AGE BE NO BOUNDARY FOR YOUNG DIANNA LEE
An overall holistic approach that cares for the individual, community, traditions and the environment has been the cornerstone of Country Heights Holdings Berhad and its founder Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew from the beginning. Now a new generation is taking the reins of this premier company and leading it towards a new future. We spoke with Ms Dianna Lee Cheng Wen, his second daughter and Group CEO of Country Heights Holdings Berhad (CHHB) on what it means to continue a legacy while remaining true to oneself.
WHAT DOES YOUR POSITION AS THE GROUP CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF COUNTRY HEIGHTS HOLDINGS BERHAD ENTAIL?
I always call myself the “laborer” for the company. Jokes aside, as a Group CEO, you need to be like an eagle, soaring high enough to oversee the entire jungle, but sharp enough to pick up a rat on the ground. So, although my job as a Group CEO covers mainly high level management tasks, I make sure to look into the details of our operations, the whole works. Under our group we have six different business units.The major one is our Property Development division, followed by our Hospitality division, the Health division which carries the brand name of “Golden Horses Health Sanctuary”, Property Investment division and lastly, the Education division as well. So I oversee all these businesses within the group.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU STARTED OUT CAREER WISE?
During school holidays, I would always follow my dad around in his office as his PA. Sometimes, I would have to go through HR policies and Country Height’s SOP together with my dad. At that time, I thought that hospitality was quite interesting.
During one of the semester breaks during my secondary school days, I came in through the back door of the hotel and stood in line with all the other casual laborers to apply for a housekeeping job. They didn’t know who I was because my identity wasn’t exposed. That was my first internship and it was with Palace of the Golden Horses as a housekeeper, and I did that for the entire school holiday. I was assigned to clean the guest rooms and staff toilets. It was the most interesting job ever! You’ll find “interesting” things while you are cleaning.
Then I came back for my second internship and I applied for an F&B job. I was waiting tables for government events and weddings. This internship built up my muscles; you would never imagine that trays could be so heavy! That’s how my first two internships went about with Country Heights when I was in my teens.
DID YOU ALWAYS FOCUS ON LEARNING ABOUT THE FAMILY BUSINESS FIRST?
I also did an internship with a non-profit organization that handled patients with cystic fibrosis. We did a lot of fund-raising and charity events for the organization. This was during my varsity life in Los Angeles and we did it for the Mexican community there.
After that, when I thought that hospitality was not something that I wanted to do, I decided to pursue corporate finance. I was very lucky to have gotten an internship with Goldman Sachs in Singapore. After I graduated, I was offered a job at Disney; and at that time, I was working part-time with them. I was really keen and happy to pursue that; until my dad came for my graduation. He convinced me to come back and help out with the business and I thought that I should be a good daughter and help him out. So, serving my duties as a good daughter, I came back.
CAN YOU TELL US WHAT YOUR FIRST JOB WAS? AND WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
As for my first job after I came back, I was taking care of the sales department for one of the projects under Country Heights. With my involvement, I took over the entire sales team and we managed to reach the target set by the company, in fact we over achieved. And so, my job there was done. But, it was a difficult period for me because I was coming back to a different culture and it was not the same as in the US and Singapore. Adjusting to a different working culture is already something I’m struggling, worst off, I was given a sales position which I have absolutely no experience with. For sales, you always need to have a thicker face and bring yourself down. It wasn’t what I was used to at all.
At that time, I was having a tough time with my dad, I keep asking, “Why did you put me here? Why can’t I just do something where I don’t have to beg people?” But I learnt a lot that year. I closed one of my biggest deals and that was also the biggest deal for that year for Country Heights. I was around 24 at that time.
It was tough trying to close that deal. I learnt a lot about humility. I had to wait outside of someone’s office until they were willing to see me. I think through my determination, they finally noticed that, “Okay, maybe Tan Sri’s daughter can actually do real work.”
WHAT MADE YOU GO BACK TO HOSPITALITY?
At that time, the hotel was going through some management change and they were looking for people. Since I have achieved my target in sales, they moved me to take care of the special projects that was on-going at the hotel then. It was the consultant that was working on the hotel improvement project that suggested to the board to get me to be the General Manager of the hotel.
I was reluctant because I have decided not to do hospitality. It is an industry that requires experience that I have little of. You know, managing a hotel is not an easy job. I was only 24 years old and there were people over the age of 50 who were going to be working with me. I knew it was going to be a tough job and I was very unsure. But, my dad had a chat with me and told me to try it out.
