It Changed My Life: 'We don't want to do just plain vanilla deals'

Real estate development firm KOP has shaken up the property scene with luxury projects like Ritz-Carlton Residences and Hamilton Scotts. Now, CEO Leny Suparman is setting the bar even higher with the world's largest indoor winter resort in Shanghai.
(From left) Ms Suparman with KOP co-founder Ong Chih Ching and Ritz-Carlton executives at the official signing ceremony for The Ritz-Carlton Residences in 2008. KOP group chief executive Leny Suparman recalls how even as a child, she was always inter
KOP group chief executive Leny Suparman recalls how even as a child, she was always interested when her parents talked about business. In her early career, she helped to put together many tenancy deals including Centro 360, a restaurant entertainment complex on top of the One Fullerton building, Indochine restaurant at the Asian Civilisations Museum and Citylink Mall.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID
(From left) Ms Suparman with KOP co-founder Ong Chih Ching and Ritz-Carlton executives at the official signing ceremony for The Ritz-Carlton Residences in 2008. KOP group chief executive Leny Suparman recalls how even as a child, she was always inter
(From left) Ms Suparman with KOP co-founder Ong Chih Ching and Ritz-Carlton executives at the official signing ceremony for The Ritz-Carlton Residences in 2008. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LENY SUPARMAN

Developer Leny Suparman sets her sights on creative, cutting-edge property projects

Like many in the real estate business, KOP has been having a bumpy ride because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It's grim, says group chief executive Leny Suparman of the property development and entertainment company she founded with lawyer Ong Chih Ching.

Business at the company's resorts in Indonesia has come to a standstill, and work on construction projects has stalled.

But the 45-year-old prefers to focus on the positive.

"China is coming back. Construction has resumed," she says.

She is referring to Wintastar, KOP's biggest and most ambitious project to date.

At 227,000 sq m, it is the world's biggest integrated indoor ski resort with an alpine-themed 90,000 sq m ski and snow park.

Located in Shanghai's Pudong district, the $1.2 billion project also boasts a water park and four hotels, including rooms with ski-in and ski-out facilities.

"Nobody has done this before," she says of the park that is expected to open in 2022, the year that Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics.

Being groundbreaking has always been a priority for her and her co-founder.

"We are a small and relatively young real estate company. And we are women and in order to be competitive and stand out from the crowd, we need to have an edge. We can't just do plain vanilla deals," she says.

(From left) Ms Suparman with KOP co-founder Ong Chih Ching and Ritz-Carlton executives at the official signing ceremony for The Ritz-Carlton Residences in 2008. KOP group chief executive Leny Suparman recalls how even as a child, she was always inter
KOP group chief executive Leny Suparman recalls how even as a child, she was always interested when her parents talked about business. In her early career, she helped to put together many tenancy deals including Centro 360, a restaurant entertainment complex on top of the One Fullerton building, Indochine restaurant at the Asian Civilisations Museum and Citylink Mall. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Indeed, since its inception in 2006, KOP has pulled off several feats.

Its maiden development, The Ritz-Carlton Residences, is not only the hospitality operator's first freehold luxury residential project outside North America, it is also the first condominium complex in Singapore to enjoy on-site 24-hour concierge, housekeeping and sommelier services.

Its second development, Hamilton Scotts, made international headlines with its sky garages, which allow residents to park their Maseratis and Lamborghinis next to their living rooms.

There have been at least a dozen other projects since then, including Montigo resorts in Batam and Bali, as well as the 120-room 10 Trinity Square luxury hotel in London.

"We are not content to be doing just the normal," says Ms Suparman.

Smart and sassy with a quick wit and a rollicking sense of humour, she was born in Medan, the youngest of five children of an Indonesian businessman and his wife.

 
 

Her family name, she says with eyes rolling, is both a bane and a blessing. "I get ribbed and called Superman all the time. I'm numb to it. But at least it's Superman, not Lousy Man. And it gets you remembered," she says, chortling.

