SINGAPORE (Mar 12): Koh Wee Meng, the billionaire real estate tycoon best known for developing a string of budget hotels in Geylang, is as unassuming as they come. Clad in a simple black suit and a white shirt open at the collar, the chairman and CEO of Fragrance Group sits in an expansive but spartan corner office, on the top floor of the former NOL Building, which he bought in 2012 for $380 million. On one wall is a framed painting by American artist Mort Kunstler, depicting a race between a steam train and a horse-drawn coach. Koh says he picked it up at a shopping centre in the 1990s.

Yet, for all this modest appearance, there is no doubt that Koh is assembling an empire of sorts. For one thing, the company has dubbed its headquarters the Fragrance Empire Building. Moreover, Koh has methodically seized opportunities in each property cycle over the last couple of decades to steadily expand his real estate business, from building Fragrance-branded hotels on the fringes of the city to riding the “shoebox” condominium phenomenon before the global financial crisis.

Fragrance has not done much in Singapore in recent years, though. The last acquisition the company made in the city state was in 2013, when it was awarded the tender for Punggol Point for $11.4 million. That has since been turned into The Punggol Settlement restaurant and leisure centre. Fragrance is also scheduled to complete City Gate at year-end. The 30-storey mixed-use development on Beach Road, which will have 311 apartments and 188 commercial units, is a joint venture between Fragrance and World Class Land, the property arm of Aspial Corp — the family jewellery business run by Koh’s younger brother Wee Seng.

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