Driving change at TA Enterprise

Changes are slowly but surely being implemented at TA Enterprise Bhd. One of the more visible changes includes the subtle modification to its logo, whereby the sharp edges on the 'TA' letterings have been softened and are no longer framed by a conservative box. Even the colour has taken on a trendier shade of blue.

The significance of all these? For 29-year-old Tiah Joo Kim, TA Enterprise's deputy CEO, the change symbolises a new era for the public-listed company, reflecting its versatility, dynamism, sleekness and innovation.

According to Tiah, who joined the company as business development director two years ago, the property development business gives him an intrinsic sense of satisfaction and achievement. "I spent three years with a private property development firm called Holborn in Vancouver, Canada, where I developed several small to mid-sized projects. Development is great because you get to see an end project that you helped to shape and leave your mark," he says.

Tiah graduated with a bachelor of science degree in management from Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, US. He then obtained his Masters of International Business from Australia's Macquarie University.

After that, he spent two years with a global bank in Singapore because he felt he needed to increase his knowledge in financial matters. "It was a decision that was also predicated on the fact that I would be based closer to home and my family," adds Tiah, who has the experience and competencies of property and finance - the two core businesses of TA Enterprise.

Lesson in humility
Tiah describes his experience in research and investment advisory as "humbling", as he had to start at the bottom of the competitive industry.

Throughout the interview with City & Country, Tiah came across as someone with a quiet confidence, so it was surprising to learn that he is in fact a huge metalhead (people who are into heavy metal music) and plays the drum. He tries to find time to practise every day. Befitting his motto in life, Tiah feels that getting good in drums is all about hard work and practice.

"You have to be precise when playing the drums, so timing has to be perfect. It's either you're on or off. When you're off, it's unacceptable and not something you can hide or tolerate. This is how I am with work. Although there is no such thing as perfection, I understand that hard work, diligence and perseverance are values one has to cultivate and practise in order to reach one's goals," he elaborates.

With two elder and two younger siblings, Tiah is the middle child and eldest son of TA Enterprise's executive chairman Datuk Tony Tiah and managing director and CEO Datin Alicia Tiah. While his two elder sisters do not have any aspirations to join the family business, he feels that his younger brother will most likely join the company when the time comes. "I believe we will be a great duo in future because we are very different in terms of our personalities and strengths," he says.

Redefining TA's identity
Tiah realised that the group's identity and purpose were not adequately defined despite having a prominent history of over three decades. According to him, the company had not truly crystallised its identity, purpose, core values and vision and mission statements. For the group to keep moving ahead and grow with the times, he felt that it needed to go back to the basics and rebuild its foundation.

Besides the lack of a "solid identity", he also felt that there were certain cultures that were stagnating the progress of the group, which was incorporated 35 years ago. Strong words indeed for one so young.  

Brimming with ideas, Tiah decided to voice out his observations to his parents. Would his analysis of the state of the company and his prescriptions be accepted by those who have helmed the company all these years? Would he be seen as an upstart who was biting off more than he could chew?

However, his reservations were unfounded; he was surprised when his thoughts and ideas were well received. Even more so when they promoted him to his current designation a year ago and put him in charge of driving change and incorporating a more positive work culture in the group.

It was only then that Tiah realised he had got more than he bargained for. He recalls not being able to sleep one night as an overwhelming sense of uncertainty overtook him: "My initial reaction was shock and I remember asking myself what had I gotten myself into?"

Although he initially thought he would be on the learning seat when he joined the group, Tiah is equally confident he can settle comfortably in the driving seat. "I am a humble person and there are still many things to learn. My parents, who are still very much involved in the day-to-day operations, still make the executive decisions and are always there for guidance.

"My core responsibility now is to bring in business and create a better brand for the company, to be more exposed to the market," says Tiah. He also admits to having an urgency to gets things done and wants to "push the company".

"The management practised an old school of thought, which was more authoritative. But I feel it is important to have an open line of communication with the staff. It is important for management to listen to them and encourage them to contribute ideas. These are the people who are more in tune with the market as they deal directly with our potential customers," he explains.

Changes implemented recently at TA Enterprise include instilling a performance-driven culture, ongoing training for staff, upgrading the company's human resource systems and infrastructure -such as its website -and setting up a corporate communications and branding team.

Consolidating property assets
TA Enterprise began as a stockbroking firm and was listed on the Main Board of Bursa Malaysia about two decades ago. The company diversified into property development more than a decade ago and during the boom of the early 1990s, the group made a cash pile and started investing in office and hotel properties.

According to Tiah, the group started building up its property division in the last few years, but its financial services division has been the anchor of the company's revenue, accounting for as much as 90%.