Her father - who built Medan Plaza, the city's first shopping mall - is a self-made man from whom she inherited entrepreneurial smarts.

"I'm like him, a bit bui kia si," she says, using the Hokkien slang for fearless. "Anything is possible, you just need an angle and to find a way."

A poor farm boy from a big family, her father had only primary education and had to work odd jobs to help feed his seven siblings.

But he was street-smart and had a way with people, and eventually made his fortune in oil transportation. He also has several other businesses, including property investments.

Ms Suparman says: "Even as a child, I was always interested when my parents talked about business. I would listen and ask questions and wanted to know who they were talking about."

She left Medan when she was seven to study in Singapore. Already a precocious child, she became even more independent because of the move.

"I had the space to find out things for myself," says Ms Suparman, who was cared for by her paternal grandmother in Singapore.

(From left) Ms Suparman with KOP co-founder Ong Chih Ching and Ritz-Carlton executives at the official signing ceremony for The Ritz-Carlton Residences in 2008. KOP group chief executive Leny Suparman recalls how even as a child, she was always inter
(From left) Ms Suparman with KOP co-founder Ong Chih Ching and Ritz-Carlton executives at the official signing ceremony for The Ritz-Carlton Residences in 2008. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LENY SUPARMAN

On her first day at Lianhua Primary in Bukit Timah, she raised her hand when the teacher asked if any of the pupils would like to sing.

"I don't know what prompted me to do it. I didn't speak English then and I sang the only Chinese song I knew. After that, I was always called upon to take part in singing and storytelling competitions. I didn't like it, but it did help me build confidence and self-esteem," says Ms Suparman, who won many trophies for her efforts.

Nothing fazed her.

When she transferred to St Margaret's in Primary 5, she took care of the administrative details herself.

"I arranged for my school uniform and the school bus, and went to see the school principal on the first day of school," she says.

A feisty soul, she has no problems standing up for herself if she feels she has been unfairly treated.

She remembers refusing to wash the school toilets once as punishment for being late.

"I was late, I didn't get into a fight or do anything terrible. Sure, punish me by sending me to detention but why should I be humiliated and made to wash toilets?" she says.

She harboured dreams of studying journalism after completing her A levels at Hwa Chong Junior College.

But a family friend told her father she'd be better off studying business instead. Because he was "handsome and charming", she recalls with a giggle, she agreed without any protest.

She returned to Singapore in 1996 after graduating from Indiana University Bloomington in the United States, and landed a job with international real estate consultancy Richard Ellis - later renamed CBRE - marketing retail space.

"I didn't even know such a job existed," she says, laughing.

But her sunny disposition and good interpersonal skills made her a natural for the job.

 
 

The late 1990s and early 2000s were vibrant years for the lifestyle and entertainment sectors in Singapore.

Ms Suparman helped to put together many tenancy deals including Centro 360, a restaurant entertainment complex on top of the One Fullerton building, Indochine restaurant at the Asian Civilisations Museum and Citylink Mall.

After seven years at the Singapore office, she went to CBRE in Shanghai where she was its head of retail.

Shanghai then was bursting with raw promise, she recalls.

"It was fun and exciting, and I was involved in a lot of projects," says Ms Suparman who, among other things, helped cosmetics giant Sephora find its first store in not just China, but also Asia.

She came back to Singapore after two years in 2005. By then, she had started Bezel, a watch collector's guild with long-time friend Ms Ong, a corporate lawyer with her own practice.

Their transition to real estate came about when they chanced upon a site in Cairnhill Road. They decided to develop it. That was how KOP was born in 2006.

By any yardstick, the project - comprising 58 luxury apartments which cost at least $10 million each - was a massive undertaking, especially for two newbies.

But the two women took it upon themselves not just to raise hundreds of millions, but also, among other things, get in the architects and designers and persuade Ritz-Carlton - "it took thousands of e-mails", she says - to endorse the project.

