Born with an artistic flair and trained in accountancy, Leong tells Karen Yue that he has never thought of becoming a hotelier. Yet, his unplanned career path has taken him to a top position within one of Malaysia’s largest property development groups
Leong Wy Joon
Berjaya Land and Berjaya Hotels & Resorts
So it is true that few actually enter the profession they are schooled in. What’s your story?
I am an accidental hotelier because this is not the career I would have chosen during my younger days. I wanted to be a graphics designer because I excelled in art. I never thought about going into the hospitality industry. Anyway, in my younger days, hospitality courses were rare. There are many such courses now, and Berjaya Hotels & Resorts even has its own hospitality school. I took up accountancy because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. With hindsight, it seems that it is my destiny to go into (hospitality). I am an artistic guy, I am trained in accountancy and I have a passion for travel – all important ingredients for the making of a hotelier.
My first foray into this industry was as an accountant (with Hotel Plaza Limited in 2003) and I hated it immediately. It was not until I discovered the other aspect of the hotel business that I began to like it, and it has become what I do best.
You came into this role on May 2. What’s the key part of your job?
Developing hotels. I’m constantly on the look out for the next big destination and potential sites. These tasks entail numbers through feasibility studies and statistics, so I am fortunate that I am an accountant by training, as it has given me an affinity with numbers. This is especially important in operating and developing hotels.
What are these next big destinations?
(Berjaya Land) is one of the biggest property developers in Vietnam, a destination with potential because as a country, it has a land size similar to that of Peninsular Malaysia, but its population is four times bigger. There are 80 million people in Vietnam and 80 per cent of them are under the age of 35. As a developer, it affords us tremendous growth. Vietnam also has many hidden gems such as Danang and Phu Quoc. We have a resort in Phu Quoc. We went in because we believe that Phu Quoc today is Phuket 20 years ago. Infrastructure right now may not be very good; it suffers from electricity shortages and roads need improvement. But as we speak, the government has plans to pull an underwater cable from the mainland and the international airport is almost complete. These will be catalysts for change.
We are also bullish about North Asia. We have an integrated development on the south of Jeju (South Korea). It occupies a 186 acre (75 hectare) site and will have a luxury hotel with villas for sale, a casino, a casino hotel, a life centre – a place for people to go for concerts and performances – and residences. This project will keep us busy for 10 to 15 years.
Japan is a favourable investment destination too. We signed a management agreement with Four Seasons (Hotels and Resorts) to develop a 186-key hotel in Higashiyama, the historical core of Kyoto. It is a major coup for us, as we are the first foreign developer in Kyoto’s 1,000-year history to be allowed to build a hotel in the city. We expect construction to be completed in 1Q2015. We also have a 100 acre (40 hectare) development in Okinawa, which will have an integrated resort anchored by Four Seasons. There will be residences, shopping malls and possibly another hotel. This will probably take 10 to 15 years.
On a smaller scale, we are developing a Ritz-Carlton Reserve resort on a virgin island in the Maldives, which should be ready in two-and-a-half years. We have also just bought a piece of land in Bhutan, and will be developing it through a joint venture with the royal family.
Will any of these developments carry the Berjaya brand?
It takes a long time and a lot of effort and money to build up a strong global brand. Moving forward, this may not be a focus for us, although we have plans to concentrate on making the brand strong in Asia-Pacific, South-east Asia in particular. We are also in the process of disposing our non-core Berjaya-branded assets. Our portfolio has properties in far-flung destinations such as Sri Lanka and Seychelles. It may make sense for us to redeploy capital that has been locked in these resorts and utilise this freed capital on higher-growth areas. We have sold one in Seychelles, and there are plans to sell off the second property there and another in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
So how are you strengthening the brand in this region?
A lot of our campaigns are built around corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. For our island resorts, we have environment-themed CSR programmes throughout the year, which allow us to give back to the community and help us gain publicity. We want people to know that Berjaya isn’t just a company that builds hotels and then market it en masse.
How about sales efforts?
We have global sales offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Austria, Poland and Switzerland. If we do expand this network further, then India would be next. We cannot ignore India because of its growing middle class. Indian tourists like to come to this part of Asia, especially Singapore, and we can benefit from it.