Interview with Changi Airport Group's Liew Mun Leong: You've got mail - from the chairman

Mr Liew, who used to be the CEO of CapitaLand, started penning his "Sunday e-mails" back in 1998, initially for staff at the real estate giant and now at the two firms he chairs. A collection of these e-mails has been published over four volumes, wit
Mr Liew, who used to be the CEO of CapitaLand, started penning his "Sunday e-mails" back in 1998, initially for staff at the real estate giant and now at the two firms he chairs. A collection of these e-mails has been published over four volumes, with the most recent - Building People: Sunday Emails From A Chairman - now out.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Staff of Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong have much to glean from e-mails that their head honcho sends on Sundays to share his reflections

Getting a note from the boss every few weeks, extolling the virtue of pragmatism or sharing his observations on a Mount Fuji climb, is pretty rare for most employees but it has been a regular occurrence for two firms in Singapore.

Former CapitaLand chief executive Liew Mun Leong started penning his "Sunday e-mails" back in 1998, initially for staff at the real estate giant and now at the firms he chairs - Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong.

A collection of these e-mails has been published over four volumes, with the most recent - Building People: Sunday Emails From A Chairman - now out.

Mr Liew, 70, told The Sunday Times: "I had embarked on a new hobby of writing e-mails as a means of reaching out to my colleagues and staff...

"It is a tool to influence their thinking, to curate their corporate values, their sense of responsibility to the company and to society."

The communication goes both ways and staff are welcome to offer feedback.

Mr Liew, who left CapitaLand in 2012, believes successful leaders must be good communicators, which is why he continues to send Sunday e-mails to staff at Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong.

These notes are written in his characteristically candid and casual style, containing anecdotes, personal reflection and a good handful of quotable quotes.

In an e-mail titled Pragmatism In Business, Mr Liew urged the management not to be emotionally attached to the buildings they have acquired or built. "ROE is returns on equity, not returns on emotion."

He also shared the key ingredients of his career success - the 5Ps, which stand for paranoia, perseverance, perfectionism, passion and pragmatism.

"Being paranoid forces me to plan ahead to deal with even the most remotely possible adversity... the consequence of not doing so may be regretful and unforgiving," Mr Liew, a trained engineer, wrote in another note.

He spends four to five hours on a Sunday afternoon crafting the e-mails, drawing inspiration from his travels, business dealings and observations.

MANAGEMENT STYLE

Whether in his previous role as a chief executive or as a chairman now, Mr Liew takes a hands-on approach in overseeing the companies, be it in the hiring of senior staff or assessing an acquisition target.

"I am involved very much in interviewing senior people, for example, a vice-president or senior vice-president. I have the vetting right... I do turn down candidates who are recommended by management."

The topic of talent development and having the right core values takes up an entire chapter in his new book.

Mr Liew emphasises the importance of "eyeballing" candidates and asking them questions about their personal and education background to determine their aptitudes, attitudes and interests. For senior appointments, he would even personally run reference checks on a candidate's past performance by speaking to former employers.

Having the right troops is a key consideration in driving corporate growth but, beyond talent, being committed is also critical.

"They may have talent, but they can stay with you for two years and leave... I am a firm believer of building a lasting organisation. And an organisation can last only when people last," he said.

SURBANA JURONG

As chairman of urban-planning consultancy Surbana Jurong, Mr Liew aims to build the firm into Asia's consultancy powerhouse on the back of the region's growing needs in infrastructure.

The firm announced last month that it had acquired Australian-based SMEC Holdings for $400 million, a move that takes the consultancy's workforce to 10,000 staff members in 40 countries.

Surbana has also been appointed to draw up a masterplan to develop Chongqing into western China's logistics hub. This is part of the third bilateral project - Chongqing Connectivity Initiative - between Singapore and China.

Apart from China, the company is involved in more than 40 projects in fast-emerging Myanmar, including masterplanning, project management and engineering design.

Mr Liew is bullish about urbanisation and infrastructure prospects in China, Africa and South-east Asia, and he is not overly concerned about whether the firm has the bandwidth to handle the increasing workload.

"I have one business philosophy and that is 'I am not worried about not enough people, I am worried about not enough business'.

"You get me the business, I will find the people to do it," he said.

There is potential for more mergers and acquisitions ahead as Surbana Jurong seeks to grow its capabilities in underground development and environmental engineering. Mr Liew noted that these are areas in which European companies have an edge.

CHANGI AIRPORT GROUP

It is apt to say that Mr Liew's work at Changi Airport Group has come full circle. He was appointed to the board in June 2009 but his involvement with the world-class air hub had begun much earlier.

More than 40 years ago, he had requested a transfer to the Public Works Department to learn to be an airport engineer - a move that had him involved in the construction of Changi Airport in 1975.

Today, it is one of the world's busiest international airports, handling more than 55.4 million passenger movements last year and serving 100 airlines flying to more than 320 cities.

"Aviation is always competitive, that is the order of the game... But I think we have performed well... we have won over 500 awards," Mr Liew noted.

With increasing competition from Middle Eastern airlines and airports for the European market, he said Changi Airport can focus its strategies on capturing a larger share of the pie in Asia.

"We are positive that the Asian aviation business is going to be very big. Look at China, for instance... Its outbound this year is already 140 million people. It was looking at 100 million outbound in the year 2020. But now in 2016, it has already outgrown that number."

Mr Liew's enthusiasm about growing Surbana Jurong and Changi Airport Group is unlikely to wane with age. When asked if he would retire at some point, he quipped: "I don't retire, I die!"

He added: "Society has invested so much in you in terms of the experience that you have and to say just because you reach a certain age, you fall off the cliff into nothingness - I think that is a silly thing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'You've got mail - from the chairman'. Print Edition | Subscribe