Family Matters

Michelle Yong, Director, Aurum

THE Aurum group is part of the Woh Hup group, which was started as a one-man business - Woh Hup (Pte) Ltd - in Malaya by my great grandfather, the late Yong Yit Lin in 1927. One of his earliest work was the remarkably conserved Clifford Pier.

Some 90 years on, Woh Hup has become one of Singapore’s largest privately owned construction and civil engineering companies managed by a strong team of family members that span four generations,  together with a team of dedicated professionals.

While Woh Hup is a principal player in the building of private residential and commercial developments, the group has forged strategic joint-venture partnerships locally and overseas, and continues to grow in countries such as India, the UK, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar. Woh Hup has also grown into peripheral industries such as joinery, plant and equipment, prefabrication, cross laminated timber and property development.

Since joining the family business in 2007 to take the lead in growing Aurum Land into an award-winning residential property developer, I have always been searching for ways to create new growth opportunities for the wider group, family and team members by building new businesses adjacent to our existing businesses. 

As one of the fourth-generation family business leaders of the Woh Hup group, I am mindful of the legacy that previous generations have worked so hard to build. I believe that one way many successful family businesses have survived through the generations is by constantly evolving and expanding the portfolio of business units.

I wrote my economics thesis at Oxford University on family businesses and the three-generation curse, using the principal-agent theory and altruism to explain why expected profits in family businesses are higher than in non-family businesses in the first and second generations, but become lower in the third generation due to amplified moral hazard from having three generations working in the same business. One solution would be to keep starting more family business units so that each business unit is kept within two generations of family business leaders.

This “seed” of thought was reinforced by professor Marc-Michael Bergfeld, director of Courage Partners, at a three-day workshop organised by the Business Family Institute in 2010 that I attended. He introduced me to the idea of “castle building” – where the main family business (in this case Woh Hup) is the castle and family members are knights that venture outside of the castle looking for new growth opportunities by setting up outposts in adjacent markets (think geographies) or business areas (think new products or services).

Some of these “outposts” would grow into productive “villages” (like Aurum Land) that contribute positively to the “castle” and “kingdom” while others would fail (like my first business failure - a cafe called Dot & Dash). The idea was that each successful “village” would allow the “knight” to venture further from the core business and seek out more growth  opportunities in farther territories due to learning and network building in the “village”, as it would be unwise to venture too far into completely unknown territory as the probability of failure would be high.

With this in mind, we have sought to progressively transform Aurum over the last three years from a conventional property developer into a space and business innovator with a focus on the future of people.

Incorporated in 1982, Aurum Land is an award-winning boutique property developer that champions functionality and form in designing living spaces. The success of Aurum Land as a property developer has allowed us to expand our capabilities into building communities and connections that drive business growth, which is the vision of Collision 8.

Collision 8 is both workspace and home to a diverse community of innovators, helping them forge connections and collaboration that drive personal and professional growth. We established our first location at 1 North Bridge Road in August 2016, doubled our space in the same building by early 2018, and are now expanding to our second location at 79 Anson Road, which will be ready in early 2019. With a combined size of 35,000 square feet (sq ft) and a rapidly growing community of startups, corporates, investors and experts, Collision 8 is playing host to many of the key change-makers in the Singapore innovation ecosystem.

The new network of startups and investors that we had come to know through Collision 8 enabled us to launch our venture fund under Aurum Investments, and make our first investment in co-living start-up Hmlet, leading a seed round that helped double its revenues and triple its portfolio including expansion into Hong Kong. This and the second investment that we made earlier this year were both introductions from a Collision 8 member. We are considering a third investment, which also came about through a Collision 8 member's introduction. Our knowledge in the venture space has gone from zero to speaking on a panel at SLUSH about the differences between venture capitalists and family offices in two short years.

The success of Collision 8’s community building and business support platform has allowed us to apply that same principle to the fitness and wellness industry, and launch Core Collective in April 2018. The 23,500 sq ft fitness and wellness centre at 79 Anson Road houses qualified trainers and health professionals under one roof. 

Core Collective fosters entrepreneurship and facilitates the cross-sharing of knowledge and collaboration between resident practitioners to provide the best service and results for their customers. It also extends customised fitness and wellness packages to corporates as part of our wellness in the workplace initiative. 

We are scheduled to open our second location in the Dempsey/Loewen Road cluster in Q2 2018. Spanning almost 140,000 sq ft, it will broaden our service offerings to cater more to families, especially mothers and their children. 

With a full live, work and play collection of holistic offerings under one umbrella, Aurum Land can now offer an integrated lifestyle package to buyers of our residential properties. Earlier this year, we acquired two prime pieces of land along Balmoral Road and Amber Road which will be transformed into the latest masterpieces in Aurum Land’s portfolio, and which will be launched in early 2019. 

The first development, The Hyde, at 11 Balmoral Road, is a modern interpretation of London’s Hyde Park with its close proximity to both town and royal park. The second development, NYON, is at 12 Amber Road, an area known as one of Peranakan culture’s most prominent enclaves. "NYON" is a play on the word nyonya, a term of respect and affection for Peranakan women of prominent social standing.

Our new vision for the Aurum group is to create value and growth opportunities for our expanding network of communities spanning family businesses, startups, investors, professionals and individuals, as well as the wider Woh Hup group.

One of our recent initiatives is co-pioneering the Asian Family Business Lab - an accelerator and incubator programme designed specifically for family businesses - which is set to launch in the second quarter of 2019. Collision 8 is teaming up with Courage Partners' Dr Bergfeld to provide Asia’s family businesses, and especially Next Generation members, with the ideas, resources and methodologies to innovate for future growth.

We believe that all businesses, including family businesses, are facing rapid change in technology, international markets and customer demands, and that we can seize new growth opportunities from this rising tide of change. We have learnt through our own experience over the past three years that it is possible to innovate and to innovate quickly – we essentially started three new business units in the past three years, each adjacent to the previous, and all synergistic with one another. 

We hope to share our learning and create a platform for other family business leaders to do the same, and achieve greater things for their businesses and families. We recently held our first Dine and Discuss ideation session with 25 family business leaders and are excited to welcome more family businesses to participate in the Asian Family Business Lab.

At Aurum, we redefine opportunity. By building on the best practices of the past, and remaining true to our core values of customer service excellence, attention to detail, and trust and integrity, we innovate unique and compelling human-centric outcomes for the future of all our stakeholders.

We are passionate about creating value and opportunities for businesses, professionals and individuals, and are constantly seeking ways to improve life for our stakeholders. 

None of this would have been possible without the support and guidance of the second and third-generation members of the family who built a strong foundation within the “castle” that enables the creation of new ventures by the fourth generation, and which will hopefully inspire our children to find their passions and grow their own businesses into the fifth generation and beyond.

Also, none of this would be possible without the dedication and support of our teams who believe in our vision and make it their own.