Chan Iz-Lynn shares how she takes care of her well-being amidst the stress of being CEO and head of investor relations at BHG Retail REIT
When we chatted with Chan Iz- Lynn over lunch, conversation topics ranged from food and favourite holiday destinations to shopping. It is clear that Chan is a strong believer in living the good life and doing it in style — a combination that makes her a perfect fit for the role of CEO and head of investor relations at BHG Retail REIT.
She describes her role as one of an ambassador and the driving force steering the REIT’s strategic direction and growth, working closely with the sponsor group, the board and the team (both in Singapore and the property manager in China) to deliver sustainable results to unitholders as well as grow the business.
Chan adds: “On a wider scale, we work with the respective stakeholders to ensure that the community malls that we own and operate in China are meaningful spaces for the people who live nearby, serving as a third space for them to spend time meaningfully while serving their needs. Internally, within the REIT manager team, I see myself as a facilitator to catalyse and bring out the best of my team’s abilities and strengths. I endeavour to support and guide my team in identifying and resolving key priorities that will elevate the quality and success of the REIT’s management team.”
The company is listed on the Singapore Exchange and has a diversified portfolio of six retail properties strategically located in major cities in China, namely Beijing, Chengdu, Hefei, Xining and Dalian. Chan’s CV is an exhaustive and varied list featuring past appointments such as heading Shenzhen-listed Beijing Hualian Department Store Co’s mall management operations for its nationwide portfolio of properties.
From 2005 to 2013, Chan held various positions in Far East Organization where she was the assistant director of the retail business group. Her primary responsibility included maximising the business performance of the flagship asset Orchard Central, while her concurrent role as vice-president (retail consultancy) involved the exploration of international new-to-market brands to the retail portfolio. In the hospitality business group, comprising hotels and serviced residences, she was responsible for delivering the business unit’s operational and service excellence. During her tenure, Chan also concurrently held the position of head of service quality at the group’s corporate level.
Chan, who has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English from the University of Leicester, began her career with Singapore Airlines (SIA), becoming its first female station manager, and managed overseas stations’ airport operations in Frankfurt, Copenhagen, New York and Hong Kong.
Her success, says the small-town girl who grew up on the east coast of Malaysia, is because of her father. She adds: “[My father] sent me to study in Singapore as he wanted me to maximise my opportunities. For years, he travelled on a motorbike to visit me in Singapore — around a three-hour ride each way — weekly. He spent time with me, took me out for meals — Pizza Hut was a favourite then — and shared with me various values and systems and taught me how to be a better person.”
As for dealing with stress from work, Chan says that she does not deliberately search for ways to de-stress, but agrees that when she is able to keep her emotions in check, she also gets into a better position to manage the other aspects of her life better.
“After attending the General Management Programme at Harvard Business School in 2012, I realised the importance of managing oneself. We were encouraged to spend 50% of our time managing ourselves, as opposed to managing our staff, bosses, or peers. By extension, understanding ourselves is critical,” she adds.
Chan centres herself by spending time alone and being still; she explains that when you’re calm and your mind is clear, that’s when you can find your direction and focus. Only when you are focused will you be able to make the right decisions and achieve your goals.
She also enjoys catching up with friends over a nice meal, as well as simple pleasures like “walking our five-year-old Morkie-Poo (Maltese-Yorkshire Terrier-Poodle mix) and catching up on Chinese or Korean drama serials”.
She shares more about her life and work with Options.
Tell us more about BHG Retail REIT’s strategic direction that enabled you to successfully deliver the overall business plans with the support of the management team.
BHG Retail REIT invests in China retail properties that are strategically located in densely populated residential neighbourhoods with strong visitorship catchment and recurring traffic. We seek to capitalise on the steadily rising residents’ income of the Chinese middle-income population today, as well as the ongoing rural-urban migration taking place in recent years.
As a group, we aspire to always maintain our relevancy in terms of retail offerings to our shoppers/customers. The sponsor group, Beijing Hualian Group, is a reputable retail conglomerate headquartered in Beijing, with vast retail experience and a network in various retail segments. Apart from investing and running community neighbourhood malls and operating a supermarket chain, which both focuses on the middle-income segment in retail, the group also has an internationally renowned luxury department store chain (SKP Beijing, SKP Xi’an, SKP-S) that is one of the top performing luxury department stores in the world, ranked in terms of sales. These diverse retail footprints allow us as a group to have an in-depth knowledge of consumers’ retail pulse, knowing what ticks and what doesn’t. The REIT is also able to leverage the group to grow ourselves inorganically, through the group’s extensive pipeline available.
In order to remain an attractive yield-play investment, BHG Retail REIT will also continue to manage our capital prudently, at the same time maintain a healthy debt headroom to pursue yield accretive acquisition opportunities.
In addition, with the increasing emphasis on sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG), the REIT has also put in place “environmental” initiatives to effectively monitor and improve the efficiency of water and energy consumption in our properties.
On the “social” front, our China property teams and Singapore-based REIT Manager have a long history of holding regular corporate social responsibility (CSR) events. We will definitely continue with these initiatives.
And of course, “governance” is a key element that runs in the DNA of REIT’s corporate culture — with an ex-KPMG partner as the REIT’s independent chairman, the sponsor being a listed entity on Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and MAS-licensed representatives making up the management team, governance and accountability is at the core of our processes and initiatives.
In November 2021, BHG Retail REIT received two prestigious awards at The Global Good Governance Awards 2021 — a Platinum award for Best Corporate Communications and Investor Relations and a Silver award for Best Governed and Transparent Company. These awards serve as a testament to the REIT’s commitment to best corporate governance practices.
You have an interesting career path that covers airline, hospitality and retail. Can you tell us what lessons you have learned from each that you carry with you throughout your career?
