Mainstream
Brand EcoWorld, not Liew
Joseph Wong 
Liew (right) and his son and heir apparent Tian Xiong
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It cannot be denied the EcoWorld brand is very much associated with its founder Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin. However, the property icon wants to change that. He has started taking steps to “transfer” the EcoWorld brand association from himself to his companies – Eco World Development Group Bhd (EcoWorld) and Eco World International Bhd (EWI).

He knows the investing public still tends to associate him with the brand, but he wants it to stand on its own merits. “I know when we formed EcoWorld, people associated the company with me. I was the brand, but the company is already four years old and has established itself as one of the big property brands,” he tells FocusM.

“That’s why I’ve stepped back and let capable people like Datuk Chang [Khim Wah] and Datuk Teow [Leong Seng] lead the companies to the next level.”

He says the companies have a longer lifespan than “this old man”. “I have an expiry date. Companies go on long after their founders have passed on,” says Liew who is EWI executive vice-chairman and EcoWorld chairman.

“Who remembers who built BMW? Who remembers Prada’s founder? Or Toyota?” he asks.

Liew acknowledges that “branding is everything”. “Look at other companies. BMW is not a new company. Toyota or Prada are not new companies. People pay to buy a brand,” he adds.

In the same vein, he says: “Eco World is no longer a new company. That’s why we are looking at the next level for the brand to grow. You can’t rest on your laurels.

“Look at Apple iPhone. Why do people still buy iPhones? Steve Jobs had passed away but people continue to buy iPhones. It’s a brand that has differentiated itself from other brands.”

People who buy iPhones will continue to buy the brand due to various reasons, says Liew.

“iPhone continues to come up with new models with new functions and applications. It has created a brand that buyers will follow. That’s what we want for EcoWorld. We want buyers to follow our brand.

“To do that, we established EcoWorld Class where the EcoWorld DNA will be replicated in every project so that when buyers look at our properties, they can instantly tell that it is an EcoWorld project.

“And that’s why you see the same high standards that we have achieved in customer service in every development with our stamp. From the moment you enter the front gate, the guards will salute you. When you are at the entrance of the showroom, the sales team will greet you at the door and get coffee or tea for you even before they start selling.

“We build relationships with our (potential) customers whether they buy into our projects or not. That kind of service is part of our brand.”

 

Same service

Liew says potential buyers can go to any EcoWorld showroom and they will get the same level of service.

However, he acknowledges there are some limitations. “[For example,] we cannot build everything 100% perfect. That’s impossible to do. Even developed nations with the most reputable developers can’t do that. There are just too many variables. But what we can promise is that we will rectify the flaws.

“If there is something wrong, we will do our best to fix it,” he says.

And to evolve further, EcoWorld is coming up with EcoWorld X, which encompasses EcoWorld Class. “The ‘X’ stands for many things, (for example) the extra, the extraordinary. Eco World X is about how we do things differently and better.”

All that is just one part of brand building; the company also has to perform positively in terms of profitability and share price performance.

EcoWorld’s H1FY17 net income of RM149.8 mil was encouraging, says MIDF Research.

“The first half-year profit was exceptionally strong due to the Q1FY17’s RM94.8 mil gain arising from dilution of equity interest in Paragon Pinnacle (the company which owns the Ijok land bank). Hence, we expect the remaining quarters’ profits to normalise. No dividend was declared and this was within expectation as the company is still in high growth stage,” it adds.

EcoWorld’s revenue grew 17% year-on-year to RM1.26 bil. The growth was due to ongoing recognition of projects in the Klang Valley (Eco Sanctuary and Eco Sky), Iskandar Malaysia (Eco Spring, Eco Summer, Eco Business Park 1, Eco Tropics and Eco Business Park III) and Penang (Eco Meadows and Eco Terraces).

Everyone is eagerly waiting to see how the developer will perform for financial year ending Oct 31.

The company simultaneously unveiled five projects in Penang and the Klang Valley on Sept 30 to boost sales. They are Eco Forest and Whitten @ Eco Majestic in Semenyih, Eco Business Park V in Puncak Alam, Dremien @ Eco Ardence in Setia Alam and Eco Horizon in Batu Kawan, Penang.