Being adventurous, I decided to see how far I could go and went on to become the General Manager of Palace of the Golden Horses. Our task was to transform the financial health of the entire hotel, and we did it within a year. As time went by, the health division was placed under my wing and eventually, I became the CEO for the Hospitality & Health division. That was also when we launched the new extension of Golden Horse Health Sanctuary. By then, I had two hotels and three health centres under my care, it became the second largest revenue contributor to the group after the Property Development division.
There was then a change in the top management for the entire Country Heights Holdings Berhad. With the positive turnovers in the Hospitality & Health division, along with a good portfolio, the board thought that I would be the next suitable successor to take over Country Heights Holdings Berhad.
HAVE YOU ADOPTED ANY OF THE PRACTICES OR DISCIPLINES THAT YOU HAVE LEARNT FROM YOUR EXPERIENCES WORKING IN INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED ORGANIZATIONS OVERSEAS?
I think each company has different standards of good practices. What I have learnt the most from this experience is to be adaptive. Then again, I think there are good standard practices and then there are the soft cultural part of it. For example, at Goldman Sachs, because it’s an international firm, you are exposed to very professional and hightech procedurals; some of which that are absent in smaller firms. That’s something that has been very valuable to me. So it is where you learn your figures, ratios, risk management, code of conduct, and such.
Whereas in smaller companies, you can pick up a lot on the cultural values, the more heart to heart things. They’re more family orientated, where you work as a family and when they do business, they look at you as a sole individual. Sometimes when you’re a big organization, we do so many corporate deals that at an event of any transactions, we tend to lose that human touch.
Now, that’s something that I’ve learnt from a smaller organization. I always remind myself that behind every number, there’s one person there; and that person has feelings. It’s something that you really need to take care of.
WE READ THAT YOU WERE THE SOLE DELEGATE FOR MALAYSIA IN THE GLOBAL YOUNG LEADERS SUMMIT FOR 2004 AND 2005 IN THE US AND EUROPE. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT EXPERIENCE, HOW YOU GOT SELECTED, AND WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNT FROM IT?
I was actually pretty surprised because I got a letter one day saying that I was selected. When I contacted the organizers, they stated that I was chosen based on recommendations; it also included my academic merits and participation. I suppose that my headmaster and the different curriculum directors recommended me and therefore I was selected.
The first delegation was to Washington and New York. We went to the United Nations and did a simulation and a debate on the current issues that were going on around the world. I was also chosen for the second delegation because they took note of who contributed the most in the first delegation. This time around, we went to five countries in Europe. We discussed on the selection of EU members, my team was focused on whether Turkey should be one of the EU members.
HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR THE JOB?
It wasn’t easy doing what I did at my age. I lacked the experience and due to that, I felt that I was thrown into the deep end and I had to figure a lot of things out by myself. At the end of the day, I am thankful for this upbringing, although I lacked the experience, I had the exposure and I knew what was supposed to be done and vice versa. And of course, credits to “Google” too.
So, in some ways I compensated the lack of experience with the exposure my parents have given me. And the determination; I always believed that if you don’t know something and if you read it a thousand times, you’ll eventually be the expert of it. I still strongly believe in that till today. Even if I’m not good at it, I’ll try it out a thousand times until I get a hang of it. There are no short cuts at all.
DID THIS EXTEND BEYOND YOUR TEAM TO THE REST OF THE ORGANIZATION?
Yes. In fact, I placed heavy emphasis on human development, we even named the whole year around it. I always believe to survive for a year, you plant crops; to survive for a century, you plant trees; to survive forever, you grow your people. So to have a good channel of communication with 1,200 employees and to ensure everyone is in tune with the same wave length, we launched “CHAMPs!” which stands for “Country Heights Amazing PeopleS” Under this programme, we started different programmes; we facilitated on clearer directions and sharing platforms called the Quarterly Management Review (QMR), where we gather everyone once in every quarter of the year – from the top management to the CEO’s from the other divisions, the engineers to the general workers.
We shared with them the direction we were heading towards, the result for the last quarter of the year, our expectations for the future quarter. It was also an avenue for them to speak out. We promoted more of a flat communication flow; we tried to take away all the hierarchies but it takes time to move towards that. The communication flow now is definitely reflecting a less top-down exchange.
We also implemented a few other trainings such as LEAPers (Leadership Excellence Acceleration Programme), where we identify talents within the group and place them in a talent pool for specialized training and for succession planning as well.
With all this effort, we try to align and motivate our staffs. We also introduced new policies and benefits. One of it being the extension of the maternity leave to be two and a half months instead of two months. On the third month, they can opt for half day leaves.
FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, HOW DOES BEING RELATIVELY YOUNG BENEFIT YOU IN YOUR CURRENT POSITION?
I definitely see it as a plus point. I don’t know how the rest of them view it, but I think I bring a fresh vibe into the group. The company is 25 years old; for other organizations it feels as if we’re a 100 years old. Technology changes every two and a half months. We need to keep up.
I guess I came in at the right time bringing in new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things; you know, that little bit of ‘Oomph’. Our average age for employees is about 40. So, I think it’s good that we introduce to them the new wave of Gen-Y employees and get them to learn to adapt to this transition. I would say that they’re generally very supportive and I’m very grateful. They actually exceed my expectations in adapting to this new way of thinking because they themselves want to be a part of this Gen-Y phenomenon; not in terms of age but in terms of mentality. They are all young at heart!
AND THE DRAWBACKS?
Of course there will be this group of people who would think that they’re older and they’re more experienced, and wonder why they should listen to me. But I think that’s very common. It’s mostly based on your style of communicating with your people. Throughout my working experience here, I’ve never had anyone come up to me and tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing.
I had once had an older staff who came crying to me and telling me that his daughter is my age and she’s still sitting at home and playing video games. I scolded this guy earlier on for some mistake that he made before he came in to my room crying, so I was thinking that he was upset and was about to screw me up for that. To my surprise, he told me that I did the right thing by pointing out his mistake. I get more of “Thank you, Dianna”, rather than “Dianna, you’re not doing the right thing!” So I guess I must have done something right.
I think the main point here is that people see that I do things in the interest of the company; I don’t do anything for myself. They need to realize that if the company does well, they will do well too and if I do everything based on my personal interests, I dont think I would have gain the trust and support from them today.
DO YOU FIND YOURSELF SURPRISED WITH WHAT YOU CAN ACHIEVE SOMETIMES?
Definitely, because people usually say that it takes more than two to three years to turn something around. Changes took place real fast when I handled the operations here at Country Heights. I was also very surprised with the contribution and support given by my team to accelerate this process of transformation.
Furthermore, in 2012, we improved by more than one thousand percent in terms of operations efficiency. This came as a bigger surprise because in 2012, I got married, I was pregnant and I was new to the Group CEO job. I’m thankful.
TELL US ABOUT SOME OF YOUR EXPERIENCES THAT YOU’VE HAD THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER FAR:
FUNNIEST: I’ll have to go back to the house-keeping days. Nobody knew who I was and I got bullied a little. While the others were cleaning 13 rooms, I had to clean 24 rooms. There was this point of time when my dad walked into one of the rooms and he forgot that I was doing under cover; and he greeted me. It was then that people got to know that I was his daughter and they started treating me very differently. From 24 rooms, I was only given 5 rooms to clean and I didn’t have to clean the staff toilet anymore.
WEIRDEST: I used to get random phone calls to pick me up, one time I got flowers and a love poem from an anonymous person. It went on for a week.
NOW THAT YOU ARE ALSO A MOTHER, (CONGRATULATIONS!) HOW DO YOU JUGGLE AND BALANCE BETWEEN ALL YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES?
To be frank, I’m still trying to juggle it. These days, I wake up at 6 a.m. and then play with my daughter, feed her, shower her and get to work. After work at around 8 p.m. I have to shower her and cook. I wrap that up at around 11p.m. before spending some time with my husband, and basically the day is done. And when I’m at work, I think about my baby.
I’m still in the midst of juggling all these and make sense of how to utilize my time. Honestly, I have not found my sweet spot yet.
HAS MOTHERHOOD CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE OR PRIORITIES IN LIFE?
It definitely has. I think before you’re married and before you even have a kid, you don’t take an interest in politics and public policies. Now, you look at things differently because this is where your children are going to grow up, within the frameworks set today.
I take more interest in the political news and the policies the country is applying because eventually, my daughter is going to be within this system and I want to make sure that this system is sustainable for her and she has equal chances of succeeding.
I keep an eye on the global environment now instead of just focusing on my small network of friends and the company. Because in order for someone to succeed, the family has to succeed; and in order for the family to succeed the nation has to succeed.
Photography by BONNIE YAP Make-up by BIG BANG BEAUTY FT. AVRIL CHOY
Concept and Art Direction by 360 CELSIUS TEAM Outfit by JONATHAN LIANG & MICHAEL KORS
Location PALACE OF THE GOLDEN HORSES