The path to any success is certainly fraught with obstacles and challenges. But for one man, there is but one way through seemingly insurmountable challenges- taking the bull by the horns and move forward towards the goal with perseverance. In a recent interview with Top 10 of Malaysia, Stephen Wong, the Executive Chairman and CEO of Lien Dak Group of Companies talks about his background, the company’s core values and his hopes for the company as it looks to riding the crest in the coming wave of Sarawak’s economic boom.
Founded in Kuching in 1978 by Stephen Wong’s father Wong Seuk Kwong, Lien Dak began as a construction company dealing in infrastructure projects. Upon Stephen’s return as an Australian-educated architect in 2002, the business was badly hit by the economic crisis and the sharp increase in diesel prices. “We had to sell almost everything to pay off the business debts but we kept the name Lien Dak,” he said. Feeling lost and broken, he left Kuching for Kuala Lumpur to work for an architect firm and gained experience in handling complex building projects including shopping malls. In 2010, he started his own architectural design studio, Arkidesign as part of the Lien Dak Group where he began to work with a lot of prominent property developers. The dream to be a property developer was sparked and Stephen started learning all that he could from these experienced developers.
He soon managed to land a RM4 million contract as the main contractor for a design-and-build project. The catch: he had only three months to get it ready for submission, build it and obtain the necessary approval with Certificate of Fitness (CF). “We had no money and absolutely no experience in doing such a design-and-build project but we know we could do it and took on the challenge anyway. The client was a good paymaster and agreed to our 7-day invoice timeline, which gave us the cash flow needed. We also spent over 18 hours a day on the site to get everything done within that tight deadline,” revealed Stephen.
Their first project was a success and led to more opportunities including their first property development project, LD Legenda under Lien Dak. Located next to Sarawak General Hospital (SGH) and the Faculty of Medicine of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), the RM300 million project which spans 2 acres will contain dual-key fully-furnished SoHo suites, 4-star serviced suites managed by Best Western Plus, a 50,000sqf retail space, green walls, a sky park, gym, a skyline infinity swimming pool, a three-tier security system and covered walkway to SGH. The response was phenomenal with 85% of its SoHo suites taken up within its first six weeks of preview.
The LD Legenda project certainly did not come easy. The project took four years before it could get off the ground. “During the preview, the state government had just gazetted the Housing Development Act (HDA). The GST was also just implemented, which we were required to pay and there were some unclear issues regarding the land that impeded progress,” Stephen recalled. To say that this was a stressful moment would be an understatement. Lien Dak was stuck at this juncture for the most part of 2015. “It was an uncomfortable position to be in. Not only was the situation beyond our control, we were answerable to the bankers, purchasers, agents and the market in general,” explained Stephen.
Charismatic, dynamic and wise beyond his years, Stephen is gripped by a sense of tenacity to complete the projects that he has undertaken no matter how hard the going gets. “This is something my father, who is my greatest mentor, ingrained in me. We have to fulfil our promises to our clients. At the end of the day, I have to be answerable to myself.”
Stephen decided that it was best to be transparent with the LD Legenda purchasers and let the chips fall where they may. So for three days, he went to Kuching, Miri and Sibu to be on the stage to explain the chronology of events and to apologise for the delay. “There were many angry purchasers that day, but after the talk when I stood at the door to shake everyone’s hands as they were leaving, most of their comments were very encouraging. They appreciated my courage and effort to be honest about the state of affairs and affirmed that I was a very responsible developer,” he said. “At that moment, I realised that if we are doing the right thing with the right and positive mind-set, the wealth will follow us – not the other way around. There is no point in being rich at the expense of short-changing people and having no values. As a first time property developer, I cannot and will not jeopardise the purchasers’ trust in us.” With the kinks all fully ironed out and settled now, together with a GST-exemption bonus, the project is slated for completion in 2018.
To keep up-to-date with the project’s progress, LD Legenda’s purchasers can download an app where they can view the site progress photos, refer to details of the property they had purchased and can pose questions to the officer assigned to them. “They will also be able to know the amount paid thus far as well as the amount outstanding and how the progress of their actual unit is like. It’s an extremely helpful app and I think we are the first property developer to do it,” said Stephen. “With innovation in mind, we are always thinking out of box. It is one of the keys to where we are today.”
The Sarawakian-born architect-turned-developer said he always have a dream to return to Sarawak eventually to contribute to its development, using what he had learned in Kuala Lumpur. He believes that Sarawak is poised for greater growth. “The advent of the 1,089 km 4-lane highway linking up our cities will boost our economy like never before. Our growth may even supersede that of Kuala Lumpur’s!” he said with a smile, adding that the Group has a few projects in the pipeline which will be launched when the time is right.
“My aspiration is to open Sarawak’s economy and construction sector to international exposure, by bringing in resources, international investors and funders I have cultivated friendships with in Kuala Lumpur,” Stephen asserted.
Over the past few years, Lien Dak Group of Companies has grown 10 times in terms of revenue. In January this year, the Group formed a joint venture with China-based TCGC, named Tianjin Liendak Holdings Bhd (TLH) to work on future projects. The relationship, which was cultivated over many years while Stephen was still working for another firm, has helped to place Lien Dak in the ASEAN arena.
Still, no matter how busy he gets, Stephen never loses sight of the most important thing in his life, his family. “I remember my dad being away in the jungles to work for days and weeks on end. I don’t want that for my daughters. I want to be there for every special moment in their lives and I’m glad to say that I have done so, from the moment they were born, to their first crawl, step and word,” said the dotting father of three, who spends his weekends with his family and respects his employees’ free time outside office hours. To de-stress, Stephen will peruse his vast library of 1,000 non-fiction books and read the books that speak to him the most in his time of need.
“Jim Collins’ books, ‘Built to Last’ and ‘Good to Great’ have influenced me a lot in the past few years. Through them I learned that the core values of a company can determine if it’ll last longer than three generations,” Stephen said. “I believe that with Lien Dak’s core value, ‘Preserving and Improving Human Habitation’ guiding us, we will continue to be a profitable organisation that also contributes to the betterment of human habitation.”