"The thought of being daunted did not hit us at that time. One thing just led to another. We liked the land which was on a slope, and we felt that it was time Singapore had luxury apartments which had a service element," recalls Ms Suparman, who has helped her father make many astute property investments over the years.

Raising the funds was no walk in the park but they pulled it off. It helped that Ms Ong had an extensive network of business contacts in the Middle East.

Ms Suparman says: "I got a bit here, a bit there from my father, family, friends and contacts. It was like a club deal."

 
 

Their second project Hamilton Scotts was no less high profile.

Located along Scotts Road with a prominent frontage, the property, they decided, had to make a statement.

"We wanted it to be flamboyant, to differentiate it from The Ritz-Carlton Residences which was understated and elegant," she says. "One was a Rolls-Royce; the other, a Porsche."

The idea for the sky garage - a biometrically controlled elevator that parks cars next to the home owners' units - came during a brain-storming session with their architects.

Because it was a novel concept, getting it passed, they were told, would entail jumping through hoops with various regulatory authorities.

Ms Suparman and her partner took up the challenge.

The Hamilton is still the only block of luxury apartments with sky garages - which can accommodate two cars for each home - in Singapore.

The unique development earned headlines globally and was covered by international media outlets including BBC, CNN, NHK and Bloomberg.

Ms Suparman and her partner waded into office development next with the Scotts Spazio, on a piece of land, also along Scotts Road, with only 15 years left on its lease.

They had to build a 160,000 sq ft, four-floor building in less than a year, so Ms Suparman decided to adopt a technology used by her father who was helping rehabilitation efforts in post-tsunami Aceh by building prefabricated houses.

The building is now leased to insurance company Prudential.

KOP's next move was into hospitality. In 2008, it acquired The Stein Group, a Barcelona-based boutique hotel operator.

It later restructured the company and moved the headquarters to Singapore. The two Montigo resorts - one in Nongsa, Batam, and the other in Seminyak, Bali - were developed after that.

Because of its scale, Wintastar took four years of planning before construction began.

"We were working on the concept way back in 2013 even before we found the location," says Ms Suparman, adding that the concept was later refined to suit the site.

"Shanghai is a great playground for us; it's a city that loves new things. It wants to do something big and be a leader, not just a follower."

An indoor ski resort is not new - there's Ski Dubai - but an integrated one with retail, hospitality and other lifestyle features? That's a different story.

"You can go from your hotel room onto the ski slope, just like in a ski lodge in Switzerland," says Ms Suparman, adding that the design was based on natural iceberg formations and alpine slopes in Europe.

The ski park has three ski slopes of varying gradients, including one which meets Olympics training standards, ski runs, and over 25 snow play attractions for non-skiers.

Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim, which runs Ski Dubai, will manage the resort while Montigo will manage the resort's four themed hotels.

Ms Suparman is confident the concept has legs.

"We want to replicate the Wintastar concept elsewhere in China and in other countries," she says confidently.

Going into integrated resorts was not an accident.

She and Ms Ong felt that the real estate landscape was changing and consumers were hankering for unique and immersive experiences.

"We want to be a real estate, entertainment and sports company," she says.

"Real estate is about timing. You go in at a low and sell at a high. Anybody with money can go in. But they must have luck and an understanding of the market.

"Our strengths are our creativity and the ability to predict trends several years down the road."

 

Being in a male-dominated industry, she admits candidly, can be challenging.

"It can be a bit lonely because there's a lot of brotherhood with the guys and sometimes it's tough to be taken seriously," says Ms Suparman, who is engaged to an oil trader.

The way to get around it, she says, is not to think too much about it.

"We just do it. Perseverance and humility help. Don't be too smart, don't be too smug, and if you don't know, just ask."

But that doesn't mean being pushovers, she says.

"If you're convinced about something, be firm about it. Ignore the naysayers, bite the bullet, get it done and you'll prove yourself."


This is the third of a four-part Audemars Piguet series on trailblazers who value both tradition and innovation in a changing world

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline ''We don't want to do just plain vanilla deals''. Print Edition | Subscribe