First impression

First impression

In Singapore since 1998, Zuo Haibin has worked on several projects that dot our skyline, building homes for many. PropertyGuru speaks to the man at the showroom of his latest collaboration, Thomson Impressions.

As we sit down for our interview, I see a glimpse of Mr Zuo Haibin’s working style as he wraps up a conversation with his staff – firm, no nonsense and straight to the point. He comes across as a man of force, with his large frame, salt-and-pepper hair and deep voice.

As he speaks, his thick, beetling brows waggle animatedly, as if to emphasise his points. Zuo is indeed an interesting character and the story he tells of himself and his business enterprises is one of challenges overcome.

Zuo, a native of Shandong, China, owns Yihe Investments with his wife, Li Ming Hua. The majority shareholder behind Thomson Impressions, Nanshan Singapore, partnered with Yihe to form the vehicle NS Property (Thomson), to develop their maiden residential project here in Singapore.

Unlike many developers who depend on outsourced construction companies to build their towers of glass and steel, Zuo is involved with the development, marketing and construction of Thomson Impressions. Aside from being a partner in the project development, Zuo is also a director of Vico Construction, builder behind the project.

For an Internet company like PropertyGuru, it can be easy for us to get lost in the almost overnight successes of many startups. A story like Zuo’s brings us back to earth. His journey here in Singapore has indeed been one of ups and down, and provides several lessons and an inspiration to those looking to set up business in a highly competitive landscape.

Self-made man

When Zuo first arrived in Singapore in 1998, he was an employee of Qingjian. While it has become one of Singapore’s most prolific developers today, both Qingjian and Zuo were newcomers to this Southeast Asian red dot at the time.

“We arrived in Singapore with just USD300,000,” Zuo told PropertyGuru. It also turned out to be one of worst times to start a business in Singapore, due to the recession brought about by the bursting dot-com bubble.

“It was a difficult time, and we faced many challenges.” Businesses were in trouble, and “some of the people we worked with reneged on their payments”. Fortunately, “Singapore is a place with a strong rule of law and one where businesses are encouraged to thrive and grow.”

Focus, Zuo recalls, was a key reason for his previous employer’s success.

“We started out building HDB flats in Sengkang, and in time, we became known as the ‘King of Sengkang’ because all the flats along the stretch were built by Qingjian.”

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans for Punggol 21+ in his National Day Rally speech in 2007, the company also chose to expand in the area, and to start developing executive condominiums (ECs).

“In Singapore,” Zuo chuckles, “You’ll never go wrong by following the government’s plans.”

Focusing on the priorities

In Nanshan, Zuo also found a partner with the same conviction in focusing on specific areas. While Thomson Impressions is Nanshan’s first residential endeavour, it is not their first project in Singapore.

In two deals brokered by Cushman and Wakefield, Nanshan bought Irving Industrial Building in March, and led a consortium to purchase Harper Kitchen. Together with Thomson Impressions’ Lorong Puntong site, the total investment for these sites just east and north of Singapore’s Central region run north of $380 million.

With the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) recently releasing the H2 2016 Government Land Sales, Zuo and his partners might have another target within their sights.

“I think the Bidadari site will be of interest to many developers,” he says. “It is probably going to be quite hotly contested.” When asked if there were intentions to bid for the site, Zuo’s reply was a simply a twinkly smile.

The site Zuo is referring to lies on Upper Aljunied Road, a mixed-use Commercial and Residential site next to Woodleigh MRT. URA has indicated that the site could yield over 800 housing units and 15,000 sq ft of commercial space.

One of the reasons behind Zuo’s focus on this particular region of Singapore is due to his familiarity with the area. Most mornings, Zuo can be found taking an early morning stroll around Bishan Park, while on the weekends, he takes longer walks around MacRitchie Reservoir with his wife and some friends.

“It’s a really beautiful, peaceful place, and if you’re lucky, you can even get to see some of the rarer waterfowl that nest around the reservoir.” As one gets on in age, he says, “it becomes even more important to take time to be active”.

Maximal returns

Keeping his stakeholders satisfied is important to Zuo.

“First you have to do things to make the government happy. Then you need to make the citizens happy. Finally, you need to do things that would make your employees happy.” Doing so, he believes, would be key to maximising one’s returns, and making investors happy.

One of the strategies he employs to provide value to investors and other stakeholders is a focus on speed. Speed, Zuo tells us, allows businesses to gain maximum returns and reduces risk. As a builder, completing projects quickly and safely reduces overhead and labour costs, and also provides buyers with homes that they can move in to earlier.

Despite his accomplishments, Zuo still has ambitions. They include being part of a commercial development in the city, and to help Shandong and Singapore build bilateral relations.

But Zuo is no dreamer with his head in the clouds. A key lesson that he learnt as an undergraduate studying real estate is that “business is business, nothing else”. It is a pithy phrase that exhorts one to consider the facts of the matter while leaving emotions aside and it is also a phrase that has served him well.

Final impressions

As we walk around the project’s showflat looking for spots to photograph Zuo, he waxes eloquent about the project, and the rationale behind its name. It took inspiration from the labours of another Mainland Chinese export, famed director Zhang Yimou’s impressionistic work. The team behind Thomson Impression felt that the idyllic, dreamy nature of the nearby reservoir and parks are evocative of this particular art form.

As Zuo speaks, one can almost imagine the completed Thomson Impressions rising over the area, an edifice of mirrored glass and steel that reflects the verdant greenery, the wispy mists over the reservoir in the pre-dawn light.

Yes, Zuo is a man whose words have painted pictures and he has made a strong impression on me. I also believe that there is still a trove of stories he has yet to tell. As Zuo tugs and smoothens his jacket between clicks of the camera, he makes a comment about the formality of the interview: “Next time”, he says, “Let’s do this over a drink instead.”

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