THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH CLARA CHEO

Clara Cheo, Golden Village's first female chief executive

Ms Cheo (above, front row, seventh from left) at a Golden Village strategic workshop in 2013. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CLARA CHEO
Ms Cheo (above, front row, seventh from left) at a Golden Village strategic workshop in 2013. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CLARA CHEO
Ms Clara Cheo in the 1970s with her siblings and with her husband Eddie Ling and sons Travis and Aidan in 2005 (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CLARA CHEO
Ms Clara Cheo in the 1970s with her siblings and with her husband Eddie Ling and sons Travis and Aidan in 2005 (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CLARA CHEO
Ms Clara Cheo (above, second from left) in the 1970s with her siblings and with her husband Eddie Ling and sons Travis and Aidan in 2005 (right). Ms Cheo (above, front row, seventh from left) at a Golden Village strategic workshop in 2013.
Ms Clara Cheo (above, second from left) in the 1970s with her siblings and with her husband Eddie Ling and sons Travis and Aidan in 2005 (right). Ms Cheo (above, front row, seventh from left) at a Golden Village strategic workshop in 2013.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF CLARA CHEO
Golden Village chief executive Clara Cheo goes to movies on weekends at either her cinemas or others, to get a feel of the competition.
Golden Village chief executive Clara Cheo goes to movies on weekends at either her cinemas or others, to get a feel of the competition.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Apart from pushing expansion and renewal plans, Golden Village's first female head, Clara Cheo, works to keep the cinema chain ahead of competitors

Up till the mid-1990s, the cinema business used to be straightforward: Line up films that people want to watch, run a few advertisements, then wait for the hordes to show up.

To grow earnings, operators simply opened more cinemas. Those days are no more.

Ms Clara Cheo, chief executive of Golden Village, Singapore's largest cinema chain, presides over a mature business in a mature industry, in which food and beverage sales and social media engagement are just as important to the bottom line as box-office revenue.

"It's not just about going to the movies. We also want to create memories for customers," says Ms Cheo, the first female head of the company and the first to rise to the top job from within.

And that is not only how she is different. The former accountant and mother of two is soft- spoken. She is nervous about our chat and keeps notes on hand as we talk. She has tough acts to follow, she thinks.

She comes after ebullient Golden Village heads such as Mr David Glass, who was profiled in this column in 2011. The Australian came up through sales and advertising and is an extrovert, the type not averse to making a cameo in a local comedy (Old Cow Vs Tender Grass, 2010) as an irate customer of the taxi driver played by Henry Thia.

Another former chief, Mr Kenneth Tan, is passionate about world cinema and is known for giving off-the-cuff speeches on the topic at film screenings.

"I'm really stepping out of my comfort zone with this interview," she says with a laugh. "But I told myself when I accepted this job that I would have to take on new challenges. I constantly tell our people to take on new challenges, so I have to walk the talk."

As she sees it, her job now is to keep Golden Village's No. 1 position in Singapore - it takes 42 per cent of box-office revenue here - and to make sure programmes of expansion and renewal her predecessors started are completed.

We are seated in the swanky lounge of the chain's newest cineplex, its 11th. The 1,390-seater GV Suntec, opened late last year, boasts eight auditoriums and three premium-seating Gold Class halls.

The new outlet's features tell the story of the cinema exhibition business today. For example, customers flash a smartphone QR code at an auto- gate to enter.

The company does not just compete with other operators, but also with pirated movies, other forms of entertainment and the time-starved lifestyles of Singaporeans.

To win over executives working in the Central Business District, the Suntec cineplex has a new, brighter 3-D projection system and state-of-the-art seats. Gold Class patrons have a menu that matches standards set by cafes in the area. Options include Breaded White Fish Loin and imported German beer.

At this and other cinemas, Golden Village executives plan theme parties, movie marathons and other events around films. For instance, female patrons were greeted by shirtless butlers at special screenings of male stripper drama Magic Mike (2012). For family screenings, parents are encouraged to bring babies in strollers.

Ms Cheo, the sixth head that Golden Village has had in its 22-year history here, fittingly turns 50 this year. Formerly the company's chief financial officer, she took over in March 2013 from Mr Kurt Rieder, an American, and speaks fondly about learning the ropes from, among others, Mr Rieder, Mr Glass and Mr Tan, the first Singaporean head and now the assistant chief executive (assessment) with the Media Development Authority.

"I have big shoes to fill," she says.

When she joined Golden Village in 1996 as an accounting manager, the operator had only five cineplexes and 36 screens and was still viewed as a brash newcomer to a scene long dominated by two major family-run chains, Shaw Organisation and Cathay Organisation, and a few niche operators.

