THEY say necessity is the mother of invention and this cannot be truer than for Kueen Lai Group of Companies managing director Datuk Eng Soo Min.
The third among nine siblings, the Kajang boy recalls a hard childhood. "I had to walk 8km to school and I would have only 10 sen a day, enough for a drink or food, but not both."
Eng stopped school after Form 2 and soon found work as a mechanic. He worked in Kuala Lumpur for one year and in Singapore for another year, learning all he could about fixing cars and the business. He soon saved up S$6,000 and in 1983, he started his first business, importing and exporting second-hand vehicles. He was just 19.
"My mother told me that if I had my own business, I could own a house," is the reason Eng offers for starting his business so young. Over the years, he ventured into car repair, spare parts and insurance as well.
The inspiration for his entry into property development came from an article on Hong Kong billionaire Lee Ka-shing, who was quoted as saying that property development is one way to grow one's business.
Eng decided to take the plunge and through a real estate agent, found a piece of land in Kajang in 1995, just off Jalan Semenyih. The 9.6-acre freehold property was bought for RM1.8 million.
He then spent the next two years sorting out all the necessary approvals to develop the land. However, he ran into a roadblock in 1997 — the Asian financial crisis — and decided to hold off launching his product until a better time.
This came in 2002. Eng introduced the first component — 40 three-storey shopoffices — of his project Taman Damai Mewah. Then another problem arose.
The bank from which Eng was trying to get a bridging loan was only able to give him RM4 million, which was far from enough to start building.
The reason given by the bank was that Eng was new to the business. So, he raised the money himself, asking 40 businessmen to buy a shopoffice each, for RM470,000 to RM740,000.
Thanks to the contacts he had made via his car business, Eng was able to collect what he needed and complete the shopoffices.
And with the profit from selling the shopoffices and the bridging loan of RM4 million, he was able to complete the rest of the development — a block of 544 medium-cost and 145 low-cost apartments.
The project, with a gross development value (GDV) of RM110 million, was completed in 2005.
As the development of Taman Damai Mewah drew close to completion, Eng kept receiving requests from customers and friends alike, for something more upmarket.
He realised then that Kajang residents wanted higher-quality products and were willing to pay for them. As a result, his second project, Tiara Residence, pushed back the boundaries with 70 zero-lot bungalows with exquisite landscaping.
"I was inspired by the golf courses in Australia and thought why not bring that landscape concept to this new development," Eng explains.
The trees he planted cost much more than the usual ones that retailed at RM28 each. Eng forked out RM280 each for "trees that had nice flowers and leaves".
Since then, Eng's company has built industrial parks, shopoffices and several residential projects and continues to build developments that are both innovative and unique.
Tiara South is one of Kueen Lai's latest developments. Registration started on Aug 16 and the official launch is scheduled for the end of the year.
Coming up on about 30 acres of freehold land in Semenyih, Selangor, Tiara South will feature three phases — 250 three-storey superlink homes in a gated environment, 266 apartments and 21 two-storeyterraced houses in a traditional setting. The last two products are still in the planning stage.
The GDV of the superlinks is RM300 million, their built-up 2,500 to 3,100 sq ft, while their starting price is RM880,000 (RM328 psf).
In addition to the development boasting a linear park linked to a central park, the houses will have a back-lane garden. The layout of the homes will also differ from the ones most Malaysians are familiar with — the living spaces will be in the back of the house, while the kitchen will be in front.
Eng says this design will help develop a strong sense of community with neighbours interacting at the back of their homes. There will also be a clubhouse for residents in this gated residential enclave.
As the land in Tiara South is not flat, Eng decided to build the houses according to the terrain. "We engaged a landscape architect to help," he says. This resulted in Tiara South winning a Highly Commended Landscape Architecture 2013-2014 Award from the Asia-Pacific Property Awards, recently.
The developer will also build an access road from the project to Lebuhraya Kajang-Seremban.
Also coming up is mixed-use development Tiara Imperio. It is slated for registration in December, and will be launched next year.
Situated in Bangi, Selangor, Tiara Imperio sits on five acres of freehold land and will feature 40 shophouses and 655 serviced apartments in three blocks. The GDV of the apartment blocks is RM400 million.
As the plans for the 2-storey shopoffices are being tweaked, their GDV or selling prices is not known, although their indicative built-up is from 670 to 1,350 sq ft.
"This development faces the Danau Golf Club and is next to the German-Malaysia Institute," says Eng, adding that the three blocks will be 41, 27 and 15 storeys high, and share a podium.
