Michelle Yong, 39, comes from a family that is known for building some of Singapore’s most iconic developments, such as Gardens by the Bay and UOB Plaza 1 and 2. Construction conglomerate Woh Hup was founded by her late great-grandfather. Her grandfather, Yong Nam Seng, is currently Woh Hup’s chairman, while her father, Yong Tiam Yoon, is its deputy chairman.
Ms Yong wasn’t interested in the construction side of the family business, but agreed to head Aurum, a subsidiary of Woh Hup in 2007. She had previously worked in academia, consulted for a private sector think tank for the UK government, and later did a stint in management consulting. Aurum comprises Aurum Land, Aurum Investments, Collision 8 and Core Collective.
As the only female director at Woh Hup, she has grown Aurum Land into more than just a boutique property developer. In 2016, she co-founded Collision 8, a co-working space, and earlier this year, started Core Collective, another co-working space but for the health and wellness community.
Under her leadership, corporate venture fund Aurum Investments has recently pivoted to focus on proptech startups that are creating human-centric innovations within the real estate industry, the first being Singapore’s first tech-powered co-living service provider, Hmlet.
Why did you join the family business, and was it easy fitting in?
I was disillusioned after my last job as a management consultant. I didn’t feel writing reports were giving me satisfaction. It was perfect timing when I was asked to take over Aurum Land. I felt I could take ownership of it, grow it, and give back to the family.
Joining the family business meant lots of support from them. I had plenty to learn and was not afraid to ask my uncle, father and younger brother for help and advice. The advantage of the family name also meant getting better service from bankers and lawyers.
But that is not to say I had an easy time. I had to prove myself, that I knew what I was doing. For example, when I wanted to buy a piece of land, I had to source for 30 deals before I was allowed to make a purchase.
What is the downside of being in the family business?
There is a rule not to discuss work, outside of work. The rule was set a long time ago, and also broken a long time ago. At dinners on Thursday with my immediate family, we talk about work. On Sundays when the extended family meet at grandpa’s house for lunch, we talk about work again. There is no clear line separating work and family, which is not good. I don’t get much “me time”, but I feel very responsible to give everything that I have to the family business. This will be my last job.
What are your future plans for Aurum?
I am interested in retirement resorts, where there would be different businesses providing the necessary amenities on site. My team has done some field trips to retirement villages in England and Japan, with Ageing Asia Alliance, an industry network on the business of ageing. I have not started looking at potential sites yet. But the retirement resorts are unlikely to happen in the next two years, because I’ve promised my husband that I will not start a new business for now.
There is the saying that family businesses don’t last beyond the third generation. Woh Hup has lasted nine decades and four generations. What’s the secret behind Woh Hup’s lasting success?
Family harmony is very important to all of us. If there are disagreements, we set aside our differences and place family harmony first. By that I mean that we respect the elders’ decisions as final. But we might revisit that plan again in the future.
I have gone against their wishes before, when I started a cafe. The board did question my decision, but I was convinced that it would be a success, that our Collision 8 members would love it, and that I could expand it into a chain of cafes. But the cafe didn’t do well, and I had to close it after five months. The board was kind to me even though I had failed. I had to admit defeat, which for me is hard to do.
My brother, two cousins and I are the fourth-generation leaders in the business. We do feel the pressure to keep the company going.
What’s the best advice that family has given you?
My father has said to me, a non-decision is the worst decision. Recognise when you fail and move on. Don’t dwell on it.
Your kids are one, three and five years old. Do you expect them to join the family business?
I hope they do, but only because they want to. Hopefully by then, there will be 10 to 15 businesses for them to choose from. I like to start many businesses, because it means that everyone can pick and steer their own ship, rather than all grab the same steering wheel.
How do you balance career, family and personal life?
That is something that I’m still trying to work out. I spend a lot of time working on the weekdays, but make it a point to be home at 6pm for dinner, and spend the next three hours with the kids, bathing and reading to them, while my husband puts them to bed. My eldest has asked why I work such long hours. I tell him that once you start something, you have to complete it and do it well. Time on the weekends is strictly for the kids. We like going to Buds by Shangri-La playground, and if the kids are good, we go to Toys R Us for them to get some toys. We also enjoy hanging out at Tanjong Beach Club, and the kids have their playdates too.
As for personal “me time”, it’s great that I now have Core Collective, so I can fit in about four Pilates classes a week, and see my chiropractor here.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.