Today, Golden Village is Singapore's largest player, with cineplexes in 11 locations and a total of 92 screens. It is also the largest independent film distributor, bringing in films such as American Sniper, which is now showing, and last year's Lego Movie, as well as Asian films such as Jackie Chan's CZ12 (2012).

Ms Cheo's early years were spent in a sprawling, multi-generational house in Hougang, home to her family and those of her cousins', and close to where her father and uncles ran a provision shop and animal feed store started by her grandfather. Her mother was a housewife.

She was the second youngest child, and had four sisters and four brothers. With their cousins, they played hide-and-seek around the store and its warehouse; the nooks and crannies of the store, warehouse and surrounding areas made for challenging games, she says.

The children helped with the store on weekends and holidays and, among other jobs, she had to scoop chicken and pig feed out of large sacks, packing them into smaller paper bags for customers.

Later, the family moved to a semi-detached home in Charlton Park, also in Hougang. She went to Rosyth Primary School, then Cedar Girls' Secondary School, and from there, to the National Institute Of Commerce.

After graduating with a certificate in accounting in 1983, she took up a series of lower-level accounting jobs with various firms, while carrying on with part-time studies towards higher qualifications in accounting.

She yearned to move up the ladder but knew it would be tough without more education. She studied part-time for the Association Of Chartered Certified Accountants professional qualification, obtaining it in 1993. She married shortly after that, in the same year.

She says: "It was tough. At least two or three times each week, I rushed to attend night classes. Sometimes, I would fall asleep during the class from exhaustion."

But she had goals. "I ploughed on as I saw some of my friends completing it and they were able to become auditors in Big Four audit firms or accountants in companies."

She qualified as an accountant in 1993 and eight years later, attended class again for a master's in business administration from the University of Southern Queensland.

In 1996, when she answered an advertisement for an exhibition accounting manager for Golden Village, the chain was in fast expansion mode under Mr Glass.

Golden Village arrived in Singapore with a bang in 1992, when its Yishun 10 cineplex saw the highest number of attendances of any multiplex in the world in its first year of business. The company's name comes from its parent corporations, the Australian media company Village Roadshow and the Hong Kong-based film production, exhibition and distribution company Orange Sky Golden Harvest.

Golden Village's standards of service, cleanliness and equipment hastened the decline of standalone cinemas in housing estates, many of which had been hard hit by videotape piracy during the 1980s.

Before becoming chief executive, Ms Cheo helped pioneer the practice of lowering ticket prices at off-peak hours to lure the crowds. It has since become standard industry practice. From accounting manager, she rose steadily, becoming chief financial officer in 2010.

As chief executive, she helps run a business that had a sales turnover of $39 million when she joined in 1996. The figure was 4.5 times that in 2013.

Ms Cady Ho, 49, head of consumer insurance with AIG, has known Ms Cheo since they were students at the National Institute of Commerce. Ms Ho thinks that Ms Cheo thrived and moved up at Golden Village because she truly enjoys the entertainment business and because of how she was empowered.

Golden Village's management team is small, with fluid lines between departments. Ms Ho says: "She got to do a lot of decision-making. She likes solving problems, and she was given a lot of opportunities to add value."

Former Golden Village head Tan, 50, says in an e-mail interview that, in spite of her self- deprecation, Ms Cheo defies the stereotype of the finance person as the bean counter most at home in the background.

He says: "When I was at the helm, it was my job, rather than hers, to interface with all of the company's landlords on a regular basis. Yet they all knew her socially as well as professionally.

"I've watched her do presentations at Golden Village board meetings. She may not know the name of the second assistant director on an offbeat indie film, but boy, does she know her stuff when it comes to the ins and outs of Golden Village's business, and she has no qualms whatsoever about speaking her mind and doing so in a manner that builds warmth all round the room."

Ms Cheo goes to the movies on weekends, sometimes at her own cinemas and sometimes not, to get a feel of the competition. Recent favourites include the Hindi drama The Lunchbox (2013) and the satire on news media, last year's Nightcrawler.

Husband Eddie Ling, 52, a quality assurance manager with a manufacturer, is a fan of Hong Kong martial artist and actor Donnie Yen so they make it a point to watch his films together. Son Travis, 18, is a polytechnic student while his younger brother, Aidan, 14, is in Secondary 2.

Things on her mind now include the massive, years-long renovation and upgrading of several Golden Village locations. Great World City and Bishan locations have been freshened, and massive works are planned for the Tampines and Tiong Bahru outlets.

Ms Cheo continues to work on her public speaking skills. She gave her first speech last year at a conference on digital piracy, and once went hoarse from late night speech-delivery practice.

She is just playing her part, she says.

Everyone at Golden Village has a process that is "intertwined, like a factory line", she says.

"We need to ensure the machinery moves smoothly. Our cinemas operate 365 days a year. The show must go on, no matter what."

johnlui@sph.com.sg