The built-up of the units ranges from 760 to 1,350 sq ft, while the selling price starts at RM380,000 (RM500 psf).
Eng says there will be three floors of facilities, along with the podium and rooftop gardens. The latter, he points out, will offer those looking down from the higher blocks, a pleasant view.
The next industry in which Eng hopes to expand, is hospitality. He already owns a 2-star business hotel called Hotel MinCott in Kuchai Exchange, which Kueen Lai developed.
About 10 minutes from Mid Valley City and with room rates that range from RM120 to RM250 per night, the 74-room hotel has an average occupancy of 80%.
"I want to expand my hotel business to a 4 to 5-star hotel, in a good location anywhere in Malaysia," Eng says, adding that he is not thinking of acquiring hotels, but building them with a unique concept.
At the moment, he is in final negotiations to buy development land in Cheras, Bangi and Semenyih. Once the details are finalised, the total GDV of the three properties will be RM2.5 billion, says Eng.
Now, the GDV of Kueen Lai's projects adds up to RM1.368 billion. The landbank Kueen Lai has for future development comprises 43 acres (residential) in Semenyih; 13.5 acres (commercial) in Nusajaya, Johor; and two acres (high-rise) in Mont'Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.
Eng and his team may have plenty on their plate to keep them busy for the next few years, but that has not stopped them from looking for more development land in the Klang Valley, Johor and even Negeri Sembilan and Melaka.
When asked how he feels about the property market for the rest of the year, Eng says he is optimistic.
"The market will be steady and more people will buy property," he remarks. "In locations like Semenyih and Kajang, demand is strong. The only concern is loan approvals. Otherwise, the property market will post a steady performance for the rest of the year."
For Eng, who obviously put his heart and soul into becoming a successful businessman, the secret of success is simple — hard work, honesty and creating a product that focuses on the needs of others, and the benefits for them. "Don't be selfish, but look for a win-win situation for all," he says.
Kueen Lai keeps busy
To date, Kueen Lai Group of Companies has completed projects with a total gross development value (GDV) of RM285 million.
Tiara Residence, Kueen Lai's second project after Taman Damai Mewah, is a RM62 million development with 70 zero-lot bungalows.
Sited on 10.6 acres of freehold land in Kajang, Selangor, the homes (built-up: from 4,019 sq ft) sold for RM780,000 to RM1.7 million. According to managing director Datuk Eng Soo Min, this was the first project of its kind in his hometown. It was completed in 2009.
Kueen Lai's next project was the RM95 million Kuchai Exchange in Kuchai Lama, Kuala Lumpur.
Featuring 136 shopoffices, it sits on 3.4 acres. The 5 to 6-storey units (built-up: 1,361 to 2,884 sq ft) — of which the developer retained 42 for recurring income — were sold for RM390,000 to RM1 million. The project was completed in 2010.
This was followed by the RM18 million Tiara Industrial Park in Semenyih. Gated and sitting on 4.41 acres of freehold land, it features 10 two-storey, semi-detached factories (built-up: 5,729 to 6,830 sq ft) that were sold for RM1.6 million to RM2.2 million. The project was completed in 2011.
The five-acre freehold Tiara Parkhomes is a RM96 million condominium in Kajang. It comprises four towers, two of which are 12 storeys high and the rest four storeys, with a total of 300 units.
Fully sold, the condos (built-up: 934 to 1,677 sq ft) were priced at RM250,000 onwards. The project is slated for completion by the end of the year.
Another of the developer's residential developments is the RM155 million, gated Tiara East in Semenyih. It sits on 24 acres and will feature 210 two-storey terraced houses and a 14-storey apartment block.
The houses (built-up: 2,146 to 2,215 sq ft) are fully sold and went for RM460,000 to RM770,000. The apartment block houses 244 units (built-up: 807 to 944 sq ft), which were sold for RM220,000 to RM270,000. Completion is expected in 2014.
Finally, there is Tiara Sentral — a RM132 million industrial park in Nilai 3, Negeri Sembilan. It is sited on a 24.24-acre freehold tract and will feature 70 two-storey semi-detached factories (built-up: 6,005 to 6,052 sq ft) that are going for RM1.5 million to RM2.2 million.
The factories are divided into two portions. The front portion is a 2-storey office space, while the back is a 1-storey double volume factory space. The take-up rate is 85%, while completion is expected in 2015.
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Sept 2-8, 2013.
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