City&Country: Cover Story-- Blazing his own trail

A totally green approach

For some, retiring at 55 means taking life easy, perhaps travelling around the world or getting back to a long-neglected hobby. But this was not the case for P K Poh, a veteran on the country’s property development scene.

When he retired in 2007 as group managing director of public-listed property developer Dijaya Corp Bhd, Poh initially opted for a more laid-back lifestyle. He spent the first few months of his retirement going to a bookstore in the morning to read and figure out his next venture, going to the gym in the afternoon and playing a game of golf in between. However, he soon found himself back at the property front when he and an old friend decided to set up their own property development company — Amphil Corp Sdn Bhd. That same year, Poh became the director and adviser of Tradewinds Corp Bhd.

Via Amphil Corp, Poh is now set to launch a development project called Rimbun, a freehold high-end high-rise residential green development in Jalan Ampang Hilir, which is commonly referred to as the Embassy Row in Kuala Lumpur.

“I had plans to take things slow and figure out what I could do and maybe even attend culinary classes. I wanted to learn to cook Western, Indian and then Chinese cooking … yes, in that order, due to the complexities of Western sauces, Indian spices and Chinese cooking methods and preparations. That is still the plan,” Poh says with a smile.

Looking back, he describes his journey from childhood to property development as “a series of happy misadventures”. Hailing from Kluang in Johor, Poh had the opportunity to study for a BSc in Building at the National University of Singapore as he was not sure of what to do and was following his peers at the time.

He graduated during the recession in 1976, returned to Malaysia and decided that he needed to stand apart from other applicants vying for a job. “I tore out the yellow pages on quantity surveyor firms, architects and consultants, took the bus to Kuala Lumpur and went knocking on their doors. I was lucky as after a few days, I was hired and worked in a consultancy firm for a few years,” he tells City & Country.

Going into property development in 1980 was, once again, by chance, he says. “I was hired by a guy who wanted to start a property development company but had no idea what to do and also had no land. In fact, he was from a pharmaceutical company.

“I shared a room with him in our SS2 office and looked through advertisements for land and finally found one in Ampang after about three months. We went on to develop Taman Ampang Prima on the site,” Poh recalls. He worked in the company for 10 years and then joined a public-listed company. In 1992, Poh joined Dijaya Corp and retired as its group managing director in 2007 after leading the development of Tropicana Golf and Country Resort and Seri Selangor Golf Club in Damansara Indah.

He reveals that Amphil was an opportunity that presented itself after he was a few months into retirement. “When my golfing buddy approached me with this idea of setting up a property development company together, I told him I would only be interested if we were able to offer something different [to the market]. With a boutique project, we had the luxury of time to think through the development,” he says.

The duo went on to acquire an old 2-storey 12-unit apartment building on a 48,800 sq ft freehold tract in Embassy Row in Kuala Lumpur.

Several years after acquiring the site, they decided that it was time to introduce their maiden project to the public. “This project is our passion and something we can be proud of. Rimbun is the result of us taking our time to come up with something different. We want to make the market sit up and take notice of what we are doing and not just try to make our bankers happy.

“We want, at the end of the day, our buyers to be our friends too, and for them to be happy to have bought the units. We want to over-deliver to our buyers,” he says.

The old building has been torn down and foundation works on Rimbun started in February. However, the developer has not started selling any units as it is focused on improving the features of the development for now.

Situated in the mature Embassy Row, Rimbun comprises two 17-storey towers with only 56 units. Construction of the development with a gross development value  (GDV) of RM200 million started in February. “We will be launching our project website on Dec 1 and then we will start marketing the project with a more personalised approach as we have only 56 units. We may also appoint a real estate company to help us market part of the project,” Poh says.

He says the initial plan was to build smaller units. They changed the plan later, opting to capture a niche market of well-to-do individuals in their late 40s and 50s. “We are targeting those who are well travelled, live in big houses and are used to large spaces. Their children may be overseas or have left home. They are looking for a place that is secure, green, in a nice neighbourhood and close but not part of the Kuala Lumpur city centre,” explains Poh.

The developer decided to offer large units following feedback from peers and target groups. “Some marketing agents were horrified that we were planning such big units when we could easily find buyers for smaller units worth RM1 million to RM2 million.

“But can’t we find 56 buyers who would be interested in big units? [I am sure] there are people who are used to luxury and large spaces and do not want to be squeezed into 1,200 sq ft units,” Poh adds.

There are two built-up sizes for Rimbun units — 3,500 sq ft with 3+1 bedrooms and 4,500 sq ft with 4+1 bedrooms. The indicative price for the units is RM1,000 to RM1,200 psf. There are also two penthouses but only one is available for sale as the developer plans to keep the other. The 18,000 sq ft triplex comes with the option to change its (non-structural) layout.

Poh describes the three elegant designs for the units as practical and naturally well ventilated with private lifts and lobbies.

Poh has taken a hands-on approach to  Rimbun. In fact, he says the marketing brochure was written by him. “While coming up with the text and describing Rimbun as a disinterested writer, I managed to persuade myself to buy a unit,” he laughingly adds.