“We’ve received positive feedback and strong support from homebuyers and property investors,” says EcoWorld president and CEO Datuk Chang Khim Wah.

 

Chang is EcoWorld president and CEO

“We’re confident that we will do well again. Detailed sales, including total units sold across these five projects, will be announced in the current year results ending Oct 31,” he says.

 

EWI president and CEO Datuk Teow Leong Seng has been tasked with turning EcoWorld’s international arm into a local developer for both the UK and Australia.

All these are part and parcel of brand building to strengthen
EcoWorld’s name as well as the public’s and investors’ perception of the company.

 

Turning to digital innovations

The group also feels innovation is the key to the future. Liew’s son and heir apparent (see sidebar) Tian Xiong reveals that many of the company’s new strategies will hinge on phone applications (apps) and digital aspects which Gen Ys are so familiar with. “We have a digital innovation arm that will help transform the business model of Eco World from a pure property developer by creating a different source of revenue for the company,” he says.

“We already have a very strong foundation and a big customer base. But the question is how to use technology to tap into this, how to create value-added components to our customers and how to better understand our customers to better plan for the future.

“A township takes 15 to 20 years to develop. By the 20th year, buyers will have different lifestyles altogether. Those who have been residing in an area for 10 to 20 years are used to the area and tend to remain there,” he says.

Using digital tools, EcoWorld can, for example, take raw data to be analysed into usable information for it to streamline and improve its sales process, says Tian Xiong. He points out that EcoWorld has set up a technological arm to develop its own technology and apps to digitise rather than adopt existing technology which may not quite suit its purpose.

“So instead of using someone else’s technology, creating our own gives us better control of our data and tailors it to suit our needs. The new initiatives will enhance customer interactions with EcoWorld and this will allow the company to come up with better products,” he says.

Elizabeth Siew, founding partner of Elizabeth Siew and Co, notices a surge in technology usage in the property industry this year.

“It was used before but not as much as of late. There have been a number of new technological apps made in many components of the property sector,” she adds.

Siew says this sudden visibility of property apps and technological innovations should help spur the sector.

This change towards technology usage is perhaps timely since it involves Gen Ys, she adds.

The RM8.7 bil Bukit Bintang City Centre is one of EcoWorld’s branded projects. EcoWorld has a 40% stake in the joint-venture project with Uda Holdings Bhd (40%), and Employees Provident Fund (20%) 

 

Old vs new ways

Change is a constant, that’s how Liew describes the fluid nature of the property industry. “There will always be new ideas, designs and technologies which will change the way investors and buyers look at the industry.

“The old way of doing things may not be the best way to do things. We need to adapt,” he says.

He says his son has his work cut out for him. “It is not easy to convince the old uncles and aunties,” he quips, referring also to himself.

Admitting he is “lost” when it comes to the millennials’ mind-boggling thought process, especially when dealing with technology, he says: “The young will eventually have to lead the way. They are the future.”

For now, Liew says EcoWorld will combine the best of the old and new. “The old refers to us as well as industries that have tied into the property industry like restaurants and F&B outlets,” he says.

“But we want the young people to go forward and change the way we do business.”

Tian Xiong agrees this is the best way forward. “We still need to provide many of the services that were given (in the past). That’s where the experience component comes in. In introducing new things like Ardence Labs to EcoWorld, we are guided by a very experienced team.”

The team, he says, knows how to ensure things function smoothly like where to station the F&B components in a project, how to manage customers and the level of service to provide, as well as what is workable.

“All that requires experience. Our task is (provide) new ideas that are to go in, the conceptualisation, and what the younger generation looks for.”

Going local abroad

PROPERTY developer Eco World International Bhd (EWI) will focus on becoming a local brand in the countries it operates in.

EWI has ongoing projects in the UK and Australia. It is the second Bursa Malaysia-listed company owned by property tycoon Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, besides Eco World Development Group Bhd (EcoWorld).

