Owning a home is everyone's dream, says SingHaiyi exec

Property developer Celine Tang subscribes to the "not just Chinese, but very Asian" mentality of wanting to own property. She adds that "property is all about constructing something that will span generations".
Property developer Celine Tang subscribes to the "not just Chinese, but very Asian" mentality of wanting to own property. She adds that "property is all about constructing something that will span generations". PHOTO: SINGHAIYI GROUP

Entrepreneur and property veteran Celine Tang believes the backbone of any piece of real estate does not lie in its brick-and-mortar structure but the human connections created and nurtured within its walls.

China-born Ms Tang, the 52-year-old managing director of listed developer SingHaiyi Group, said: "Property is all about constructing something that will span generations.

"It's about families living in their homes. It's about building experiences and memories, and the joy that comes from that."

Ms Tang, who has lived in Singapore for 25 years and is a permanent resident, also holds executive positions in two investment firms - Tang Dynasty and Haiyi Holdings - that she set up with her husband Gordon Tang.

It's no surprise she subscribes to the "not just Chinese, but very Asian" mentality of wanting to own property. She said: "It's everyone's dream to own his or her own home - this is something tangible."

Venturing into property development and investment in Singapore was a no-brainer: "We're no strangers to the real estate business. Investing in and developing properties - both in China and the US - have very much been a part of our family tradition."

So when the opportunity presented itself, the Tangs used Haiyi Holdings to take over listed vehicle SingXpress Land in 2012.

The following year, the firm was renamed SingHaiyi Group, and four years later, it was transferred to the Singapore Exchange mainboard from the Catalist board.

SingHaiyi, which has a market capitalisation of about $380 million, generated a total share market return of 9.9 per cent last year, compared with total returns of 8.9 per cent for the benchmark Straits Times Index.

Haiyi Holdings owns 63.06 per cent of SingHaiyi, in which Mr Neil Bush - Ms Tang's business partner and brother of former US president George W. Bush - serves as non-executive chairman.

Apart from residential development, SingHaiyi also owns a diversified portfolio of assets in the commercial and retail sectors, spanning the US, Australia and Asia.

It has completed six development properties here since 2013, including City Suites and The Vales. The group has a pipeline of five projects in Singapore and the US scheduled for completion by 2024.

It optimises its portfolio through acquisitions and divestments, having made seven development project buys since 2013. It divested its stake in Singapore's TripleOne Somerset with a return of more than 60 per cent within three years.

The firm also diversifies its income through strategic investments, including a 2.59 per cent stake in Cromwell Property Group, and a 25.0 per cent holding in Malaysian malls via the limited partner of ARA Harmony Fund III.

"Such indirect stakes provide us with an avenue to study and understand the dynamics of different markets, as well as assess the potential of future investments," Ms Tang said.

Singapore remains the group's core market. Its pipeline of projects includes the 9 Penang Road commercial and retail development, which has secured UBS Singapore as its sole office tenant.

It has three residential projects - The Lilium and The Gazania, both unveiled last May, and Parc Clematis, its largest development.

Despite a relatively optimistic longer-term outlook for the domestic market, challenges remain, noted Ms Tang. "Property prices have not moved in tandem with the increase in construction costs, and coupled with slower demand over the past few years, developers have not had an easy time."

The levy on developers who do not complete a project's construction and sell all its units within five years from acquiring the land is another stumbling block, she added. In particular, it takes quite a lot of time for collective sale projects to be approved, which has to be accounted for within the five-year period.

A supply overhang also continues to plague the local market. The number of unsold units from new projects doubled to 4,377 in the third quarter, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has said. This number could increase as developers launch projects following the slew of collective sale sites sold between 2017 and 2018.

And many buyers are adopting a wait-and-see approach after the cooling measures in July 2018, which included higher buyer stamp duties and tighter loan limits.

"Every developer faces the same obstacle. We have huge turnouts at our launches and showrooms, but it's difficult to get buyers to commit," Ms Tang said.

While market dynamics and project sales are never far from her thoughts, she also frets about cultivating the right values in her two sons and a daughter, aged 19 to 25.

"Usually, first-generation entrepreneurs are the ones who worked hard and got by with very little in the early years," she noted.

"The second generation are the ones who grow up in a privileged background, and are likely to develop a sense of entitlement.

"I want my children to know that we work very hard to provide them with a foundation, and this foundation is for them to build on - to create something of their own - and not an excuse for them to be lazy and ask for handouts."

• This is an excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed firms. Previous editions are on SGX's website www.sgx.com/research.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2020, with the headline Owning a home is everyone's dream, says SingHaiyi exec. Subscribe