The project offers views of the KLCC’s Petronas Twin Towers and park, Royal Selangor Golf Club golf course, Polo Club and Ampang lake and park.

Rimbun was recently awarded Gold Plus Green Mark certification by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA). “The obvious businessman’s approach is to look at the bottom line and evaluate the cost to see if going green makes good economical or business sense. The second method, which is more difficult but nobler, is to de-emphasise the cost factor and focus on doing what is environmentally correct for the benefit of our buyers and future generations. We knew the second method would reduce our bottom line as the benefits would not accrue directly to us but more to our buyers and residents in terms of lower maintenance costs, better rents and higher capital appreciation.

“We initially thought of just getting the basic green certification, which is also less costly. However, because we had immersed ourselves in the process, we ended up exceeding our initial green target,” says Poh. In fact, 52% of the site comprises open space, pools and landscaping.

The project features a list of green features and then some. The developer decided to fix photovoltaic panels on the rooftop, which are capable of producing 32,000 kWh per year. “Once the feed-in-tariff (FiT) system is in place, that would mean lower maintenance costs,” says Poh.

The Malaysian Cabinet approved the Renewable Energy Act and Act for a FiT Implementing Agency in April 2010. According to Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) Malaysia’s website, the local FiT system obliges companies holding the licence to distribute electricity (for example Tenaga Nasional) to buy the electricity produced by renewable resources (from an individual or company that holds a feed-in approval certificate issued by SEDA Malaysia) at the set FiT rate. While the implementation of the FiT system for the renewable energy sector was initially scheduled for Sept 1, it has since been pushed back to Dec 1.

Rimbun also has a rainwater harvesting system, which Poh says will probably save some 1.3 million litres of water usage per year. The rainwater will be used for irrigation. However, the developer has taken it a little further by installing rain sensors near plants. “The sensors will detect the amount of moisture in the air and release the rainwater collected to water the plants only when needed,” he adds.

Other green features include large overhanging balconies that provide shade and reduce heat, which will, in turn, lower the usage of air conditioners; aerated concrete-block walls with both improved thermal insulation (cooler interiors) and sound insulation (more privacy); 3.5m ceiling heights, which not only provide cooler interiors with better ventilation but give the feeling of grandeur; and energy-efficient air-conditioning units and lighting. The green air-conditioning units, Poh says, can save up to 20% of electricity usage. Every unit will have moveable sunscreens for further shading purposes.

Poh says many who venture into the development of green buildings tend to move on after completing their project. “We have decided to continue where others have stopped. We believe we should not just build a nice green and luxurious condo project. We should continue and carry that message to our residents so that they and their children will become more aware of the importance of a green lifestyle. In line with that, we will set up an educational corner for them as well as involve them as a community living a truly green life there,” he adds. The community projects include the setting up of a herb garden and also a composting area for horticulture, where the compost will be used as organic fertiliser.

The developer may look into getting the Malaysian Green Building Index (GBI) certification. “I am more familiar with the Singapore system and naturally gravitated towards it. As I am selling to international buyers, I thought that I should first get the internationally recognised BCA certification as it has a much longer history. But I am looking at GBI now,” says Poh.

Meanwhile, Amphil is looking for more land in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. “We are looking for people with idle land and who like what we do so we can do the same for them. We must emphasise that we will remain boutique developers and have a maximum of two property developments at one time, maybe even at different stages,” Poh says.

On the outlook for the property market, Poh says there is a need to look at statistics in a more critical manner. “As Oscar Wilde said, there are statistics and there are lies. If we just look at statistics and treat every project in a homogenous manner, then we will not be giving them the correct interpretation of the numbers. You have to look at the location, pricing and more so the concept. All condos are not made equal.

“Notwithstanding the fact that there could be tightening measures for lending, the property market in Malaysia will still be good. We have not entered a bubble situation where, for instance, people are buying indiscriminately but can’t really afford it [the property] and hope to flip it the next day. We haven’t come close to that. Signs of a bubble are not there and I have been through four recessions.

“We live in a borderless world, so any upheaval in the US and Europe will of course have an impact on our local economy and the investment climate. However, in spite of all the ‘noises’ overseas, local market sentiment so far is still ‘steady as she goes’, to use a naval expression.

“The positives include our government’s Economic Transformation Programme, the low interest rate regime, easy credit and ample liquidity in the system, almost full employment — all these factors have kept property prices buoyant, with no significant drop in the prime areas like KLCC and its vicinity. In fact, investors in these properties are still very much ‘in the money’ and hence have little reason to sell. Therefore, there is no real cause for concern.”

Without doubt, Rimbun is offering a different residential development to the high-end segment by taking a total approach to green development only minutes away from the city centre. The best of both worlds, some might say.

On lessons learnt in his career in property development so far, Poh offers a philosophical answer. He believes it is all about passion. “Always do things with passion and the rest will fall into place. Do not be deterred by obstacles. Look at them as opportunities to turn them into benefits or advantages.”

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 884, Nov 14-20, 2011

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