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The Life Interview With Chris Chong

The Life Interview with Chris Chong: Details matter to 'Ion man'

Orchard Turn Developments chief executive Chris Chong walks the eight shop floors of Ion Orchard daily to take note of anything amiss

Chief executive of Orchard Turn Developments Chris Chong helms one of Singapore's most prominent malls - Ion Orchard - but despite his busy schedule, he is never too busy to listen to what his staff or tenants have to say.

At just 44 years old, Mr Chong has taken Ion Orchard - a development in the heart of Singapore's prime shopping belt with more than 66,000 sq m of retail space - to new heights and won local and international awards since coming on board in 2013.

As the person overseeing the mall and marketing for high-end residential development The Orchard Residences, it is unsurprising that Mr Chong comes for this interview dressed in a Dolce & Gabbana jacket, Calvin Klein pants and a Gucci belt.

But his title and well-groomed appearance do not translate to a man of inflated self-importance. Right off the bat, he delves into his love of "daily walks" - around the mall, that is.

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No matter that scaling all eight floors of Ion Orchard might seem daunting for even the most seasoned of shoppers. For this hands-on boss, walking around the mall is how he likes to start his day.

"In retail, it is important to have insight from the ground up, which is why I like to speak to different store managers on a daily basis," the father of two says.

It is important to keep an open mind about things that are new or that I might not understand. It’s why I make an effort to be hands-on with my team and know the mall inside-out... Doing the groundwork is the only way to have your finger on the pulse of what is happening.

MR CHRIS CHONG on keeping himself up-to-date despite his busy schedule

"These are people who have a different vantage point from me and can give me feedback about how the market is doing, their key clients and what areas we can improve on. After all, retail is all about details."

And though his day is usually packed with calls and meetings, his responsibilities do not distract from his daily morning jaunts, which include noticing the smallest of details. From fixtures in the mall to store window displays, he keeps an eye on everything and makes notes about anything that might be amiss.

Mr Willie Ng, 33, an Ion senior frontline officer who has been with the mall for nearly eight years, recalls how a suggestion by employees during their quarterly feedback sessions with the CEO was implemented with immediate effect.

"It was during our meeting with Mr Chong that a suggestion was made to include shavers in the grooming packs given to frontline officers, as we have a dress code to adhere to while at work," he says. "Mr Chong agreed and implemented it that same day. That's the kind of boss he is - very hands-on, constantly engaging the team and someone who cares about making improvements to the mall."

While he deals with some of the biggest brands in the world - Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Dior and Tiffany & Co. all house unique concepts or flagship stores at the mall - Mr Chong does not come from a marketing or branding background. Instead, his training is in engineering - a discipline that has framed his belief that retail is "a science, not an art".

"On the surface, it would seem that what makes a mall hot is a lot of branding and flash, but I believe in looking at retail from a numerical standpoint," he says.

"What is the footfall? What are the price points? What are the most popular stores and why?

"Details such as behaviour of customers and recurring visits can all be analysed as data, which is how I choose to look at and improve the retail industry."

It seems then that an eye for detail has always been one of Mr Chong's strongest suits, even as a youth.

He recalls being intrigued by retail as a child, when he would tag along with his parents to the wet market. Unlike other children who would zone out on these weekly trips, he would notice things such as how items were chosen and how prices were negotiated down.

"I was a curious child and always found shopping with my parents interesting - learning what was good value to them and how they would always be on the lookout for good quality and freshness," Mr Chong says. "I've always been interested in the intricacies of things."

His curiosity extended to his academics, something the youngest of three children says he never had a problem with. Despite never getting much pressure from his teacher father and housewife mother, Mr Chong recalls doing well in school - getting into Raffles Institution (RI) and taking the double mathematics and double sciences route in Raffles Junior College (RJC).

"I was the kid who would get the very vague 'he is very consistent and has a pleasant nature' kind of comments on my report card," he says with a laugh.

"When I was growing up, I was quite quiet and very analytical. My main interest was in languages, which I fuelled by taking up French as a third language in RI."

A taste of retail in Paris

That decision proved to be a game-changer for Mr Chong, who used his fluency in the language to snag an Economic Development Board (EDB) scholarship to study in France after graduating from RJC.

While his peers took the conventional route - jetting off to the United Kingdom or the United States for their studies - he took the path less travelled, even though he had never set foot in Europe before.

The next 51/2 years of his life - during which he graduated with a bachelor's and master's in computer engineering and information networking from ESIGETEL (Ecole superieure d'ingenieurs en informatique et genie des telecommunications) and ESSEC Business School in 1997 - proved to be one of the most trying periods for him.