EWI has three projects in London – the £614 mil London City Island (LCI), £591 mil Wardien London and £995 mil Embassy Gardens.

In Australia, it is developing the A$300 mil West Village in Parramatta, New South Wales. Its second project, targeted at locals, was launched in Melbourne, Victoria at the end of last month.

Liew, who is EWI executive vice-chairman and EcoWorld chairman, says EWI has to become a local player if it wants to go the long haul. “We cannot just depend on Malaysian buyers [all the time] or international investors. Until Brexit (the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union) normalises and things improve, buyers’ investments into London are limited,” he says adding that in the inner city, purchasers are still very much the international community, but Brexit has affected this trend.

EWI, EcoWorld’s international arm, is, however, switching gears to reinvent itself as a local developer, both in the UK and Australia. “We cannot look to develop city properties, especially in London, if we cannot attract local buyers. We are targeting at least 90% of new properties to be taken up by locals,” he says.

Thus, EWI has been scouting for suitable land on the outskirts of London, particularly areas that are well serviced by public transportation. “The plan is to acquire (parcels of) land in these areas and develop them into properties that locals would buy. In London, these areas will be between one and two hours from the city,” he says.

EWI has set aside over £200 mil (RM1.1 bil) to acquire land in the UK and Australia, says Liew. Like other developers in the UK, EWI also wants to develop property on the outskirts of London where there is demand, he adds.

Liew says there is still strong local demand for housing as there is a shortfall of about 10,000 homes in London. He points out that locals are more used to commuting to work and tend to live further from the city.

EWI was one of the largest initial public offerings (IPOs) to debut on Bursa this year at an offer price of RM1.20. It rose to RM1.31 on April 3 but has since slipped to RM1.06 on Oct 12.

The IPO raised RM2.58 bil based on 2.15 billion shares at RM1.20 each on an enlarged share base of 2.40 billion shares, making it a large-cap developer. The IPO also comes with a bonus warrant issue of up to 960 million units. Proceeds will be used mainly for debt repayment, working capital and future land acquisitions.

“We do not foresee any key catalyst to drive the share price at this moment. Lingering concerns could be the impact of Brexit on the London property market and overheating housing market in Australia,” says JF Apex Securities Bhd head of research Lee Chung Cheng.

Liew says Brexit, poor economic conditions worldwide and changes in property regulations in the UK and Australia have partly affected EWI’s projects. He expects the Brexit issue to settle in the next two years, and so it is crucial for EWI to build up its base in London now to take advantage of the renewed interest in property when that happens.

“We must look ahead. It’s one of the main reasons why EWI must become a local property developer. If we are to grow bigger in London, Sydney and Melbourne, we have to become homegrown,” he reiterates.

And once EWI establishes itself in both the UK and Australia, confidence in the company will also rise and so too will its share price.

EWI’s key shareholders are Liew (10.3%), EcoWorld (27%) and Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan’s Guocoland Ltd (27%).

Its institutional shareholders are Permodalan Nasional Bhd, Kumpulan Wang Persaraan and the Employees Provident Fund, which together subscribed for 47.3% of the institutional offering, or an 8.9% stake in EWI. 

 

Heir apparent eager to prove himself

It’s always tough proving yourself in business when you’re constantly being compared to your successful father. This holds true for Liew Tian Xiong, 26.

Since the youngster joined the board of Eco World Development Bhd (EcoWorld) on Nov 29, 2015, he has been working tirelessly to live up to shareholders’ expectations.   

His father is none other than property icon, Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, 59, who has been credited with building up SP Setia Bhd and now Eco World within a short span of four years.

Tian Xiong, who is heir apparent, has been tasked by his father to bring a new X-factor to EcoWorld. Along with that, he also has to generate a catalyst to leapfrog EcoWorld into the digital age.

Seeing the potential in his son, the elder Liew has started giving him some important roles and duties. “Tian Xiong has two roles apart from being the general manager for Eco Ardence. He is tasked with finding a new business model for Eco World [and create a] transformation to take EcoWorld to a digitised and modern environment from the Gen Ys’ point of view,” Liew tells FocusM.

