Singapore 'stands out' for its clear rules

Mr Hughes regards JLL's push deeper into China as one of his career highlights during his stint as the company's Asia-Pacific chief exec. He was appointed to the position in 2008, and had announced in February that he will leave JLL on July 1.
Mr Hughes regards JLL's push deeper into China as one of his career highlights during his stint as the company's Asia-Pacific chief exec. He was appointed to the position in 2008, and had announced in February that he will leave JLL on July 1. ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

Country a fantastic place for any firm to base regional HQ: JLL's outgoing Asia-Pacific chief

Landing a senior position in Singapore is obviously a great achievement for anyone in business, but it was also a leap in the dark for real estate executive Alastair Hughes.

Mr Hughes, 50, had plenty of air miles under his belt when he was appointed Asia-Pacific chief executive of property firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) in 2008 but this neck of the woods remained something of a mystery.

He had lived in Kuwait in his childhood, went to school in Scotland and worked in London. Singapore may as well have been on another planet.

"People in London called it Asia for beginners, by which they mean it doesn't feel like Manila, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but it's still Asia," says Mr Hughes.

"I had no idea what Singapore was going to be like. We learnt about it in school."

But the father of two teenage daughters was delighted when he arrived with his family.

"It's a very efficient place to live and I thoroughly enjoyed living here," says Mr Hughes, who announced in February that he will leave JLL on July 1.

His reasons for quitting are simple - to return home to Scotland and pursue a portfolio of interests, including property.

He thinks Singapore is a fantastic place for any company to base its Asia-Pacific management, given it is "right in the middle" of the region.

Besides, Mr Hughes finds Changi Airport a pleasure compared with many other airports in the world.

Being able to get in and out of the country efficiently is a huge plus as he spends three-quarters of his time travelling.

Another key factor, one Mr Hughes calls Singapore's "true unique selling point", is the "clear and transparent rules that are consistently applied".

"That's why Singapore stands out in South-east Asia, and, in some ways, in Asia-Pacific as a whole."

Access to a quality workforce, a good time zone and well-established infrastructure also play a big part in making it easy for him to manage the headquarters here.

JLL's Singapore business comprises three aspects - the local operations, the head office for the Asia-Pacific region and its regional corporate outsourcing arm.

Before moving to Singapore, Mr Hughes had spent 20 years in JLL's London office, starting as a graduate trainee in 1988.

Most of his front-line career was in the capital market business, advising pension funds, real estate investment trusts and overseas investors on buying and selling commercial property in Britain, including large office blocks, industrial parks and shopping centres.

He rose to be the managing director of the British business in 2000 and was promoted to take charge of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region in 2004.

Mr Hughes will have racked up 28 years with JLL by the time he leaves on July 1, a period that has brought him to different markets and cultures - and taught him that having good listening skills makes all the difference.

"The ability to listen will make you culturally compatible," he says.

Mr Hughes cited the example of his first visit to the Shanghai office several years ago. He was giving a presentation to an audience of 500 employees and asked at the end if anyone had any questions.

"It was embarrassing, because everyone looked at the floor.

"So, we now organise a tea session after the presentations, so that they can feel free to ask questions individually or in small groups."

Mr Hughes regards JLL's push deeper into China as one of his many career highlights while being Asia-Pacific chief.

Other than expanding into cities like Chongqing, Chengdu, Shenyang, Xi'an, Wuhan, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, grooming employees into property professionals was a "huge and satisfying process".

"We now have about 30,000 employees in Asia-Pacific, and the vast majority of them are JLL-manufactured talents."

Mr Hughes says it is difficult to come out with a "snazzy" sound bite about China's property market.

Generalising about property there is like generalising about Europe, he adds, noting that while the manufacturing sector is slowing down, there is huge demand from logistics companies.

There is a slowdown in luxury retail, in part due to the anti-corruption drive by the government, but there is a lot of demand for mid-market retail.

State-owned enterprises are cutting back on hiring, but service companies are growing and looking to upgrade their premises.

There is oversupply of residential property in some regions, but huge demand and undersupply in the suburbs of tier-one cities like Shanghai.

Mr Hughes notes: "China is like a big river, like the Yangtze River, it flows in one direction, and that is growth, be it 7 per cent or 4 per cent. It is huge, massive growth.

"But there are all sorts of sub- currents in the river, and that's what's happening."

As for the local market, he says that the subdued demand for office leasing here coupled with additional supply coming in between this year and 2018 will cause rents to fall. Rents in the prime areas fell by about 15 per cent last year and could slip another 10 to 20 per cent during the year before they recover, he adds.

He also notes that the capital values of offices has fallen by 5 per cent in 2015.

But 2015 was a record year for JLL as there were more investors choosing to outsource property management, and more companies outsourcing real estate services.

Singapore commercial real estate still remains very attractive to institutional investors, and JLL also enjoyed a busy record year in this area.

Mr Hughes sees this trend continuing this year.

As his time in Singapore draws to a close, he is looking ahead to a new chapter. "I always think there are three parts to life - one part is spent being educated, the second part is spent building a career - to be the best that I could be at something - and now, I'm starting on the final part of the trilogy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore 'stands out' for its clear rules'. Print Edition | Subscribe