Weekend, July 7, 2007

A $6.8-million decision, made in 24 hours

Few can admit to owning property in the ultra-posh Sentosa Cove. So, how did this shipping magnate get his foot into the gilded door?

Christie Loh
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IT'S incredible he allowed me to sit in his office all by myself for a good 10 minutes. Where most corporate chiefs here cordon off their sacred thinking spaces from reporters, this man from the Cove has no such qualms.

The room offers a quick introduction to Mahesh Iyer, a 40-year-old Indian expat and shipping boss with the smarts to buy a Sentosa Cove home on the cheap. There are 2,500 others like him ó all proud owners of a condo, terrace or bungalow by the water. But none, so far, have confessed to owning a slice of that paradise.

As for Mahesh, he literally has little to hide.

His office, overlooking a dull part of Tanjong Pagar, is a lesson in minimalism. Emptiness parts a penholder from the thin stack of papers on his large desk. Family pictures, Hindu imagery and photos of Mahesh receiving awards sit behind a glass cabinet. Motivational posters hang two-by-three on the otherwise-bare walls; one is slightly crooked. As I contemplate pushing the poster into place, I hear a "hi".

An unsmiling, tired-looking Mahesh walks in. There's some explanation about meetings since morning. His lanky frame approaches the desk, then he changes his mind, drifting out of the room to return with his wife, Mala.

The 40-year-old woman, matchmade in 1989 to marry the younger son of an Indian shipping magnate, oversees the administrative work at her husband's company, Orient Express Lines (OEL). It is the offshoot of the patriarch's business and founded eight years ago when they moved here from Mumbai to spearhead the expansion.

Mala is also the one who got her husband hooked on the Cove.

It all started last year with a flip through the you-get-it-only-if-your-liquid-assets-are-a-million-bucks magazine MillionaireAsia. Glossy pictures of lapping waters at the doorstep. A personal yacht flanking the dream villa. And a huge plus: Sentosa's landed properties are open to foreigners, who will make up 60 per cent of the residents when all the homes are up by 2010.

The Maheshes especially like the idea of getting away from concrete and crowds. They'll have just 20 next-door neighbours on Coral Island, one of the property developments on the Cove. Plus greenery galore for the walking lovers, who clock 10km daily by breezing along a canal behind their Mount Sinai condo.

Next month , it'll be sea-salt air for the couple and their two American-School-going teenagers.

Mala giggles when credited with foresight.

"It was something we couldn't imagine for Singapore living," says Mahesh, who had, within 24 hours of viewing the showflat, signed on the dotted line for 10,000sqf of space at $6.8 million.

His daring nature is well known to his staff. On clubbing nights with them, the no-nonsense, stern-looking "Sir" morphs into fun-loving boogie king, insistent that everyone gets onto the dance floor. But not once have they seen him drunk.

"He's very controlled. Maybe that's why he's very successful," says his secretary Sherine Verghese.

On the corporate front, Mahesh has led OEL to clinch the 2005 award for Singapore's top 50 promising enterprises. In his personal capacity, he has made a profit of around $2 million from selling two residential units since late 2004.

His new 99-year leasehold Cove bungalow is another steal at $650psf ó compare that to Sentosa's current average bungalow prices of $1,300psf. He has other pickings in India, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.

How does he do it?

"I do read up a bit" is all the modest, soft-spoken man from would say.

Neither would he talk about the renovation costs for his "very lavish" two-storey bungalow. Not surprising, since the millionaire has never been known as showy.

But he's certainly going all out to live it up in the Cove. After buying the house, Mahesh and Mala started theory lessons on sailing. Hopefully, they will have aced the practical when their 40-foot yacht arrives from the States next month.

How much does a custom-built yacht cost, I ask. For the umpteenth time that afternoon, Mahesh declines to put a price tag on things. "I'm trying to lie a little low when it comes to this ... uh ... especially ... uh ... sharing of personal details."

Still, he politely obliges when we begin discussing matters of the heart.

His Indian citizenship ó how about giving it up for Singapore's? No, says the Permanent Resident. "We belong to India and we love our country." He hopes instead that Singapore will allow dual citizenship at some point.

Is it too stressful here? "Stress is the way you take it," he states plainly.

Is it intellectually unstimulating compared to India? There's a long pause. Maybe I wasn't clear.

Mala gently offers a word about the need to be "sharp-thinking" in Singapore. Another pause. Mahesh asks for the question to be repeated. I try. He then starts on the challenges of running a firm that leases out ships worldwide, generating sales of $96 million in the last fiscal year.

I try again. When you get together with your friends here, what do you talk about? Politics? Social issues?

"You mean in Singapore? Singapore, there's no politics, no?" says Mahesh. At last, his lips curl up into a slight grin.

He offers to talk about a regular theatre habit. Thanks to Mala, the artistic heart, the family frequents the Esplanade. Among the shows they've caught are the musical concerts brought in by her side business Arte Compass, which has flown in Bollywood acts such as Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan. Often, Mala's outfit ploughs the profits into local charities.

And on that note, our hour-long chat comes to an end.

As I walk out, Mala shows me a bright collage of happy people on some holiday. It was the company-sponsored trip to the Taj Mahal, India's monument to love, two years ago for their 28 staff. They go someplace different each year, Mala tells me.

By this time, Mahesh has vanished quietly.

I see him again at the lift lobby, whose simplicity is all the more stark after my meeting with the wealthy, unassuming couple.

Mahesh is absorbed talking shop with someone. But he finally looks up when I wave from the closing lift door. A tiny, tired smile.

The Cove should do him a whole lot of good, I thought. Now if only the rest of us could get a foot in, too.