Q&A with Sunway Property’s Sarena Cheah

The first female Malaysia Real Estate Personality of the Year titleholder talks about her big win at the PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards and the successes and prospects of Sunway Property

The 7th PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards (Malaysia) made history when it named Sarena Cheah, managing director of the property division of Sunway Berhad, as Malaysia Real Estate Personality of the Year — the first woman to receive this honour. The title, chosen by editors of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine, pays tribute to Cheah’s awe-inspiring vision and competence in leading one of Malaysia’s most recognisable real estate development brands.

We’ve had the opportunity to hear her thoughts on the awards as well as the progress and future of Malaysia and its preeminent master community developer — the property division of Sunway Berhad.

On the awards:

“Awards are attributed to the people who have been with us on this journey to make it possible. And that includes our customers, employees, and all our stakeholders, including our shareholders,” Sarena says.

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“This will inspire us to continue to innovate and improve products and services in our mission of building communities as a master community developer. And we hope to make a difference as we continue to appear in different locations and regions within Malaysia and abroad.”

On leading Sunway’s property division:

To Sarena, it is all about serving and retaining the customers and growing with them sustainably. “At Sunway, we do not only build homes and offices for sale. We also own and operate the other investments within our townships. As an example, at Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, we have built residences and offices, but we also own and operate the malls, the theme parks, the hospitals, the education institutions, and the corporate offices that we have within.”

This model is what Sunway calls “Build, Own, and Operate”, and it has proven very advantageous and sustainable for the company. “If you are a property buyer who buys a unit with us within the township, we consider our relationship as co-investors because we own the majority of the investment assets in the township, and you are also a property owner. This particular relationship as a co-investor, rather than a pure buyer-developer relationship, I think augurs very well for us so that we can actually have a long-lasting relationship as we also continue to grow our township.”

Under the build-own-operate model, the developer gets to enjoy recurrent income that will help with cashflow and reinvestments into the township and expansion to other locations. “In the process of all this, we also build up expertise in running the different business units,” says Sarena.

On Malaysia as an attractive destination for property investors:

Malaysia sits in a strategic location and can serve as a gateway to the ASEAN markets, according to Sarena. “As a country, we are rich in culture and heritage, making it an attractive destination for investors and tourists alike. As a country, we are well endowed with natural resources and a young population. Over the decades, the government has also invested a lot into infrastructure, as well as promoting a business-friendly environment for foreign investors and local investors alike. In that sense, the country does have quite a few ingredients that will serve it well to be an investment destination for people around the region.”

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Sunway operates in four of the key states in Malaysia: in Klang Valley, in Johor, in Penang, and in Perak, which, combined, contribute to most of the country’s GDP. “What we do is we will continue to build ecosystems and communities within the states so that we are able to serve the diverse range of customers that we appeal to,” says Sarena.

On what’s next for Sunway Property:

One of the company’s priorities in the immediate to medium term is continuing to build, to serve its customers, and to understand how the pandemic will be changing lifestyles and behaviors. This includes utilising the power of digital technology to make the company more adaptive and agile in a time of disruption. “We hope to be able to see ourselves transformed, to be more digitally driven in the next few years,” Sarena says.

“In the medium to longer term, I believe that our business model, where we serve diverse customers within a community, is very sustainable, basically because we live as a family within the community,” she adds.

“Ultimately we are here to do what it takes to help people enrich their lives. And this is one of our core values under our chairman and founder, who is the champion of sustainability. We do believe every little deed that we do within the community can be guided by the UN Sustainable Development goals as we serve the communities that we hope to build, starting from where we are at within Malaysia and hopefully one day abroad.”

This interview has been edited for brevity