BHG Retail Reit banks on growth of Chinese economy

Ms Chan Iz-Lynn, chief executive officer of BHG Retail Trust Management, the manager of BHG Retail Reit, is focused on keeping up with constantly evolving consumer demands.
Ms Chan Iz-Lynn, chief executive officer of BHG Retail Trust Management, the manager of BHG Retail Reit, is focused on keeping up with constantly evolving consumer demands.PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

Ms Chan Iz-Lynn, chief executive officer of the manager of SGX-listed BHG Retail Reit, firmly believes in pursuing her dreams.

Johor-born Ms Chan left home at the age of eight, crossing the Malaysia-Singapore border to live with different families, all because she yearned to attend a school in "Lee Kuan Yew's country".

In 1996, after graduating from the University of Leicester with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English, she continued to blaze her own trail.

She subsequently fulfilled her aspiration to become Singapore Airlines' first female station manager, handling the carrier's airport operations first in Frankfurt, then Copenhagen, followed by New York and Hong Kong over the next nine years.

"SQ had previously appointed only male station managers, and I was their first female station manager. It was a tough life - I had to make sure I performed better than my male counterparts in almost every aspect of the job," she said.

A living testimony to the power of tenacity, Ms Chan's personal mantra is "never give up on your dreams".

She said: "You may feel that something is impossible to achieve, but if you push hard enough and persevere long enough, you will be able to overcome the obstacles and reach your goal."

Over the next decade, Ms Chan's career was focused exclusively on senior roles in retail and hospitality real estate management with Singapore's Far East Organization, as well as Beijing Hualian Department Store Co Ltd - affectionately known as BHG Mall and the sponsor of BHG Retail Reit.

In 2015, she was appointed CEO of BHG Retail Trust Management, the manager of BHG Retail Reit.


BHG Retail Reit is the first pure-play China retail real estate investment trust sponsored by an established China-based retail property operator.

Listed on the SGX Mainboard in December 2015, the Reit aims to invest directly or indirectly in a diversified portfolio of income-producing real estate and real estate-related assets used primarily for retail purposes (wholly or partially), with an initial focus on China.

With a current market capitalisation of over S$365 million, BHG Retail Reit has generated a total return of 16.5 per cent in the 2017 year-to-date, compared with the benchmark Straits Times Index's 18.6 per cent, and the broader FTSE ST All-Share Index's 17.4 per cent.

BHG Retail Trust Management is an indirect, wholly owned unit of sponsor Beijing Hualian Department Store, which listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in May 1998.

The sponsor is part of the Beijing Hualian Group, which has more than two decades of experience in managing retail properties, as well as operating supermarkets and hypermarkets.

The Reit owns a diversified portfolio of five retail properties located strategically in major Chinese cities. These assets have a total net lettable area of about 156,000 sq m, and an average occupancy rate of over 98 per cent.

The portfolio comprises a 60 per cent interest in Beijing Wanliu Mall, Chengdu Konggang Mall, Hefei Mengchenglu Mall, Xining Huayuan Mall and Dalian Jinsanjiao Property. The malls are located in high-density population areas frequented by middle-class professionals and families.

Designated as lifestyle destinations, the anchor tenant or master lessee in every mall is the highly popular Beijing Hualian Hypermarket Co.

The very deliberate positioning of the malls ensures they remain relevant to the broader community, Ms Chan said.

"In China, homes are getting smaller and traffic jams are on the rise, so people enjoy spending time in a third space - outside the home, office or school. This space is sacrosanct, and plays an important role in enriching their lives. We're working with our tenants and shoppers to make the mall a happy and positive space for them."

The five properties in the Reit's portfolio are similar to Jurong Point, Singapore's largest suburban mall located in the west, and Tampines Mall, another heartland mall situated in the east.


Looking ahead, Ms Chan expects the Reit to benefit from robust growth in the Chinese economy.

In the April-June quarter, gross domestic product (GDP) expanded 6.9 per cent year-over-year, maintaining the growth rate in the first quarter and beating economists' estimates.

"The macro-economy will be our key driver. Growth looks positive and retail sales have remained strong. The rise of the middle class, migration of rural population to cities, and the implementation of a two-child policy from 2016 - all of these will also boost domestic consumption," she added.

Another avenue of growth is acquisitions - via right of first refusal (ROFR) properties from the sponsor, as well as suitable assets from third-party operators.

"We have a total of 14 ROFR properties from our sponsor located in Beijing and other cities, and the first batch will be ready for our consideration from 2018," Ms Chan said.

"We're also exploring opportunities to acquire income-producing retail assets from third parties. The criteria include being yield-accretive, a good location, and potential for asset enhancement," she added.

While the outlook remains bright, one issue that lingers at the back of Ms Chan's mind is how to ensure the Reit continues to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated Chinese shoppers.

"Many people think our challenges are the rise of e-commerce and oversupply, but these are not really our biggest concerns.

"Our properties are not located in areas where many malls are present, and while e-commerce is growing, consumers continue to engage with brands both online and offline," Ms Chan pointed out.

Retailers are also increasingly adopting an omni-channel strategy, which blurs boundaries between online and offline purchases.

"The physical mall will be relevant as long as the tenant mix is relevant, and our malls have adopted an experiential focus."

Following a collaboration with Alibaba and Alipay, consumers can purchase shopping vouchers online and spend them in the Reit's bricks-and-mortar stores. They can also download dining discount vouchers via online food and beverage platforms or apps.


A more pertinent issue, instead, is how to keep up with constantly evolving consumer demands.

But trends can change very quickly - what's popular today can become passe tomorrow, Ms Chan noted, pointing to cheesecake fads.

And staying in tune with what's current means reading widely. A voracious reader, she spends her time outside the office researching on topics ranging from art and history to health and food.

"I enjoy learning about anything and everything," the gregarious 44-year-old said with a laugh.

Ms Chan, who is married to a pilot and has three dogs, believes in carving out "me time".

"By spending time alone and being still - when you're calm and your mind is clear - that's when you can find your direction and focus. Only when you are focused will you be able to make the right decisions and achieve your goals."

•This is an excerpt from the Singapore Exchange's "kopi-C: the Company brew" column, which features C-level executives of firms listed on SGX. A longer version can be found on SGX's My Gateway website.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'BHG Retail Reit banks on growth of Chinese economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe