Published July 20, 2006

Sparkling business

Wheelock's exec director tells KALPANA RASHIWALA why luxury properties are like diamonds

DIAMONDS and luxury properties are as different as chalk is from cheese. But Wheelock Properties (Singapore)'s first woman executive director, Tan Bee Kim, compares developing luxury properties to cutting and setting diamonds.

Ms Tan: "You may have a one-carat but you didn't cut it well...As a result, you can't sell it for as good a price as I would be able to sell mine'

'You may have a one-carat diamond and I would have one too. How I cut my diamond and set it will dif ferentiate my price from yours.

'You may have a one-carat but you didn't cut it well, and you have an awful setting. As a result, you can't sell it for as good a price as I would be able to sell mine,' she says, when asked about the intense competition among Singapore developers all jostling for a piece of the luxury residential pie.

And that's not all. Ms Tan stresses the track record of the developer is also important when attracting buyers. 'When you buy a one-carat diamond from Tiffany, you pay so much more than if you buy from a smaller retailer,' she says.

Ms Tan sees luxury homes' prices rising on average by 5 to 10 per cent over the next year.

Wheelock, which has just bought the Habitat One site in the prime Ardmore Park location, is no newbie in the luxury housing segment. It developed the famous Ardmore Park condo, which reportedly generated a whopping $1 billion pretax profit which the group booked over several years and earned its CEO David Lawrence the nickname 'The $1 billion-dollar Man'.

Such feats may be difficult to repeat, Ms Tan acknowledges. 'It's like high jump. If you've already reached that level, you have to go higher, and surpass whatever else you've done. That's the challenge.'

Ms Tan, who also oversees Wheelock's marketing team, will be kept busy over the next few years with the group's various high-end projects in Singapore's prime districts.

Wheelock will be launching the 118-unit Ardmore II condo later this year on the amalgamated Ardmore View and Habitat II site. Ms Tan also finds 'quite exciting' the group's plans to redevelop The Ascott Singapore/Scotts Shopping Centre site into a new project with 338 apartments built atop a luxury retail centre.

But Ms Tan adds that Wheelock isn't interested only in high-end sites. 'Whenever someone puts forward a piece of land to us, we think: What can we put on this piece of land? Can we put up something really good?'

Returning to her jewels analogy, she says: 'In other words, if you were selling me sapphires or rubies, I would still look at them and ask: 'Can I make a very nice piece of jewellery out of it and cut it right?' So it's not just diamonds that we're looking at.'

Ms Tan, 43, was named to the Wheelock board in May this year as its first woman executive director - a rarity among major Singapore-listed property groups. Her ascent is somewhat remarkable in the male-dominated property scene in Singapore.

The former Methodist Girls' School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College student got her first taste of the property business when, after her 'A' Levels, she worked for six months in a small property agency leasing residential properties.

That was just before she began a four-year degree in Quantity Surveying at the National University of Singapore. When she graduated, she joined the then-Overseas Union Bank as a management trainee before being assigned to its premier banking unit, the precursor to the wealth management division of banks today. It was there that she networked with high-networths, some of whom later became buyers of Wheelock's Ardmore Park condo.

After OUB, Ms Tan did stints at CB Richard Ellis and Singapore Land before joining Wheelock, then known as Marco Polo Developments, as senior manager of marketing in 1996 - the same year that Ardmore Park was launched.

She rose to general manager (marketing) before leaving the company in 2000, as she and her family had to relocate to Hong Kong for two years to join her husband. In 2003, she rejoined Wheelock again as GM (marketing) and in May this year was appointed to its board as an executive director.

Ms Tan's entire marketing team of 10 comprises women, most of whom are mothers, just like her. 'I think they're all able to manage between work and their family rather well,' says Ms Tan, whose husband is in the IT business. The couple have two children aged 13 and 14. Ms Tan finds cooking quite therapeutic.

'You can't spend all your time working, because it doesn't always translate to productivity. You need a life outside work in order to be able to be happier at work and to function better,' she says.

'It's also very nice when you come to work and everyone's happy. It's a very pleasant working environment. You don't dread coming into the office, hopefully not on Monday as well.'