It’s a noteworthy day when The CEO Magazine speaks to Zaini Osman. He is feeling energetic, despite it being Ramadan, and he’s been fasting. “We usually fast from 5.30 in the morning, and we will break the fast with dinner at about seven at night,” he explains. He fasts for 30 days, for about 10 to 12 hours each day, which isn’t as long as some other countries. “It can be longer hours depending on which part of the globe you’re in.”
Zaini lives in Singapore and is CEO of endowment asset management company Warees Investments. During Ramadan, he notices that, without food, there is more time at his desk in the office without anyone asking for coffee or lunch meetings.
“You can clear much backlog in this time. Often you have coffee, tea and lunch meetings to go to throughout the day, but without those, you can get a bit more done – at least clear your emails. It’s a nice change from your usual routine.”
Six years ago, Zaini became the CEO after years spent as General Manager and COO. Warees Investments is a government-agency company, set up by a statutory board, which isn’t unusual for Singapore. “Here, some companies are state-owned,” he explains. “We manage a sizeable portfolio, particularly in real estate. It is interesting because real estate legacies have put their trust in us.”
As CEO, Zaini is led by the purpose behind the company. “Real estate is a dynamic sector,” he says. “It is also high risk because you are subjected to tribulations of the market. It always has its ups and downs, but there is a purpose behind each and every property. There is a story in its history and where it is going in terms of its returns.”
“It always has its ups and downs, but there is a purpose behind each and every property.”
Zaini admits that the opportunity to lead the company has been eye-opening. “No one comes into the job knowing that you can do everything from day one, right?” he says. “The learning curve is steep, especially in this sector, where much capital is involved. However, I have the opportunity to lead the company and the people I have. People motivate me to do what I do every day.”
By putting people first, the company has created a culture where the team helps each other, and there is minimal office “politics”. “We have about 40 people here, so we’re quite small, but we do high-value work,” he says.
“We have a strong culture of being able to help each other. You must support each other closely. While we are commercially driven and performance-based, maintaining strong relationships is important.”
Zaini believes that company culture is not just about “numbers that you jet out every year”, but developing good staff. “Finances come second to me,” he says.
“If I’m able to retain a skilled workforce, with a low attrition rate, people develop along the way. We set ourselves a notch above the rest because I don’t think that other companies can retain staff for a long time. If you set the right culture, I think people will stay with you. Our attrition rate here is very low. We have less than 10% attrition every year.”
Warees Investments is not your typical portfolio management company. Much of its real estate assets go back into the community. Years ago, these assets established many trusts for charitable purposes for community use, where returns go back to society.
“It goes to charitable purposes from the real estate market here in Singapore,” Zaini says. “Our people are driven not just by money, but also by a social purpose.”
“Our people are driven not just by money, but by a social purpose.”
The company’s sustainability framework ensures that it does more than just sustain revenue. There are plenty of companies in real estate, but what makes Warees Investments different is that it puts the community first. “We engage people. We want to understand their interests before we set our products up-front,” Zaini says.
“For example, sometimes we develop properties in challenging areas with an old, historical background,” he adds. “We can’t do that without understanding what is happening in that area. We must know the community. We must talk to people. With real estate, you’re talking about building concrete buildings. However, what happens inside the buildings at the end of the day is people’s activity and how you’re building contributes to the community and neighbourhood.”
Zaini asks himself at the end of each day, “What difference have you made to your colleagues’ lives, to the people around you?”
To Zaini, the bottom line is not just how many properties sell; it is from making sure the objectives of the properties are met. Focusing on property returns is essential, but Warees Investments takes it a step further.
“We want to know who would benefit from the revenue we generate because of the charitable purpose component of our developments,” he says.
“People see us as a credible brand. People want to work with us. If you have good values, if you set a certain standard, no matter how small you are, clients will be willing to work with you because of the objectives of the property you manage.”
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