It was a privilege to work for SIA, not just in the frontline as a Singapore Girl during my gap year, but also as management staff based in HQ and subsequently overseas as station manager in Frankfurt, Copenhagen, New York and Hong Kong. At HQ, I had varied experiences, from recruiting cabin crew to choosing and negotiating overseas hotels for crew overnight stays, to identifying gaps and improving the standard cabin crew delivery of inflight service.
Having a commitment to the highest standard with no compromise, SIA would rather not do something if it is not perfect. I recall that during my time there, there were plans to give a name to the Economy Class. After several rounds and attempts and committee meetings, because no perfect name was identified, it remained as Economy Class!
As an overseas station manager, it was about leading a local team while upholding the highest standards of the airline. The opportunity to become the first female station manager was in itself one of the most memorable lessons for me as it was an opportunity to open the doors for females in an otherwise previous male-dominated role.
[In hospitality,] staff motivation is most important. Each staff in hospitality and especially the doormen, front desk and housekeeping staff are so integral to the brand and customer experience. In hospitality, the pyramid feels reversed as the most important persons are the people who come into direct contact with the customers as that’s where first impressions are formed.
[As for retail,] in many countries and increasingly in countries like China and Singapore, the retail mall plays the role of a social and community space that serves the people around it. It’s a place for people to come to for food, comfort, learning, relaxation — the cinema to gather with friends, supermarkets for basic necessities, food for eating out, schools for learning a skill, be it babies learning how to swim, a child learning how to ride a horse or adults learning how to speak English. It fulfils physical and emotional needs.
A retail mall isn’t all about the landlord. It’s a space where win-win-win comes in. Customers’ needs must be met and if they are, the tenants will do well and if tenants do well, the landlord will thrive. Hence, these three parties often work closely together to make the space meaningful and grow the space.
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What was that journey like and the challenges you faced when you first started in retail up until now?
My first foray into retail was running Orchard Central, a mall located along Orchard Road in Singapore. I had no retail background prior but was grateful to CEO of Far East Organization Philip Ng for giving me the opportunity to venture into a new field. I soon realised that I love it and it suits me. Being new to the retail industry, I had to learn a lot of things such as the basics of mall operations like occupancy cost, GTO (gross turnover), operations and safety aspects of a mall.
To make things more challenging, it was during a time when there was an oversupply of malls as several [malls] had opened during the same time. Things were exacerbated by the cautious post-recession economic environment. I worked closely with individual tenants and came up with innovative ways to increase traffic and in turn drive tenant sales. We held interesting events like the Great Via Ferrata Wall Challenge, staged musicals in our mall and won Orchard Road Best Dressed Mall several years in a row.
My subsequent job was mall management in China where I had to operate in Mandarin and learn about Chinese culture. Even though I am ethnic Chinese, there was much to learn about living and working in this culture with 5000 years of history. It was great to be able to travel around China. I was based in Beijing but travelled to Chengdu, Inner Mongolia, Shenyang, Xining and Hainan.
That was also the time when the Chinese started travelling more and hence expected more interesting content and refreshing marketing events. It was very exciting to be in the midst of the “awakening of the dragon”, where the middle class in China is expanding so robustly and to see the alleviation of poverty — by no means an easy feat for the government of over 1.4 billion people.
I transitioned to my current role when BHG Retail REIT was listed on the SGX mainboard in December 2015. Being the first Chinese-backed REIT to be listed on the SGX, with a sponsor group that is based in China and assets all located in China, we had to work harder on investor education. A lot had to be done to educate our partners (brokerages, analysts, media) in the initial phase, and it certainly wasn’t easy going directly to end investors either. I recall that at a roadshow in Hong Kong years ago, the chairman of an investment firm came and we were told to finish [our pitch] exactly within 30 minutes. We certainly felt the pressure, didn’t know we could fire so rapidly.
On the other hand, there were some that were always keen to catch up even though they did not have the mandate to invest in us at that moment. All in all, it was unquestionably fun to knock on investors’ doors, share our stories, and have a chat.
I believe you have an interesting story about horses at Beijing Wanliu mall, where you were part of the senior management team responsible for future strategic development?
Oh yes, with the growing aspirational demographics in Beijing, shoppers often desire better quality products and more unique experiences. In view of these ongoing trends, we always challenge ourselves to curate more refreshing ideas for our customers. And of course, we, too, always feel intrigued to bring new concepts into our malls.
In 2017, we saw an opportunity to bring a children’s horse-riding school named Happy Pony indoors to our Beijing Wanliu mall. After several months of careful planning, from the premise layout, to the ventilation system, to the animals’ and visitors’ safety and health considerations, Happy Pony took up a 5,400 sq ft space on Level Three of the mall. The training school and stable drew an overwhelming response when it opened its doors in 2017.
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What’s the next big thing are you working on at the moment?
Having experienced Covid-19 in the last few years, we have been finetuning our properties and efforts to be even more “weather-proofed”.
Several initiatives include: (1) Launching the BHG Mall e-commerce platform, to reinforce our interactions with omni-channel customers; (2) Being more selective in terms of tenants’ financial strength and partnerships; (3) Bringing in more desirable brands to prepare our- selves for an eventual upswing in visitorship.
As a REIT, it is paramount for us to grow in the long term. Apart from growing organically through rental uplifts and embarking on asset enhancement initiatives, we endeavour to grow via the acquisition of new properties. The REIT has an extensive pipeline from the sponsor group. Much of my time typically gets channelled towards preparations for future acquisition growth.
With the increasing importance of ESG initiatives, my team and I spend a reasonable amount of time alongside our property teams in China and also ESG professionals, to pursue and advance on various ESG objectives.
Picture by Albert Chua