For FY2008, contributions from the property-related business amounted to 50% of its revenue. As for FY2009, he foresees more contribution from the property businesses -over 50% -thanks to the lacklustre stock market performance earlier this year.

The group also plans to list TA Global Bhd, the company's property arm, by early October after having postponed it twice. TA Global would then incorporate all the property units now under TA Enterprise and boast assets worth about RM2.4 billion in Malaysia, Australia and Canada.

TA Enterprise purchased the 362-room Radisson Plaza Hotel in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1990s for A$115.5 million (RM333.5 million) and now plans to spend over A$2 million on renovations. In Vancouver, Canada, the group owns the Terasen Centre, an office building with a net lettable area of 349,010 sq ft, which enjoys full occupancy levels with average rental values of RM66.28 psf. The building was purchased for C$91.2 million in 1995.

Opening soon is the 190-room Aava Whistler Hotel in Canada, the company's first hotel there. It was acquired for C$33 million (RM107 million) last December and for Tiah, this project is particularly close to him as it was one of the first few projects he was involved in after joining the company. His father had wanted TA Enterprise's property division to have its own hotel chain and posed this challenge to his team, recalls Tiah who had then just joined the company.

"Even though the team had no experience in starting a hotel business, I felt that this was something we could do, given our experience in hotel management. Since I like challenges, when my father posed the challenge for me to lead this new venture... There was no way I would or could back down from it," he adds.

Recently, the group concluded the acquisition of the 262-room The Westin Melbourne at a cost of A$160 million. The hotel will undergo a refurbishment programme over two to three years at an estimated cost of A$7.1 million. The Westin Melbourne's occupancy rate for April 2009 was 76%.

The group also recently announced the proposed acquisition of the four-star Swissotel Merchant Court Singapore hotel.

On the home front, the group plans to build its own hotel at its Nova Square development
located at the corner of Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan Imbi in Kuala Lumpur. The freehold 3.3-acre mixed development will comprise a hotel, serviced apartment and office on a 6-storey retail podium. The project has an estimated gross development value (GDV) of RM1.27 billion and is expected to be launched in 2012.

Lifestyle developer
Tiah sees TA Enterprise as a lifestyle developer and envisions it to be a global organisation that will set new benchmarks for lifestyle living. "It will not necessarily cater for only high-end projects, as long as the project is a unique one, and not part of the cookie cutter system," says Tiah, who divides his time equally to look after the company's Malaysian and Canadian operations.

It has been reported that TA will launch property development projects worth more than RM2 billion next year, including the first phase of a mixed development in Sri Damansara, which has a GDV of more than RM3 billion; a boutique residential development at Jalan U-Thant (GDV, RM110 million) and a condominium at Dutamas (GDV, RM300 million).

Future launches include a mixed commercial development in Bukit Bintang (GDV, RM1.3 billion), a project in the KLCC area (GDV, RM1.2 billion) in 2011, as well as the other phases of the Sri Damansara development.

Ongoing property developments include Idaman Villas and the fourth phase of Damansara Idaman, both located at Damansara and Idaman Residence in the vicinity of KLCC. This year, it plans to concentrate on selling its remaining units at these three projects and has introduced an easy-payment scheme to make it easier for their buyers to attain their dream home, says Tiah. "This marketing campaign is a necessity for us to be seen as a competitive player," he adds.

The soon-to-be-completed RM103 million Idaman Villas features 54 semi-detached homes that were launched two years ago. Some 76% have been sold. The remaining units, with land areas of between 3,520 and 8,022 sq ft and built-ups of 3,692 to 4,468 sq ft, are priced from RM1.9 million.

For the Damansara Idaman bungalow development, there are still five completed units left for sale from its third phase, which saw 36 units launched in 2005. With prices starting from about RM3.7 million, homes here have land areas of between 8,000 and 10,394 sq ft and built-up areas of 5,435 to 6,123 sq ft. For this project, buyers need only pay an initial RM50,000 to take possession of the unit under TA Enterprise's Easy Ownership Scheme. However, this is subject to the purchaser qualifying for a 95% loan from its panel of bankers.

There is still some units for sale at its 250-unit Idaman Residence condominium project launched in 2005. Prices start from over RM1.4 million, and average units have built-up areas of between 877 and 2,100 sq ft. There are also fewer than nine penthouses, with built-ups ranging from 1,830 to 3,946 sq ft, left on the market. Purchasers only need to make a RM50,000 down payment for a unit and have the option of leasing it back to the developer for two years, with a guaranteed rental return of 7%.

With all these projects and more on his plate now, Tiah is certainly a long way from where he first started off in banking - "at the bottom" in Singapore. And with a succession plan in place for him to take the helm of TA Enterprise as well as the upcoming listing of TA Global, exciting times are on the horizon for him.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 768, Aug 17-23, 2009.

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