Property developer, social-media influencer and art lover Ong Chih Ching is all these and more. we find out what makes this self-starter tick.

As you browse through leading business-networking website Linkedin’s Influencer blog posts, one Chinese name stands out from a list including US President Barack Obama, Virgin boss Richard Branson and Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon.

Ong Chih Ching.

The 45-year-old executive chairman of KOP Limited is one of 400 individuals who have been invited by the programme to share their insights with users. Having racked up such laurels last year as Outstanding Entrepreneur at the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Awards and being on Forbes list of Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen, she’s got the clout to give her words weight.

A look at her accomplishments shows that in 2007, a year after she co-founded KOP Group, she convinced luxury hotel chain The Ritz-Carlton to lend its name to her first residential project.

Up until then, The Ritz-Carlton Residences existed only in North America. The Cairnhill skyscraper was the hotel chain’s first full strata-titled luxury residential project in Asia and the first residential property to offer its renowned amenities and service.

That same year, KOP announced 56-unit Hamilton Scotts, the world’s tallest residence to offer en suite parking. It also developed Singapore’s first transitional- office building, Scotts Spazio, which leases office space in the short to medium term.

Since then, the former corporate lawyer has gone on to acquire luxury boutique hotel chain Franklyn Hotels and Resorts which has properties in the UK and Europe; open beachfront retreat Montigo Resorts, Nongsa in Batam; and acquire Prudential Tower, in a consortium together with Lian Beng Group, KSH Holdings and Centurion Global.

Not only did she lead KOP Limited, which comprises KOP Group, KOP Properties, KOP Entertainment and KOP Hospitality, to list on the Catalist last May, she is also heading the revamp of the Fort Canning Arts Centre which will house private museum Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris.

Her latest venture is mixed-development zone Northernlight outside Shanghai, China. The $2.8-billion project, which is being constructed on an 18ha plot of land, will feature hotel, office, residential and retail components, all anchored by Winterland, which sets itself up as the world’s largest integrated indoor winter resort and is expected to be completed by 2018.

Ong Chih Ching's latest venture, mixed-development zone Northernlight, is scheduled to open by 2018.
Ong Chih Ching’s latest venture, mixed-development zone Northernlight, is scheduled to open by 2018.

Less than a decade after it was set up, the group has burgeoned into a global player with more than US$2.37 billion (S$3.1 billion) in assets and US$78.8 million in annual revenue, according to Forbes.

Dream A (Not So) Little Dream
I meet Ong at the library of 36-storey The Ritz-Carlton Residences, where she keeps a home. With her diminutive stature, pleasant voice and affable demeanour, she does not immediately strike you as a stereotypical commander-in-chief with a Type A personality. But don’t be fooled by her easygoing nature, for Ong wins support on the charm offensive, reeling her audience in with much candour, logic and reason, and then getting them to see eye to eye with her.

In her first Influencer post last October, she referenced her favourite quote: “Walt Disney once said, ‘All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them’. I always keep this close to heart, be it in my personal life or the companies I lead; everything starts from a dream.

“It is this conviction – the dedication and drive to turn dreams into a reality – that remains, to me, the top ingredient of being a successful entrepreneur.”

No doubt, that go-getting attitude was behind KOP securing its first project. Says Ong: “It took nine months and over 6,000 e-mail messages to close the (Ritz-Carlton) deal. They felt that we understood the brand very well and were confident that we could deliver quality.”

Ong’s dedication to the project showed in her attention to detail. She conceived The Ritz-Carlton Residences’ clover leaf motif, which can be found throughout the building – from elevator doors to brass partition grilles that separate the library – and at the outdoor terrace.

She also personally picked out the herringbone pattern for flooring at public areas and customised the shade of finishings when those available were not suitable.

Her ideas are formed by her personal observations of human behaviour, rather than culled from external market research, she says, joking that she spends her leisure time hanging out at shopping malls and museums to gather information. “There’s no better evaluator than myself. I’ve always relied on my gut instinct and it has served me well for the past 45 years.”

She insisted, for example, on going to the UK alone to study at the age of 16, after she graduated from St Nicholas Girls’ School. “It wasn’t a tradition in our clan to study abroad. But I told my mum I wanted to go because I was playing too much badminton.

“I was good at it and if I stayed in Singapore, (I knew) I would be pressured by the junior colleges (to play competitively), neglect my schoolwork and (end up) being a bum in life. She agreed and fought hard for me with my father to go.”

Had Ong Chih Ching (front row, fifth from the right) pursued her passion for badminton, there may not be KOP Limited today.
Had Ong Chih Ching (front row, fifth from the right) pursued her passion for badminton, there may not be KOP Limited today.

Her father, who passed away in 1998, ran a successful roller-shutter business which Ong describes as being one of the top in the trade. He had exacting standards of his four children – Ong is the second eldest – and would accept nothing less than full marks in tests and exams.

