In 1996, Kong Chee Min accepted an offer to join SM Summit Holdings Limited as an accountant. The company, which was founded in 1981 to provide audio cassette tape duplication, had undergone rapid expansion and by 1991 had branched out into CD manufacturing, with record labels including BMG, EMI, Polygram, Sony and Warner as clients.
By the time Chee Min set foot in its Singapore headquarters to report for his first day of duty, Summit had manufacturing plants in Malaysia and Australia and held big plans for continued success in the optical disc business. He would progress through the ranks to become regional CEO and finance director.
Kong Chee Min celebrates 22 years on the job
Today, Chee Min is CEO of leading worker and student accommodation owner–operator Centurion Corporation Limited. Yet he hasn’t handed in his resignation or been poached by another business – this year celebrates 22 years with the same company. In fact, Summit has become Centurion, a name adopted in 2011 after the completion of a reverse acquisition exercise that heralded a completely new direction for the company.
“When I joined the business, the optical disc was really the future,” Chee Min explains, acknowledging that the company enjoyed a number of successful years with this medium, until the advent of faster and cheaper internet stopped growth in its tracks.
“As bandwidth increased, even larger videos were able to be downloaded quite easily. Then software. We recognised that our business would be seriously damaged by the decreasing demand for optical discs, so we needed to start looking at other opportunities.”
Centurion Corporation focuses on accommodation
Several options were considered before the accommodation business was decided upon. “There was an acute shortage of purpose-built workers’ accommodation in Singapore and quite a heavy reliance on foreign labour. Based on the economics of the industry, we felt that it was a smart business to enter into,” he explains.
In the reverse takeover, Centurion inherited a portfolio of 5,300 beds. Geographical expansion into neighbouring Malaysia quickly followed. 3 years later, in 2014, the acquisition of RMIT Village in Melbourne, Australia, marked a diversification into the student accommodation space.
We go beyond simply offering 4 walls and a bed.
Chee Min says that currently Centurion is operating close to 60,000 beds with high occupancy rates in purpose-built workers’ accommodation – managed under the Westlite brand – in Singapore and Malaysia. Its student accommodation interests are operated under the ‘dwell’ banner. Along with Australia, the company now operates residences in Singapore and the UK.
He admits it’s been quite a learning curve. “With optical discs, our focus was on the product, whereas the accommodation sector is a service-oriented industry,” he explains. “People management has become much more important.”
Management with heart
Despite the transformation of Centurion’s business model, Chee Min says that many employees have stayed. “We tried to be as accommodating as possible. As long as they demonstrated a willingness and commitment to learn new skills, we gave them a role in the new structure.”
In a short time, Centurion has established a strong reputation for the respect it displays to its residents. “We manage them with heart. We go beyond simply offering 4 walls and a bed. It’s important to provide the right amenities and activities to foster a community spirit,” he explains.
For the foreign workers in Westlite dormitories, this includes excursions to places of interest. “We want them to make friends and to understand the culture of the country they have moved to,” he says.
While the same principles can be applied to the student population, he realises that at the top of every scholarly wish list is fast wi-fi. While his experience has taught him to embrace the ebb and flow inherent in business, Chee Min is excited about the future. “The worker and student accommodation space is still in its early stages of maturity,” he enthuses.
As he outlines plans for further growth, he hints at diversification into other housing solutions. “Retirement homes, aged care and adolescent residences are areas we are actively exploring, and we are starting to gain an understanding of the market dynamics.”