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  1. #1
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    May 2006

    Default WOMEN ON TOP

    Published May 18, 2007


    Making waves on homes front

    Sitting on top of the corporate ladder in the property industry, CBRE MD Pauline Goh tells ARTHUR SIM she derives much of her strength from 'a large family'

    PAULINE Goh is one of the most powerful women in the real estate industry here.

    Together with property firm CB Richard Ellis (CBRE), where she is the managing director, she gets to influence how our homes look, whether bedrooms will be bigger or smaller this year, what districts you will want to live in, if there is a Jacuzzi on your balcony and, most importantly, what you are likely to pay for all of this.

    She has not always been managing director of course, but having scored big with her first property deal back in 1983 - the leasing of a large industrial space of 35,000 square feet - she seemed destined for the boardroom.

    But before the wrong picture of a dragon lady is painted, it should be pointed out that Ms Goh is really quite nice, and if possible for a managing director, also rather genial.

    'The most successful marketing people are not necessarily the most aggressive ones,' proclaims the diminutive 48-year-old.

    'It is important to uphold strict professional standards, and people must feel that you are sincere and understand what their needs and issues are. And if you're proactive and responsive, you will be rewarded. Many of my clients come back to me even more than 10 to 20 years after my first deal with them because I think they feel they can trust me,' Ms Goh says.

    Her work ethic - which still includes getting into the office at 7am every day, and exceeding sales targets - got her noticed and Ms Goh rose through the ranks quickly.

    After leaving the National University of Singapore with a degree in real estate, she worked in a statutory board and a bank for two years before joining CBRE in 1983.

    In just five years, she was made a director at the age of 29. She was promoted to executive director at 33, becoming managing director in 2005.

    Over 20 years later, she says: 'I'm still deeply entrenched in it.'

    Most people who have worked their way up the corporate ladder will know that they did not achieve success on their own. Ms Goh has the grace to attribute her own success to two mentors, also giants in the industry.

    Recalling those years, she says: 'Very early on, I knew that I was lucky to get all the chances that were offered to me, and didn't take anything for granted. I had the benefit of having two great mentors, to whom I will always be grateful. David Lawrence, who was managing director of CBRE in the late 1980s (and is currently CEO of Wheelock Properties), was someone I learnt much from. He had a no-nonsense approach to doing business and an unerring instinct for closing deals. The other is Willy Shee, now the CBRE chairman of Asia - whom I've worked with closely over the past 24 years - and who is the ultimate people-manager. Both had no qualms about pushing anyone they considered capable in at the deep end, but always stood by in case help was needed.'

    Ms Goh wants to leave a legacy of her own.

    That she built the residential project marketing department from scratch in 1993 which went on to market 93 developments with a total of 30,173 units is impressive on its own. So is the company's most recent achievement - brokering the sale of Temasek Tower, the largest independent property transaction to-date at a sale price of $1.04 billion. But she has loftier ideals.

    Asked what she feels has been her greatest achievement, she says without any doubt: 'Creating a company culture which I think I have played a significant role in cultivating over the years.'

    Ms Goh says: 'I believe my team would agree with me that there is a strong sense of camaraderie that prevails from top down. While like all other successful companies we do not tolerate underperformers, the teamwork and loyalty that is a hallmark of CBRE culture have allowed us to maintain the lowest staff turnover in the industry.'

    CBRE has a staff strength of 140 at the head-office level, and nearly one in five of the staff has been with the company for over 10 years, with nine having worked there for more than 20 years.

    Tough times

    Perhaps the true test of good corporate culture comes during economic downturns, and few industries have suffered as much as the real estate industry when the bubble bursts.

    Having started in the industry in the early 1980s, Ms Goh experienced the 1984 recession, the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2003 'Perfect Storm'.

    She was still very junior during the first recession but she looks back at it as a good character-building experience.

    'In such a situation, one learns to develop a sense of humility and perseverance; not to fear situations with apparently insurmountable odds, and that by working together as a team, we can overcome the odds,' she says.

    'Adversity and hard knocks are good tuition material for anyone serious about building a successful career and business.'

