Eight years ago, Mr Li Jun, 40, came to Singapore from Qingdao in China to help drive Chinese developer Qingjian's business here.
He knew little about the property market here then and did not fully understand the needs of home buyers. Now, the general manager of Qingjian Realty (South Pacific) Group plans to tap the latest in innovation to build what could be the first executive condominium (EC) project here to be fitted with smart home technology.
"At The Visionaire project in Sembawang, we may showcase features like the ability to use your mobile phone to unlock your door. Or perhaps using the phone to control the air-conditioners, for example," Mr Li said of the project likely be launched in April.
Last year, the developer formed a partnership with Samsung Asia under which smart technology will be integrated into new developments. Mr Li said this trend represents the future of new homes, where high- tech features become part of the standard offerings.
Excluding The Visionaire, Qingjiang has launched nine developments here, ranging from ECs to private condominiums and public housing flats.
"When we first went into property development here in 2008, I think people didn't know what to expect from us. After all, we started out as a construction firm here in 1999," Mr Li said during a recent interview at the Bellewaters showflat in Sengkang.
The firm made its first foray into the Singapore property market with a condo-style HDB project, Natura Loft, in Bishan eight years ago, and went on to establish itself as the developer with possibly the largest number of projects in Punggol and Sengkang. Qingjian has six projects in the two estates and has recently expanded its presence to Sembawang and Choa Chu Kang.
Mr Li said a key task he has set the company is to continue to innovate and to try out new ideas. Among them is the CoSpace concept, which was tested at the River Isles development and introduced at the Ecopolitan EC in Punggol in 2013.
"We always try to look for better ways to satisfy the buyer's needs. We have a saying that the customer is god."
The CoSpace concept offers home buyers the opportunity to reconfigure an apartment layout to meet their lifestyle needs. For example, the study area and utility room can be combined to form a larger room.
In June last year, the developer rolled out HiLife, a mobile app that provides home owners in Qingjian's projects with a range of services, such as interior design and cleaning, to help them settle in. The app also allows residents to book condo facilities.
Mr Li said these offerings have been well received. About half of the buyers at Ecopolitan chose the optional layout, while 780 signed up for the HiLife app at the 590-unit Riversound Residence.
However, deciphering exactly what buyers want and understanding the local market required a fair bit of leg work, literally. Mr Li recalls walking around various housing projects, "carrying a laptop bag, business shirt drenched in sweat", to assess the living environment.
"My first impression was that the weather was too hot and, second, everything was so orderly," he quipped.
His research led him to believe that Jurong had good development prospects, but Qingjian lost out on a land tender in Lakeside in 2010. Subsequently, the developer plumped for sites in Punggol and Sengkang in anticipation of future developments there.
Its latest successful land tender was for an EC site in Choa Chu Kang Avenue 5 last August, with consortium partners Suntec Property Ventures and Bohai Investments (Sengkang), for about $156.2 million.
Mr Li said Qingjian will continue to take part in the Government's land tender exercises for residential sites, and, if the opportunity arises, the company will also consider commercial and industrial plots.
"The market may be quiet now, but it can't stay quiet forever. So we will continue to tender for government land sales sites, but we will be cautious," he said.
In recent years, the residential property market has been lacklustre, hurt by a string of cooling measures and weak sentiment.
According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, overall private residential property prices fell for the ninth straight quarter in the fourth quarter of 2015, dipping by 0.5 per cent. For the full year, private home residential property prices fell by 3.7 per cent last year after sliding 4 per cent in 2014.
For this year, Mr Li hopes Qingjian can retain its market position as one of the top 10 developers here through innovation and seizing opportunities.
"When the market is quiet, that's when you need to do more work, more preparations. So that when it recovers, you are ready," he said.