Mr Tan Zhiyong, managing director of Chinese developer MCC Land, knows it is not easy to be a foreign developer here.
Foreign firms have muscled in on the property development space in recent years. Some blame them for pushing up land prices.
After registering as a developer in February 2010, MCC Land got its first plot in March – what would become The Canopy executive condominium (EC) in Yishun. Upcoming executive condo also include The Visionaire EC, Wandervale EC, Parc Life EC while existing ones include The Terrace EC, Brownstone EC, Waterwoods EC, Signature at Yishun, Skypark Residences, The Vales EC, The Criterion EC, Bellewaters EC, Bellewoods EC.
“How could we compare with the established developers? How could our products be attractive to Singaporeans?” Mr Tan started by thinking about talent and hired experienced staff, including Mr P.Y. Wong from Far East Organization.
These developers from abroad also have more to prove to buyers in Singapore, who may be wary about their limited track record here.
Mr Tan, 47, is well aware of all this. But he has also spent 20 years on the ground here setting up the company, a unit of Chinese state-owned enterprise Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC Group). In fact, he now regards the MCC unit here – and himself – as Singaporean through and through.
There were periods of uncertainty when even he wondered if the company should just close shop and head back to China.
The company has transformed itself from a sub-contractor to main contractor and then property developer over the years – and is now looking towards the next transition.
“I often say – and this is something a superior in China once told me – life moves in cycles of five years. If after five years, you are doing the same thing and don’t want to change, you won’t be successful,” Mr Tan told The Straits Times.
So, for example, after going into residential development in 2010, MCC Land started preparing to diversify and launched late last year its first mixed development, The Poiz Residences.
The company is also looking to develop overseas, with marketing studies done in Malaysia and Indonesia, and a potential joint venture on the horizon in India as well.
“This will be a new aspect for our business. In the past, we were just stable in Singapore; now we are venturing out,” said Mr Tan.
When Mr Tan first came to Singapore in 1996, he had just completed his master’s degree a year earlier.
MCC Group’s Singapore unit mainly did structural steel and reinforced concrete projects as a sub-contractor. Its first project was Keppel Distripark, and it worked on Singapore Expo and Woodlands Checkpoint as well.
But times soon turned difficult after the dot.com crash in 2001 and 2002. “There were really no jobs to be done in construction and development. Developers would buy a piece of land but not dare to build.
“At the time, we were sub-contractor for a project in Yishun which we dragged on for a few years.”
Many main contractors perished during this period, even large listed companies. “We had about 100 people here and faced the same problems as everyone else – our main-contractor partners collapsed. We had a dilemma: Should we stick it out or go back to China?”
Opportunities emerged later on. In 2005, the Building and Construction Authority relaxed requirements for builders and contractors, which allowed MCC in Singapore to use its parent’s track record to become a main contractor and take part in tenders here.
“It was our first transformation. We started doing large-scale lift-upgrading, and have done seven of these projects since 2007,” he said.
An even more important opportunity was Resorts World Sentosa (RWS). MCC in Singapore was the nominated contractor to supply, fabricate and deliver structural steel to RWS, and later did so for Universal Studios Singapore.
After completing those two massive projects, though, Mr Tan found the company had about 2,000 staff but no business continuity.
He saw opportunity in the real estate sector, which was on the rise following the global financial crisis. The Government was also putting many land sites up for sale.
Product quality was important as well. He sought to follow private condo standards and insisted on basement carparks rather than surface carparks, as many older ECs had at the time.
After six years in property development, MCC Land has done seven projects, and managed another five for Hao Yuan Investment, another Chinese company, and other partners. Altogether, these 12 projects consist of about 600 million sq ft and over 6,000 units.
“Personally, I certainly consider Singapore my home. I came here not long after I graduated, and my job and experiences were all here,” said Mr Tan, a permanent resident here. His two children, a daughter, 15, and son, 10, were born and raised in Singapore.
“We may have a foreign parent company, but we are a completely local company. As a developer, our people are mainly locals.”