Wednesday, December 3, 2008

When times are bad, prepare for good times

I came across this piece of article talk about what to do during bad times and good times. It is an article speaks the truth from a personal experience from an entrepreneur in his industry. There's a lot of learning from this article as it is happening in Singapore our neighboring country.

He has vowed to shave costs rather than jobs. And the man twice voted CEO of the year is putting his money where his mouth is.

Starting next month, Liew Mun Leong will take the deepest pay cut of 20 per cent as president and chief executive officer of property and hospitality giant CapitaLand Group. Last year, he earned S$6.49 million, mostly in bonuses.

The company-wide salary reduction exercise of 3 to 20 per cent will affect mainly management and executives. Non-executives, typically earning below S$2,000, will be spared.
This is the same thing which happened at CapitaLand during the past two recessions in 1997 and 2001, when Liew also implemented a salary freeze and led management in taking a “significant pay cut”. No one was laid off then.

The 62-year-old CEO notes recent retrenchments here and decries them as “morally wrong”. He feels “very sorry” for those asked to go.

“When someone is retrenched, they lose their livelihood, their ability to support family, send children to school, pay their mortgages. There's lots of suffering,” he says. It rekindles memories of how his late father Liew Luen Pong was laid off when the British began pulling out of Singapore in 1963.

The young Mun Leong was then 17 and doing his O levels at Queenstown Technical Secondary. He and his three siblings, his housewife mother and grandmother depended completely on his father, who earned S$100 a month as a lathe machinist for a contracting firm working on the British bases.

Home was a rented room in a terrace house in Serangoon, where seven of them crammed into a single bedroom. After his father got fired, he remembers how worried they all were. “No work, no money,” he sums up grimly.

“I feel it more because I went through this myself. Maybe that's the difference between a CEO who has suffered through this and someone who hasn't. I'm from the proletariat,” he says, not without pride.

For him, salary cuts for the majority are preferable to letting a minority go. “I believe in the theory of common happiness and common misery. In good times, give bonuses. In bad times, take a salary cut. If the cost savings of retrenching 100 out of 1,000 employees can be obtained by a wage cut, you achieve the same objective. It's a better way of maintaining viability, even at the expense of more people. It saves some jobs.”Besides, he believes retrenchments carry an insidious cost — in loyalty dividends. They also erode management's moral standing.

“From our perspective, loyalty between company and staff is a two-way street,” he says. “Unless the company is loyal to its staff, they cannot be loyal to the company. “You cannot treat people as dispensable items — in good times, we want you; in bad times, we don't want you. Our staff are an asset on our balance sheet and we must treat them as such.”

But many are asking: Does all this wage-trimming and cost-shearing apply to still-profitable companies? After all, CapitaLand recently posted a Q3 net profit of S$419.4 million, although that was 25.6 per cent lower than last year. To that, Liew says: “Even if a company is profitable, cost management is important to set discipline. Not just to save money but to drive awareness that we need such discipline.”

The key, he says, is consistency in managing people, with the same rigour that companies manage their balance sheet. That means constantly pruning poor performers and foraging for fresh talent to plant. “During bad times and good times, I still hire and fire. During bad times, I will still hire those who are good. During good times, if you're not doing well, I will still fire you,” he says.

“We manage our people the same way that we manage our balance sheet. If your balance sheet management is weak, in bad times, there's no way to save it. It's bo kiu (a goner in Hokkien).
“The same goes for human resource management. Talent management is about being rigorous but not ruthless. You cannot manage with one style during good times and a different style during bad times. If you are consistent, good and bad times, people will stay with you.”He says he learnt the importance of “disciplined aggression” from the past two financial crises in 1997 and 2001.

When the former civil servant who was trained as a civil engineer took over Pidemco Land in 1996, it was a euphoric time. The Government was urging overseas investment. Other property players were bingeing on land in Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia. Tender prices shot sky-high. “We were invited to invest in glamorous projects which everyone was jumping into but we did not commit to any,” he says. He did his sums, ignored taunts of timidity, sat it out and let the fever overtake others.

Then the Asian Financial Crisis came, prices tumbled and he charged in. In 1998, he picked up freehold Furama Hotel in Hong Kong's Central, then a toxic asset nobody wanted to touch, for HK$1.8 billion (S$355 million), half what the owners had paid. In 2001, he took over the derelict Raffles City Shanghai project, “a big hole in the ground” abandoned by DBS Land. Today, the swanky mall is worth twice its investment cost of S$300 million and commands one of the city's stiffest rentals.

Crises, he learnt, are the best time to “build up your relative combat power”, provided you do not get swept away yourself. He arrived at this operating principle: “In good times, prepare for bad times. In bad times, prepare for good times.”He observes: “The property sector is full of powerful personalities with large egos. They are super-charged when they see a good piece of land. They buy the land and hope the bank will lend them money.

“I go the other way. I ask: 'Can we afford it?' People are often surprised at our growth rate. They think we're very aggressive but we're very disciplined with investment criteria, risk assessment, budget allocation.” He still personally scrutinises investment papers, blueprints and design details of housing projects, down to the type of taps used. To conserve liquidity, his standard injunction to employees is: “If you invest S$1, get me S$2. If you want to invest S$1 million, make sure you bring back S$2 million.”

That has been realised. Over the past two years, the group has monetised more than S$9 billion of assets, double the S$4.4 billion it invested over the same period. “This S$2-to-S$1 formula actually worked,” he says, sounding amazed.

In those better times, he was flayed for needlessly selling the family jewels, including Temasek Tower, Hitachi Tower, Chevron House and, before that, the Raffles Hotel. But it pared down CapitaLand's debt-to-equity ratio, making it one of the lowest-geared property companies here just as the credit crunch hit.

Today, some think his nick-of-time divestment was wildly intuitive. But he confides: “In all honesty, I had no premonition the crisis could happen. I just thought it was a good time to raise some cheap money. It was a contrarian thing to do, which needed guts.” As a result, CapitaLand is now sitting relatively pretty with a healthy balance sheet and cash hoard of almost S$4 billion. He fears that many other companies, less disciplined in managing debt in good times, will soon be imperilled.

“I read this article on how you're damned when you're due. When you're due for refinancing, the bank will likely not extend your loan of S$100 million and ask you to find your own money. If you can't get it, you're staring at foreclosure,” he says. “It's become a liquidity game. If you want to borrow money from a bank today, you must have more money than you want to borrow. “A lot of companies have not realised this yet. You need to look at surviving not just 2009 but the next three years — 2009, 2010, 2011 — unless the banking system recovers before that.

During the Great Depression, the banking system was down for 10 years.” The only upside, he says, is that since the global financial system collapsed so fast, it may revive just as quickly. “In the modern world, with the support of information technology, more sophisticated monitoring tools, better trained central bankers making a coordinated effort, things will recover hopefully faster.”

Meanwhile, quoting US economist Paul Romer, he says: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” He does not know when the meltdown will end, but he sure knows what to do with it.

1 comment:

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