    Being in senior management in the later downturns gave Ms Goh the task of leading the company through some very tough times. When the effects of the Asian financial crisis began to reverberate around the region, sending markets crashing, rather than take the obvious route of headcount cuts to save costs, Ms Goh and the CBRE management rallied everyone together and implemented wage cuts down the line, starting with 20 per cent for senior management down to 10 per cent for the general office, waiving the cuts for those earning less than $2,000.

    'The important thing was to lead by example, and when the younger staff saw that bigger sacrifices were being made at the senior level, they felt it was also important for them to do their part,' she says.

    The company was constantly evolving and Ms Goh evolved with it.

    She never experienced any sexual discrimination herself, but she does recall that there were far fewer women in the company when she joined CBRE in 1983.

    Today, 70 per cent of its head-office staff are women, with many of them in marketing. 'I myself chose a career in marketing and was given equal opportunities within the company as well as with clients. I think people generally appreciate it when women don't go out of their way to prove they are better than men at their jobs,' she says. Ms Goh will even go as far to say that 'Singapore is a much more tolerant and open country with far less of a glass ceiling for women than in many other countries'.

    'More often than not, people here want to celebrate successful women in professions,' she adds.

    It is easy to pay lip-service to the position of women, if all one wants to be is a woman in a man's world, but Ms Goh is also a wife and a mother of four children - two girls and two boys between the ages of 12 and 16 - which makes her achievements all the more amazing. Asked how she managed to raise four children and still clock up 12 hours in the office every day, Ms Goh just says modestly: 'Having a proper balance is important.' When pressed, she adds: 'I can't remember who said it, but really after the first child, it is not that difficult with the following children.'

    Ms Goh comes from the old school of family-raising. Recalling her own childhood, she says: 'Back then there wasn't any need for enrichment or tuition classes, which made school life so much more fun then, and I have mostly wonderful memories of my school days at CHIJ, St Joseph's Convent and Catholic Junior College.'

    Growing up, she says she and her siblings were left very much to their own devices most of the time. Now, with four kids of her own, she says: 'You learn not to be too hung up about not wanting to miss every little event in your children's life.'

    There was of course the inevitable shuttling of children between home and their grandparents too. 'When the kids were still small, I'd pack them off to my parents-in-law's house during the day and then back home with us when my husband and I returned home from the office. The inconvenience was a small price to pay for peace of mind and extended family benefits.'

    And always one to give credit where it is due, Ms Goh also acknowledges the role of maids in society today.

    'I wonder if Singaporeans really realise how fortunate we are to have ready access to good domestic help. In many other global cities, the cost of hiring nannies and housekeepers is very daunting and I'm not surprised that it is hard to be working mum there,' she says.

    Again, CBRE corporate culture was also important. 'I never felt guilty if I needed time off to take the children to the paediatrician,' she points out.

    Right balance

    Ms Goh does not want to be thought of as a super mum, and she readily confesses that there are ups and downs.

    But as with her career, things have managed to fall into place.

    'My family is so used to my work style that they have adapted to it without any major problems. I can't say it is always smooth sailing. There will always be situations where priorities between home and the office will be challenged, but I think there must always be some give and take, and you just have to keep on trying to find the right balance all the time,' she says.

    And she is not quite done achieving personal goals either. 'I feel that it's good to have commitments outside the home. I don't want my entire life to be defined wholly by how well I've done in my profession, or by how successfully I've raised the kids.'

    Over the years, she has felt the increasing need to contribute back to society. 'Given the limited time that I have outside work and family, I can only choose to be involved in causes which I believe in,' she says.

    At present, Ms Goh is on the board for NTUC Healthcare Co-operative, I Love Children Movement (supported by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports), and the Catholic Junior College. She is also a council member of the Women's Business Connection.

    It is resoundingly clear that Pauline Goh is a woman who wants to make a difference and has somehow managed to push the limits of what a working mother can achieve.

    Where does she get the energy? Without sounding too much like the poster girl for family values, she says she 'extols the virtues of a large family', from which she derives much of her strength.

    She says: 'I grew up in a large family which I've always felt was a great blessing as you learn very early on to share things and work as a team. This is a pretty fundamental part of who I am, and this is what I try to impart to people who work with me as well. Also, you learn to do things fast, and up to today I still have the habit of walking fast, eating fast and working fast.'

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