Reflections with Kemmy Tan

By Clarinda Ong and Maple Ee

Kemmy Tan is the Chief Executive Officer of M+S who spearheaded the development of two premiere projects, DUO and Marina One. An esteemed leader in the real estate industry, Kemmy shares her experiences and career reflections in this article. Furthermore, she offers advice for those who wish to enter the industry, with specific insights on her outlook of the industry and the relationship between Singapore’s real estate industry and international markets.

At the management level, my job entails discussions and meeting with the team heads on the key issues which affect the organisation and issues which they face in their operations; working with them to collectively solve these problems. As they are senior staff members, everyone has their insights and views on such issues. Hence, I play more of a guiding role in aiding their problem-solving process and ultimately making the decision to approve or disapprove the recommendation presented by them. Another aspect of my day is engaging with other stakeholders and key customers of the organization.

As my training is in real estate and I have been in the real estate industry since the start of my career; working in developer firms. What is exciting for me as a developer is the ability to turn  a plan into reality. From conceiving a plan to seeing the real estate come to life and seeing the value it adds to occupants of the developments,  gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. I can see my tangible contribution and the impact on the different landscapes both locally and globally, drives me.

I believe it is my way of paying it forward and contributing back to the community and society from which I have gained much from.  I am at the  phase in my life where I would like to help others and give back by sharing my insights and experience as a working professional. As an adjunct professor at NUS, I can share my practical experience with the undergraduates so they gain a different perspective from the theories they learn in school. I am also a board member at Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre which runs many programs for underprivileged youths and families. To me, it is very fulfilling to transfer management-oriented strategic thinking to programs that have this need.

As for She1k and Bansea, they focus more on start-ups where I play the role of an Angel, so I act as an advisor or investor in their business – or sometimes, both. It is really exciting to learn about these exciting transformational business ideas in the  different industries. I am learning something new all the time and yet at the same time I am still able to impart management skills that are transferable across industries. In addition, I am also a mentor at Young Women’s Leadership Connection (YWLC) to working adult mentees who are from industries outside of the Real Estate industry. The work is really about transferring life skills and I have gained much through the reverse mentoring from my mentees. Being able to value-add and make a difference in their lives keeps me motivated, and makes it worthwhile.

The biggest challenge is navigating the business through the vagaries of the market amidst a competitive business landscape. We need to  always be nimble and creative so as to pivot the business accordingly. Also, people management skills eg. how do we harness the energies of the team to get the best idea and how do I inspire the teams to engage with the vision? I see myself as more of a leader who is open to ideas while having an opinion of my own. Leaders need to have a growth mindset to know that we do not have all the answers.  Outcomes are always better if we have a team of people to explore solutions and ideas, a team which ultimately believes and shares the same clear vision.

In terms of personal life, it is important to have a good support system to separate work and family time, especially for women. So that you can build your family while achieving career progression. I feel that in Singapore, women have equal opportunities at work and the gender ratio is quite balanced at the management level. Women need to convince themselves that  they can have it all, you do not have to shortchange yourself.

Having a growth mindset and keeping an open mind are key. Trying different things can help to build your resume. Another piece of advice I would give is to not beat yourself up if things do not go as planned. What is important is to be able to maneuver out of the situation. Be nimble enough to wriggle out of sticky situations, and take it as a learning opportunity.

For youths who are aspiring to enter into the Real Estate industry, I would emphasise looking beyond Singapore and explore global trends. Although my work is largely based in Singapore, my skill set which is largely transferable has brought me overseas to develop ski resorts, offices and luxury homes  and the like. And like any other industry, youths should know what is happening outside of your industry as well, such as bringing IT into your spaces and making connections with people outside your faculty. Often many ideas are borne out of collaboration between different fields.

Firstly, some trends have disrupted how traditional real estate services work. For instance, co-living or co-working  has affected how traditional landlord business works. PropertyGuru, which provides online property listings has transformed the marketplace whilst other sites like SRX  have disrupted traditional valuation services.

While real estate is still largely brick and mortar, its use is constantly changing thanks to technology. For instance, the presence of online shopping means that landlords need to figure out how to make physical spaces work together with online platforms and consider if the trend of anchor tenants is still relevant. This also poses a challenge for real estate to adapt given its physical size since it takes time to plan and build. This means that future practitioners will need to look forward and be ahead of the curve. There is no harm in being a follower as well, but you have to make your solutions better than existing ones. For my firm, we pioneered the use of smartphones for check-in at turnstiles. In terms of sustainability, we have focussed on efforts like attaining the platinum BCA Green Mark and Leed Platinum; irrigating landscapes through rainwater harvesting. These efforts have achieved a low carbon footprint, which is something we are very proud of.  I like being a trailblazer and we have pioneered solutions by viewing real estate not just as brick and mortar but as the platform to build communities. This is why we have curated programs to engage retailers, residential, and tenants together. Through our charity engagement,  we bring together our entire community together to do their part for the underprivileged as well. We hope that this sets the platform for future developments, and I do see more and more developments moving in this direction.

In the realm of real estate, I believe that developers will continue to face the challenge of providing flexible spaces for users. The new generation of millennials is more transient in their thinking which means that there will be new, changing trends. This includes co-working, which is popular for companies who do not wish to have a long-term commitment, or start-ups that lack funds. Such a transcending framework is also prevalent in trends like co-living.

Therefore, I believe the biggest question for the industry is to ensure that real estate remains relevant to the users. The most immediate challenge will be faced by those who develop their own retail spaces given the prevalence of e-commerce. Developers will need to find a way to make the physical spaces work together with Omni-channels for physical malls to remain relevant with the public.

For me, authenticity is very important. This means being true to yourself, and being willing to admit if you do not understand something. In a similar thread, remain humble and apologise if you have made a mistake. Learn from your mistakes and display your resilience by moving on.

Another important lesson is to be nimble and adaptable – it is crucial for youths today to keep up with the changes around the world, so you are ready to adapt yourself and your business to adjustments. This also means that you should embark on a road of lifelong learning.

At the end of the day, what I value the most would be my family. Putting my professional life aside, my legacy would be my kids, and much of such success is attributed to the support of my family.

I am blessed  to have family support so  that I could focus on my career. I think it is very important to have support from your family for everyone, but especially women. I believe that if we can compartmentalise issues at hand, and deal with them one at a time, the task of balancing family with work would be much less daunting. Although during the period of career growth, it felt like time was split only between work and family, but as you progress and move up the corporate ladder, pockets of your time will emerge. Hence, I believe it is incredibly important for women to set priorities that matter to them for them to grow.