THE vibe at developer Symphony Life's headquarters housed in the Symphony House building, off the old Subang Airport road, is one of new enthusiasm and optimism. The confident demeanour of executive chairman Tan Sri Azman Yahya as he strides into the colourful R&R area for his interview is perhaps one indication of the changes he has brought about in Bolton Bhd — now renamed Symphony Life Bhd.
Bolton Bhd, one of Malaysia's oldest property developers, was established in 1964 as Bolton Properties Ltd. Listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (now Bursa Malaysia Securities Bhd) in the 1970s, the developer's first township development was Taman Midah in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. The subsequent years saw the company diversify into food franchising and retailing, quarrying and liquid bulk terminal operations. Other businesses Bolton has ventured into include financial services, equipment trading, hotels and cement manufacturing.
However, the company also piled on huge debts. In 2006, Azman came on board and put the company on the road to change.
"I joined Bolton in 2006 and spent the first three years on what I call the restructuring years, primarily because the company had half-a-billion ringgit of debt and was involved in all sorts of businesses, with some making losses," he says. "I would say those years were successful as we managed to pay off our debts, sell off non-core assets, and focus on property development."
"The next three years were the transformation years — which involved getting people into the company, building our landbank, basically going back and making ourselves known in the market because we were too distracted before," he explains.
"Now, we are in the rebranding years. So it is part of an evolution. I had thought of rebranding much earlier on but I didn't see the point of doing so until the basic fundamentals are in place."
If anyone understands the need for strong fundamentals, it would be Azman. He was the man appointed by the government in 1998 to set up and head Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Bhd — the national asset management company. He was also chairman of the Corporate Debt Restructuring Committee (CDRC), set up by Bank Negara Malaysia to mediate and assist in debt restructuring of viable companies. The CDRC was dissolved in 2002.
Azman knew he had to be patient if he was to make Symphony Life/Bolton Bhd resilient.
"Some people said I wasn't aggressive enough or should have moved faster but I have seen how the property company business goes up and down," he says. "I was cleaning up the bad debt of Malaysia in 1998, mainly [of] property companies. So we moved in a way that was conservative but yet had to catch up with the market. While we were conservative, we also took calculated risks."
In April this year, Bolton Bhd was renamed Symphony Life Bhd. The name-change does not signify a merger but a rebranding. "I want to send a message to the market that I am here to stay," Azman emphasises.
Why the name Symphony Life? He explains that "Symphony" is synonymous with him because of his business outsourcing company, Symphony House Bhd, while "Life” signifies a new lifestyle.
Bolton's tagline has also changed to the snazzy "Live Better". "This is a shorter version of 'Better living by design', which we had before in Bolton," Azman explains. "We wanted something shorter and easier to understand and [which] affects more than just the actual designing aspect. 'Live Better' comprises everything — not just design but also the environment, the colours we choose, how customers interact with us … it is not just on the physical aspect of property."
Over time, Azman brought in more professionals and instituted new systems and processes to streamline operations. To facilitate open communication, he implemented regular meetings. "We've a very open organisation, where all the heads of departments sit in on meetings and listen to issues that affect the entire organisation," he says. "We try to break the silo mentality so that everybody is aware. And that itself is quite an effort, but luckily we are not a big organisation. We have about 200-odd employees, so it made it easier for us to make the changes."
The corporate culture was also overhauled. "The culture of Symphony Life is a culture that allows people to express themselves," says Azman. "That is very important because I think, especially for the Gen Ys, they want recognition apart from money, and freedom to do certain things. So we try to move away from a very rigid structure, and doing that is not an easy thing because you have to manage the old generation, who may not be familiar with letting the new generation do what they want.
"You have to set the company direction very clearly, be transparent with your employees and most importantly, be decisive. I think the thing that every employee hates is indecisiveness," Azman says. "This doesn't mean there are no mistakes made but that you learn from them and move on."
He says the management looks at itself as the support for the employees to do their best at work. "For example, we have a three-day rule. If an employee messages a superior for a decision, and the superior does not respond in three days, the decision is considered approved."
Along with open communication and greater autonomy, Azman also believes strongly in staff training. Symphony Life has invested about RM500,000 in training, on top of the normal on-the-job training. Staff members have training KPIs and also go through leadership and management programmes, which can take up to eight months. A dedicated training centre has been set up. Azman wants to nurture employees from the start and move people up the company ranks.
"Moving forward, I would like to build an organisation that can run on its own, without necessarily getting direction from the top. I set the vision and mission — the clear direction where we want to go — and it is up to the top management to execute," he says. "My vision for Symphony Life is to have a sustainable company that gives reasonable profit and can sustain through the good and bad times."
He says the company is structured so that it is able to develop different types of products — from the high-end to the affordable range. It is the "bread and butter" products of terraced houses that will see the company through the slow periods.