Not only did he have to study subjects such as physics and chemistry in French, but he also had to take on additional subjects such as French literature, where he was expected to write essays on Proust and Socrates in fluent French.

"There were times I would get three-fourths of a grade out of 20. The grading system was harsh and I had to struggle to keep my grades up," he recalls. "There were a lot of nights spent cramming and thinking about what I wanted to do when I graduated. Even though I was studying engineering at the time, I wasn't sure I wanted to be an engineer."

Thankfully for him, a year into serving his bond with EDB post-graduation, an opportunity came up to head the statutory board's office in Paris, which he happened to be keenly suited for given his command of French.

Aged 27 then, he became the centre director in Paris and got an opportunity to liaise with European company CEOs and host ambassadors and ministers who were visiting the city. He ended up spending 41/2 years in France, where he was involved in projects such as the global schoolhouse programme, which brought educational institutions such as the ESSEC Business School to Singapore.

His fluency in French benefited him yet again when, after six years with EDB, he decided to make a move into the private sector and join LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, at age 33. Again based in Paris, he was in charge of auditing the company from an operational perspective - exposing him to divisions as diverse as perfumes, wines, fashion and jewellery.

As his first foray into retail, it opened his eyes to how the industry worked. But with two young children in tow - he married Chinese- Indonesian Njauw Lan Ing, 41, in 2000, whom he met through a mutual friend - Mr Chong started thinking about moving closer to home.

"I wanted my children to be bilingual and to be closer to family," he says. "Given that I had worked in LVMH in Paris and Hong Kong by this time, I decided it was time to move back to Singapore for the sake of my family."

But instead of joining another retail firm, he sought to understand retail from a different perspective - choosing to take on an asset management position in a locally listed real estate investment trust. There, he got a chance to understand how to innovate as a landlord, to build networks and communities with tenants within a real-estate space.

"The time I joined the real estate industry was when the relationship between landlords and tenants was going beyond being transactional," he says. "More real-estate spaces were looking to create touchpoints for tenants and customers - there was a lot of innovation going on, thanks to social media and technology."

With his experience in retail and real estate, Mr Chong was headhunted to join Orchard Turn Developments as chief executive soon after, in 2013. In his current position, he has played a pivotal role in keeping the tenant mix at Ion fresh and exciting, as well as constantly introducing new concepts to the mix.

He has also helped lure major brands to open their first and/or flagship stores in Singapore. French luxury lifestyle brand Cartier and Italian fashion brand Prada both have duplex flagship stores there and, last year, Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake opened his first stand-alone Singapore boutique for the cult Bao Bao bags in Ion.

Besides retail, he has also pushed for the mall to celebrate the arts.

The mall has an art gallery and its Young Talent Programme - now in its sixth year and done in collaboration with The Affordable Art Fair Singapore - has led to numerous young artists from Singapore and the region, under the age of 35, getting signed by commercial art galleries.

"The person who appreciates art is also the same person who will appreciate quality goods or a seamless shopping experience," Mr Chong says, when asked about the mall's diverse offerings. "People often say brick-and-mortar stores are suffering, but I don't believe this to be true. We just need to offer fresh experiences and have unique selling points to keep consumers coming back to the malls."

As secretary of the Orchard Road Business Association, he says he has a vested interest in seeing the whole belt prosper. His main goal? To build a community that patrons want to keep coming back to.

"I'm cognisant of the Ion story, but also that of Orchard Road and the history this area has as a shopping hub. The time has passed where retail involves pushing products. Now we must keep an open mind, innovate and be open to improving the customer experience," he says.

"E-commerce and traditional retail can co-exist. We just have to cater to changes in behaviour in this new generation of shoppers."

And though Mr Chong admits to loving a good shopping spree, his downtime is spent decompressing with a morning run, travelling and spending time with his wife and two daughters, aged 12 and 14.

He says the family tries to do two trips a year and often goes back to Europe, which he loves because of its natural landscapes and variety of languages and cultures.

When he is not working or travelling for business, his wife says he is all about the simple pleasures - spending time at home. She says of Mr Chong: "He's a fantastic father who constantly has me and our daughters at the back of his mind. That diligence he has at work also shows in how concerned he is about his family - he is always thinking ahead, planning and saving for us."

That should come as no surprise. After all, for Mr Chong, it is all about the details.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Ion man'. Print Edition | Subscribe