There is no doubt that Valerie Ong exudes an abundance of energy, often evoking the typical adages that are associated with petite women with forceful personalities, “Little Miss Dynamite,” “power-packed,” or the very apt Malay proverb “cili padi.”
“I have always been very active,” she says, “even at school. I was involved in everything, except studying!” She ends the sentence with a laugh, typical of her vivacious personality.
It is, however, that spirit that has propelled her career forward as a director within the KIP Group of Companies, the group founded by Valerie’s father Dato’ Eric Ong and Dato’ Chew Lak Seong. Initially, there was little expectation that Valerie would join the property development company. Instead Valerie began her career at Summit Holiday, the travel agency of the group. At the time, it was a right fit, since Valerie possesses a love for travel.
“I introduced a lot new exotic areas like the Maldives, Mauritius, Morocco, Russia, places that were not so easily accessible at the time.”
Eventually, Valerie ventured into the property industry, driven by what she describes as “curiosity.”
“I wanted to move on and see what else was available to me,” she explains. “Eventually, I got into property. It is the curiosity that made me want to do this. That challenged me because this is not for everybody.”
Being in the property business is not as simple as “buying, selling and marketing”. Instead, she likens the process to being in a concert. There are many players ranging from those involved in interior design to the M&E consultants. Her role, one supposes, would be akin to that of a conductor, bringing them together to play beautiful music.
“I am still learning,” she says. “I work very closely with my father. He is more that corporate side. I am more to the operations side. We update each other every day.”
The group’s projects veer all the way down south, moving KL to Seremban, Malacca and Johor. At the moment, Valerie is pretty engrossed with the development of Kota Warisan at Sepang. She has become involved in the development of KIP Mall Kota Warisan given its proximity to the development.
“It is important because we need to have both sides driving each other,” she says, showing us her pragmatic approach to business. She even adds that she doesn’t view other developers as competitors, seeing it as complementary to building a township.
The mall development falls under KIP REIT (Real Estate and Investment Trust), which was listed on the Main Market of Bursa Malaysia. While the preparation for listing was significant, Valerie stresses that the “real work” starts now as there are yield expectations that have to be met. The group is also looking into more acquisitions to be injected into the REIT. For now, the excitement surrounds the launch of the KIP Mall Kota Warisan, scheduled to take place in August.
“Our mall concept is very different,” Valerie explains. “It is community-centric, looking into the daily essentials, which means when people come in, they will definitely buy. Basically it is a mall that caters to the mass market. The population in Malaysia is very small so we see the need to look into the mass market.”
There are already eight malls in operation, excluding the one in Kota Warisan. The development of these malls, she says, are important because they will ensure a recurring income for the group. Property development, she explains, will saturate but recurring income will ensure stability for the group. The listing of KIP REIT, she adds, will also raise funds for development of other KiP Marts up north.
The KiP Marts worked on the unique concept of bringing the “fresh market” indoors into a more conducive environment that provides air-conditioning, sufficient parking with convenient mall operation hours. The added benefit is that customers can bargain with traders, keeping that aspect of “marketing” alive.
“It is targeting the middle income shopping experience,” she explains.
The group also plans to launch two new hotels, one in Malacca and the other in Kota Warisan, following its initial foray into hospitality with the opening of KIP Hotel, located in Jalan Ipoh, currently also being overseen by Valerie.
“There were a lot of shop lot hotels in the area that were able to catch a decent price with minimal costs,” she explains. “For me, the profitability is much than a 4/5 star hotel. We saw a demand plus we had the piece of land sitting in our mixed development project. It is our maiden hotel so we learnt from scratch.”
If that wasn’t enough, Valerie also has a couple of personal projects, one of which is the F&B outlet The Point.
“I like food, drinks and hanging out with friends,” she says. “I thought, why not have my own? It is not a very big scale but I tried to incorporate all the international things I have learnt, even the street food.”
Apart from attempting to “bring the taste back,” The Point also aims to cultivate an appreciation of wine as well. At the moment, the establishment is incorporating a wine bar that will allow consumers to enjoy Bordeaux wine at an affordable price.
“We go by volume,” she says. “We want people to try and be able to appreciate wine culture. Not that it is not there already but we want people to discover more of what is out there.”
Just judging by the number of ventures that Valerie oversees, it can be said that she accomplished a lot despite only barely touching 30.
“A lot of my friends,” she replies when I ask what drives her. “You always see your friends doing so well. Of course you don’t the challenges behind but that is what drives me. Also, I think I am just very curious.”
It is that coupled with the spirit of “trying first” without the fear of failure that has led Valerie to explore various aspect of business. Over the years, however, she has learnt that the difficult part is not starting a business but rather maintaining it.
“You have to make sure that we persevere,” she advises. “You need to have your supporters. You cannot just make money from friends so you have to ask what kind of things you can do get interest from others. Financially too you need to have a plan. A lot of people have a certain amount of funds, they put it into something then realise it doesn’t work. You have to know your limit. If it doesn’t work, put the business aside and go back to what you are good at.”
There have been times when she has failed in the past. While at university, Valerie embarked on a fashion business, only to discover it didn’t work. Now she adopts a rational approach to business looking at things like projections, analysis and profit and loss statements.
“I learn a lot from people,” she states, “and what I have learnt is that data doesn’t lie. Everything is data driven. It is very important to understand the data, extract and then only come up with the concept.”
It is perhaps this more quantitative approach that has led to her being taken seriously as a businesswoman in the tough and somewhat chauvinistic construction industry.
“It is very tough,” she admits, “but you have to be firm and you need to be able to back up your decisions.”
That appears to have worked even with the elder Ong.
“When I was younger my dad used to call me ‘Jack of all Trades, Master of None.’ Now, he stops at ‘Jack of All Trades,’” she ends with her distinctive laugh, but now laced with a hint of validation.