The deliberate departure from traditional business strategies and activities compels real estate companies to mature rapidly and corporatise. This allows them to have frameworks and processes that support their regional growth ambitions and investment portfolio expansion.
What are real estate companies doing differently in today’s challenging economic conditions?
Property cooling measures, tougher banking rules and slower economic conditions have dampened the real estate activity in Singapore and real estate companies have been proactive to deal with this new reality. A large number of them have sought to preserve sustainable returns through deployment of know-how and capital toward foreign ventures as well as placing lesser reliance on limited local development and construction opportunities.
Many have committed investments overseas in assets or joint ventures as part of their strategy to seek growth. These companies have taken an active interest in collective real estate ventures and business trusts in a bid to generate predictable cash flows. Since the launch of the first Singapore REIT in 2002, listed Real Estate Investment Trust (REITs) have been increasing in numbers, and real estate companies regularly offer viable returns and distributions to the investment community.
The industry has also been making strides in adoption of technology. Digitization, smart building, green initiatives and big data have changed the ways real estate businesses operate domestically and across borders. Real estate companies have progressively adopted innovation and digitalisation strategies in order to make better and more informed decisions.
Importance of good corporate governance
According to BCA’s Construction Export Survey 2016 released on 14 June 2017, 2015 saw the highest number of Singapore construction and consultancy firms venturing overseas in 5 years with 38 contractors (representing a 73% increase from 2014) and 62 consultancy firms (representing a 138% increase from 2014) securing foreign projects.
As real estate businesses go regional and make plans to corporatise and professionalise the leadership structure in their business, corporate governance becomes increasingly important to business owners, investors, lenders, and business partners. Strong corporate governance improves transparency, performance rankings and creates a more balanced and equitable structure to determine executive compensations.
Business owners and CEOs have to make bolder decisions and take greater calculated risks in order to maintain profits. However our experience shows that they can often make business decisions that over-commit capital, have no synergies with existing core business or over-leverage in order to pursue aggressive expansion goals. Companies are increasingly open to independent advice from consultants as a barometer of the viability of their plans and the sustainability of their efforts. Business advisory teams can offer not only independent views of project viability but also provide advice on the soundness of the governance practices and their ability to properly support these expansion and investment plans.
Business corporatisation needs to be supported by a proper controllership model and good governance as these go hand in hand.
Controllership allows business to protect assets and manage operating and financial risks. This includes the responsible deployment of capabilities, reserves and capital for new business ventures. A business controller helps to ensure the company employs or has access to professional expertise needed for the business to fast track growth, define responsibilities, accountability and help drive innovation and investment in areas such as design engineering.
Good governance oversight not only provides assurance to the Board, it puts in place 4 key pillars (as listed below) to govern key transactions, direct resources and take accountability for the accompanying results:
A poor corporate governance framework weakens real estate companies’ potential and can increase the risk of financial fraud. Poor risk management (which is an integral means to preventing and monitoring the impact and likelihood of threats) can result in financial losses and fail to attract investors to fund the growth of the business.
Examples of corporate failures resulting from weak controllership and governance
Austrian builder, Alpine Bau filed for insolvency in 20131. It was Austria's second-largest construction group, employing more than 10,000 people worldwide. It had €2.56 billion (S$4.3 billion) in debt, making its corporate failure the biggest in Austria since World War II. The company had been trying to restructure its finances as it grappled with unprofitable projects in Central and Eastern Europe. However, poor governance in containing strategic project risks in Europe led to contract termination in Singapore, including termination of contracts with the Land Transport Authority valued at more than S$600 million. This resulted in delays to the Down Town Line of at least 3 months after the contracts were re-awarded to other contractors.
A local example of corporate failure attributed to weak governance was construction firm Poh Lian, which also filed for judicial management in 20132. Poh Lian had secured tenders at low prices. The Company failed to factor in additional costs in the light of project delays for Sophia and Goodwood Residences projects, and also incurred substantial losses due to a change in payouts for subcontractors on the Goodwood project. These culminated in a S$60 million loss position which led to its eventual cessation.
In light of the above, there is sufficient evidence and justification that Boards which pursue a strategy of regionalisation, collective asset investment and business model changes to achieve better financial resilience need to put in place these 4 pillars of good governance to realize their goals. This not only improves the reputation and standing of the real estate sector but also attracts higher levels of investment and paves the way for increasing business opportunities for inbound and outbound capital through Singapore.
1 Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/key-mrt-project-contractor-goes-bust
2 Source: http://www.asiaone.com/print/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Business/Story/A1Story20130316-409186.html
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