“He is given a free hand on how to achieve these tasks and has the guidance of many capable people like Datuk Chang (Khim Wah) and the leaders in EcoWorld. I will also guide him but he has to do it himself. He has to prove himself,” he says.

Besides his father, Tian Xiong has also been learning the ropes from EcoWorld president and CEO Chang and Eco World International Bhd (EWI) president and CEO Datuk Teow Leong Seng.

Teow heads EWI

 

Liew’s strategy is part and parcel of EcoWorld’s fast-track evolution to the next level as he has pointed out that the company is still relatively young at four years to undergo a large-scale transformation that several older property players have been going through.

 

Bigger picture

It is also part of a bigger picture to strengthen the EcoWorld brand, as Liew is slowly shifting investors and buyers’ confidence from him to the company. The current perception is that Liew and EcoWorld are very much associated with each other. He wants the EcoWorld brand to be in the forefront, not himself.

Needless to say, those in the industry want to establish ties with Tian Xiong as they know that at 26, he is the future of EcoWorld, in which he has an 18.2% stake.

However, the pressing question is whether Tian Xiong is made of the same mould as his father, and whether the older property generation can give the same level of respect to a youngster.

Superior Wealth Mastery founder and principal strategist Alan Poon believes that like many sons and daughters of reputable property people, Tian Xiong will have his work cut out for him.

“The second-generation (leaders) have to overcome people’s opinion that they are taking over because of their fathers and [the stigma that] their level of passion cannot match their fathers’, ” says Poon whose company provides boutique wealth education.

Liew has detached himself as the figurehead of both EcoWorld and EWI, so that would help with the eventual power transition, says Poon, who has been tracking the property sector since 2001.

Nevertheless, Liew must remain in the picture to ensure that the focus of the EcoWorld branding is transferred from the man to the company, he says.

Tian Xiong, he adds, will have to prove himself.

 

Committed to the challenge

An enthusiastic Tian Xiong has committed himself to his additional roles. Beginning with Ardence Labs, a pop-up lifestyle hub using recycled containers, he is ardent about generating excitement for EcoWorld’s projects even before completion.

To date, nearly 70% of the retail lots have been taken up by 17 tenants who have confirmed their spots at the incubator-styled hub. They are Jaya Grocer, The New Camp 2, Cocomomo, Tealive, Llao, Gindaco, Croissant Taiyaki, Laughing Monkey, Big Blind, U-Mai, Hinata Cafe, Chaiwalla & Co, Aroi Mak, Plant Cartridge, Ottimo Desserts & Bing Seoul, Bamboo Biryani and Let’s Joy Cafe. Another two new tenants have just signed up while the 20th tenant is still negotiating with EcoWorld.

While Tian Xiong is coy about his strategies, he says he is looking at ways to enhance the experiential interactions among the owners, tenants and users, especially the public spaces which will be a focal point.

“EcoWorld wants its residents to experience a vibrant lifestyle even before they move in. Those who bought the first phase will know the exact lifestyle they’re going to get,” he says.

For those residing in neighbouring areas, they can also get a feel of the EcoWorld DNA, he says. The whole concept is very “organic” as the hub will shift and grow as businesses expand or new tenants introduce new ideas and business ventures into the pop-up hubs.

“The site we have chosen for Ardence Labs is on a prime location and very visible from the highway just after the Setia Alam toll plaza. “People passing the toll plaza have a clear view of Ardence Labs and we hope the exposure will make them stop over to see what we have to offer,” he says.

Ardence Labs is set to open in January with a targeted 25 tenants, but Tian Xiong is optimistic more will hop onto the bandwagon before the official opening. He says the pop-up lifestyle hubs will be replicated in other EcoWorld projects but each location will have its own “unique flavour”.

“While the settings and methodology in running the business model are new, we also want to create a sense of belonging. We want to replicate that nostalgic feeling associated with a unique place that people are emotionally attached to, like that old kopitiam everyone knows,” he says.

Two years may be too short for a young man to prove himself, but with his enthusiasm, Tian Xiong may stamp his mark earlier than expected.

 



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.