The rebranding exercise has been well received by shareholders and the market. Couple this with the fact that Symphony Life is financially sound, Azman is confident that the brand will become stronger in the future. "I think we are on a pretty strong financial footing. I think we have the ammunition to grow. With the cash and facilities that we have, financial institutions are keen to lend to us. We have built ourselves a landbank over the past few years," he says. The company now has a total landbank of 1,600 acres, with 1,000 acres yet to developed.
Azman believes the one project that will embody the new culture of Symphony Life will be a yet-to-be-named development in Jalan Kiara, Mont'Kiara. Slated to be launched in 3Q, the project will take shape on a freehold four-acre tract.
"This will be a high-rise project that only offers duplex units from 600 sq ft. It follows a loft concept for the younger demographics," Azman says. The RM243 million project will have two blocks of 51-storey serviced apartments with 484 units of SoHo duplexes. Selling prices have yet to be confirmed.
Several other projects are to be launched in FY2014 (the financial year-end for Symphony Life is March 31), with a total estimated gross development value (GDV) of RM3.013 billion.
There will be two projects in KL, one of which is Star Residences — a joint venture with United Malayan Land Bhd. Situated on Jalan Mayang, the 4.12-acre mixed-use development has an estimated GDV of RM1.8 billion and will comprise three towers of condominium units and five blocks of 6-storey offices.
There is also the RM360 million 51G on a one-acre freehold plot in Jalan Gurney. This 18-storey tower will have 71 units with car lifts — carports — incorporated into the design.
Built-ups range between 2,927 and 3,573 sq ft for 58 units, which will be priced from RM3 million. The remaining 13 units will be duplexes with built-ups of between 4,702 and 8,716 sq ft, and prices ranging from RM3 million to RM7 million.
Another project to be launched in FY2014 is a joint venture in Kota Kinabalu's Signal Hill with landowner Mobuild Sdn Bhd.
The over RM500 million gated-and-guarded Signal Hill development, which has yet to be named, will have a three-tower condominium and linked villas. The condominium will have 515 units (built-ups from 1,300 sq ft), while the 3.5-storey villas (built-up: 3,000 sq ft) will have 42 units.
The project will take up more than 10 acres of land that has a country lease of 999 years. In Sarawak, land tenure for non-native land is called country lease and range from 99 to 999-year leases.
Another project to be launched is Lot 162 in its ongoing township of Taman Tasik Prima in Puchong, comprising 128 units of condominiums and 34 units of 3.5-storey villas, on 2.5 acres of leasehold land. Built-ups for the condo units range from 840 to 2,372 sq ft, with prices starting from RM450,000. The four-room villas range from 2,369 to 2,694 sq ft, with prices starting at RM1.2 million. Set to be launched in November, the project has an estimated GDV of RM92 million.
Taman Tasik Prima is a 360-acre township in Puchong, Selangor. It has a 200-acre natural lake and features a wide range of residential and commercial properties. The resort-lifestyle development, first launched in 2000, is more than 95% developed.
Another project in the pipeline is a joint venture (JV) in Kelantan with the state government. "We have entered into a JV to develop 15 acres of land in the heart of Kota Baru," says Azman, who hails from the state. "Kelantan may be a funny place to do development, but the purchasing power is there and supply is quite limited. This land in Jalan Raja Dewa, which is considered the Beverly Hills of Kota Baru, is highly sought after. It will be a mixed-use development with an estimated GDV of RM450 million. I think we are one of the first premier property developers to go into Kota Baru."
Apart from these projects, the developer is in the process of converting 625 acres of quarry land in Sungai Long to residential land. "We are converting our quarry land in phases to 99-year leasehold, to develop a new township. That works nicely for us because the new Middle Ring Road 2 (MRR2) will cut across our land," Azman says. "We are doing the planning now and hopefully can get the first phase out probably sometime next year." The estimated GDV for this township is RM6 billion.
One of Symphony Life's on-going projects is Tijani Ukay in Ukay Perdana. Launched December 2012, 30% of the units have been sold. The project features 118 bungalows, 110 of which are zero-lot homes. Built-ups range from 3,778 to 4,916 sq ft and prices range from RM2.8 million to RM5.6 million. The 23-acre project has a GDV of RM300 million.
The developer has made a name for itself with its luxury project Tijani in Bukit Tunku, or Kenny Hills, in KL. The freehold 42-acre development consists of Tijani 1, Tijani 2 South and Tijani 2 North, and Arata. Products range from landed (semi-detached and bungalows) properties to condominiums. The last parcel was assigned to Arata — a three-tower project with a 110 units sitting on 1.24 acres.
The push for change has been slow but steady over the past few years. Today, Symphony Life looks ready to take on the challenge of creating value and building quality homes for Malaysians.
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Jun10-16, 2013.
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