“No matter what I did, it was never good enough. He was very strict with me and I was rebellious (as a result),” she recalls. She developed an inferiority complex which “doesn’t really show” but is nevertheless present and well publicised, as were her fights with her father.

With hindsight, however, his brand of tough love worked, Ong says, as it has made her a stronger person. The values he imparted have also come in useful. “My father said this to me once, ‘It’s not easy to be a nice person and not get taken advantage of’.

“Even when helping people, you have to protect yourself first. This doesn’t mean (being) selfish, it just creates a better foundation for when you deal with other people.”

Yin and Yang
Ong returned to Singapore to work for a legal practice after completing her A levels at Holborn Law Tutors in London. She had scraped through with a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Buckingham in the UK – “I just made it by the minimum required to be a lawyer”. By 1996, she had set up her law firm, Koh, Ong & Partners.

“There’s no better evaluator than myself. I’ve always relied on my gut instinct and it has served me well for the past 45 years.”

A decade later, having chalked up some experience in the real-estate industry thanks to years of doling out legal advice in the corporate sector, she established KOP Group with Leny Suparman, a former CBRE executive whom she met through a mutual friend in 2000. Together, the pair sought to leave a mark on Singapore’s real-estate scene with unconventional concepts.

Just as every society needs a measure of critical opinion for self-reflection and self-improvement, Ong finds the ideal intellectual opponent in Suparman, whom she describes as a good sparring partner, the yin to her yang.

Says Ong: “She thinks differently from me. She’s a practical person, whereas I’m more dreamy and artistic. Yet, there is so much chemistry that we can work (well) together. When the two of us agree on something, there are a lot of fireworks. This is why we can produce a lot of nice projects.”

Says Suparman: “I thought I was bold, creative and determined, until I met her. She surpasses me in these aspects.

“Chih Ching is a very interesting blend of someone who’s vulnerable and sensitive yet strong, confident and sharp on the work front. Sometimes, these two areas get mixed up a little, but she always manages to bounce back and regain her balance. One needs to set a high standard for herself in order to achieve great things in life. The irony is that Chih Ching doesn’t set out to be all that – she’s just someone who has a vision and drives herself and others around her to go all the way for it. She has that power.”

If she does, it was hard won.

Says Ong: “I used to get angry with myself (when things go wrong) and become depressed for a while. I would go into a total-reflection mode for days and wonder how I could have made things turn out better. But these days, I’d go for a swim or soak in the jacuzzi, reflect and then bounce back with a vengeance!”

Uncharted Waters
These days, Ong is branching out into entertainment real estate – “sort of like an integrated resort without the casino component”, she explains.

While the concept itself isn’t entirely new – think of theme parks with hotel facilities like Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando – the process has typically been organic, with components like hotels, resorts or residential facilities added only after the central entertainment feature has been anchored in place.

Ong’s idea is to plan the entire complex from scratch.

“The flow and integration is better this way. Everything is calculated and controlled. Part of the reason this has not been done before is that real-estate folks do not understand entertainment, and entertainment folks do not understand real estate.”

Its first foray is Northernlight in Shanghai, a concept which, if successful, Ong hopes to replicate around the world, whether by means of franchise licences or through joint investments.

Such large-scale, mixed-use properties are part of KOP’s strategy to cross the $1-billion mark in project development. This has been outlined in the company’s 10-year roadmap.

“People are buying fewer material goods. Retail will continue to slump. But, if we build an entertainment complex, we can give people an immersive experience. We want to be really quick in this segment. We just have to find the right partners to work with.”

Role Model
In being named one of Forbes’ 50 Power Businesswomen in Asia, a list that spans over 13 countries, Ong joins Singtel’s group CEO Chua Sock Koong, Temasek Holdings’ executive director and CEO Ho Ching and Straits Trading executive chairman Chew Gek Khim as Singapore power players.

Such public accolades have also meant that the outspoken Ong, who founded watch-collectors guild Bezel in 2003, has learnt to rein in what can be perceived as controversial views, some of which can be misconstrued as being critical of the Government, though they are merely her shrewd observations of the social-political milieu.

She says: “(Being appointed a Linkedin Influencer) has made me feel that people are looking to me as a role model. So I’ve become more careful about what I say. I try to go deeper in my perspectives. If I say something that could potentially be controversial, then I’ll take the time to explain myself.”

Asked how she envisions her future, she jests: “Having enough money to have a nice yacht to travel the world! Now, I see why I don’t think I’m successful. I feel that I am just doing what I like and what I am responsible (for). I think I have a lot more to do.”

Next up on Ong’s to-do list is to participate in social enterprises. “That would be the last phase of my life. Social enterprise is the most sustainable form of charity. I am too selfish to devote myself entirely to it now but I am sure I will get there.”