A fulfilling journey with S P Setia

IN his nearly 37 years with S P Setia, Datuk Wong Tuck Wai has seen the company grow from a construction outfit into a property development juggernaut.

Appointed executive vice-president of niche developments in 2012, he currently oversees as many as 11 projects with an estimated total gross development value (GDV) of RM10 billion, ranging from luxury high-rise projects such as Setia Sky Residence in Kuala Lumpur city centre to public housing projects.

Some are surprised that he can juggle so many projects, but Wong displays a vigour that would put a younger man to shame.

He was only 21 when he started work at S P Setia, then known as Syarikat Pembinaan Setia Sdn Bhd, on Aug 15, 1976. He was hired for a Port Klang project that required his expertise in concrete design. He remained in the Klang Valley until 1986, when he was transferred to his hometown, Ipoh, to helm a public housing project.

A year later however, a recession hit the country, bringing the project to a standstill. Wong was stuck in Ipoh, but he didn't complain. "I played golf every evening and mahjong in the afternoon. I had the best time earning a KL salary, spending it in Ipoh, with accommodation given," he laughs.

However, he soon got bored and sought new challenges. The opportunity came in 1996 when Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin took the helm of S P Setia.

"I came back because Liew (S P Setia president and CEO) called me back from Ipoh after he became managing director, following the merger between his company, Syarikat Kemajuan Jerai Sdn Bhd, and Setia," Wong says.

In 1997, the Asian financial crisis struck, plunging the economy into turmoil and causing many companies to shut their doors. However, S P Setia survived, due in large part to the company being awarded the job to build the Prime Minister's Department and official residence, and some residential precincts in Putrajaya, Wong says.

He recalls Liew's hair turning white during this stressful period. That depressing situation was a milestone marking the transformation of S P Setia into what it is today.

"Because of the crisis, Tan Sri put into place systems to prevent the group from getting caught in a similar situation again," Wong says.

One was to have monthly meetings which the heads of the respective projects from around the country had to attend. "This prevents a silo mentality," Wong explains. "People will try to protect their turf and not share ideas. At each meeting, everything is shared, including good and bad lessons learnt at their different projects. This way we learn from each other and not make the same mistakes."

He believes the systems put in place will continue even when Liew is no longer with S P Setia. Liew, who has divested his controlling stake in the company, is on contract until March 2015 and will be passing the baton to Datuk Voon Tin Yow, the current COO Datuk Teow Leong Seng, who is executive vice-president and CFO, will take over as deputy president.

"Liew has created a prism and this prism has got everybody on the same page. This prism or lense comprise our work processes, the way we make management decisions, all the things we do — our culture, vision, mission, values — are inside this prism," he explains.

"So any staff member who looks through this prism will see the same things. Tan Sri Liew's legacy is this prism. When Voon takes over, he will look through this prism and he will make the same decisions and S P Setia will continue on. In any organisation, if you can get the prism in place, everybody speaks from the same page, same language you have integration."

Based on his experience with S P Setia, Wong believes there are three key elements to becoming a successful property developer.

"First, you need a development DNA for all your projects because that constitutes your value proposition. Our DNA is our development philosophy of live, learn, work, play," he says. "Based on this philosophy, the 'live' component has a symbiotic relationship with the 'work' environment. Subsequently, the working population will have a symbiotic relationship with retailers and so on."

"Secondly, we want to develop properties and a lifestyle that are current. We want to give something we have seen abroad, which we think is good to be replicated or introduced here," he says, adding that the company regularly sends its staff for overseas study tours.

"Thirdly, inculcate the values of the company among the staff. Based on a set of values, you will develop a culture that stays true to those values."

He also stresses the need for "common sense" when solving problems that arise from the normal course of work.

On dealing with younger subordinates he is mentoring or leading, Wong says the new generation is difficult to manage initially, but he has learnt to empathise with this group to understand where they are coming from.

Wong has some things in mind that he wants to achieve with the niche projects under him. "One thing I would like to do moving forward is future-proof my projects' design and master plan so they don't look tired when they are completed. I want something that is evergreen," he smiles.

After nearly four decades with S P Setia, Wong's verve, experience and stamina continues to see him strive to be the best.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of May 13-20, 2013.

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