Charming and grounded, Shann Sok is not your typical CEO. She sets you at ease immediately and is personable. She is no-nonsense and is always up for a challenge.
Early for our lunch appointment at The St Regis Singapore, her first sentence is, “Would you like to have a glass of wine with your lunch? I am ordering one for myself”. Immediately I feel a connection with her. Anyone who likes a tipple during lunch has my vote.
Hair pulled into a braided ponytail and with immaculate makeup, Shann Sok looks every part the stylish lady-who-lunches in her navy sheer netted blouse, black tailored pants, sky-high stiletto heels, complete with a white croc leather handbag. She is svelte and energetic. There’s nothing to suggest that she’d just given birth to her third child about four months ago. She has two older children aged seven and six. Except that she is also the group CEO of Kingsland Development Pte Ltd, her family’s business that oversees projects in Singapore and other parts of the region.
Kingsland Development was founded in 1974 by her father, Sok Hang Chaw, who is now its chairman. Apart from commercial properties, Kingsland has grown into a sophisticated and innovative multi-sector real estate developer in Asia, with a core business portfolio that includes the development of high-tech data centres (build, own and operate), commercial and retail spaces, industrial parks and facilities, and even hotels and resorts throughout Singapore, China, Malaysia and Cambodia (like the Lumiere Hotel in Phnom Penh).
Some 26 years into the business, Sok Senior had a health scare. Shann Sok realised she would have to join the business as soon as possible, so she could start learning the ropes.
So in 2004, the 23-year-old was thrust into the construction business with no prior training. She was the middle child, sandwiched between an elder sister who “was softer, with a sweet temperament” and a younger brother who “I am very close to as we both work in the company”.
By all accounts, she could be described as the gung-ho one. She loves playing “da jia da” (big sister in Mandarin). “I am a decisive person,” she explains with a laugh.
She had to learn fast. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I wanted to be a broadcaster, to be on air and to present the news. I didn’t think I would enjoy the business but I decided to just do it. Along the way, I found that I enjoyed it. I took up technical courses to try and understand what the business was about,” she adds.
“My first thought was to consider the goals of the family. I wanted the best for the family and for the business. It was not easy to convince my dad with my different ideas. He is a traditional Chinese businessman and more conservative.”
“I am ambitious. I wanted to see the expansion go faster. I wanted to achieve a higher value in the least amount of time taken! My dad wasn’t convinced, so I did a cashflow analysis for him. He looked at the numbers I had crunched, and asked many pointed questions. After 15 minutes, he told me to go ahead. That was that. I am one of a few who can ‘challenge’ him. But I am very thankful he has faith in me.”
Her first big client was Weatherford International, one of the world’s largest multinational oil and natural gas service companies. To cut a long story short, Kingsland was soon handling 10 times the number of projects they used to.
Shann Sok has helped expand the company’s portfolio to include foreign MNCs in the marine, oil and gas, logistics, engineering and food industries. The company also owns King’s Park in Malaysia and Kingsland Data Centre, its first data centre in Singapore that cost more than $100 million to develop.
Her composure switches from cool to animated whenever she describes how Kingsland has evolved. She lets on, “This wasn’t an easy direction for us. We didn’t have the tech or IT background. But I had a gut feeling this was good for us in the long run. The research took a good three years. We hired some of the best people from all over the world to helm the project. We were prepared to to unlearn and relearn.”
“We needed to create balance by diversifying. Today we are proud to be the first and only private data centre owner and operator in Asia. Singapore is becoming a hub for this industry as it is also an infocomm centre with some of the world’s leading tech companies already present here — Apple, Google, IBM and Microsoft, among others. Now, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore is developing a data centre park while Google has its own data centre in Jurong, along with other data centre operators like Equinix, IO and Keppel,” says Shann Sok, who is a Chartered Public Accountant.
Her role in the company is, in her own words, “setting its vision, strategy and growth direction, and managing the execution and outcomes.”
It comes with a number of challenges, especially when she’s trying to make inroads overseas, including the “vastly different cultures [authorities, people, business environments and ways of doing business] to Singapore [hence] local connections and know-how are critical, as they reduce the pitfalls and shorten the learning significantly,” she admits. “I am thankful my survival instincts allow me the flexibility to adapt and evolve.”
Her plans for expansion is simple. “Our core remains focused on growing data centres. In Singapore, therefore, we will continue on the same route. In Shanghai, we have a new data centre that begins operations next year. In Cambodia, meanwhile, its emerging economy means lots of opportunities and high growth for us.”
In line with this, Kingsland is working on Global Exchange, a mixed development in Phnom Penh’s city centre. It comprises office towers, retail space, a hotel, and an IT media hub-cum-data centre. With this project, which is valued at US$250 million, Shann Sok is looking to help shape and enhance Phnom Penh’s landscape and lifestyle.
Just as she’s done extremely well in business, Shann Sok has also chalked up successes in her private life. A lot of her business sense, she says, comes from being level-headed as well as her strong gut feelings. And the latter comes about from her ability to establish a spiritual connection between work and self.
She credits her homemaker-mum as a great influence in this aspect. “She inculcated in me values of compassion and kindness, and the principles of balance and effect. This spiritual journey began when I was seven and continued through to when I was 19, when I attended a course on heart meditation and connecting with the divine inner self.”
Shann Sok drops in on the Oneness University in India once or twice a year to recharge. She particularly also enjoys spiritual pilgrimages with her family, where she learns about the culture and history of the destinations they travel to. Her favourite countries to visit include Egypt, Peru, Brazil, Nepal, the Himalayas and France (southern), where she does meditation and attends lessons by spiritual guides and teachers.
“Growing in the spiritual has helped me immensely as a business leader, as well as being a wife, mother, daughter and sister. I learn to listen to my heart and to be really truthful to myself. I think it’s really important to experience true happiness. And this has nothing to do with material possessions or how successful you appear.”
“Spiritual growth also allows me to stay balanced and develop inner strength. It makes me a better person who’s also truly happy. It develops me from inside out. With this inner capacity, I can juggle my roles well and with ease and to be the best version of myself. I also learn to start loving myself and ensuring I take time off to care for my own emotional needs and my own well-being. I feel this really makes me a better mum and wife. I am ambitious but I am contented.”
Her upbringing hasn’t necessarily translated into a smooth-sailing path. “Growing up, we had to show why we deserved something; it was never just handed to us on a silver platter. We didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement. My dad was meritocratic. He never favoured any one child. We had to earn his approval through our deeds. I think I picked up his principle of not showing favouritism. I tell my children that if they want something, they need to work hard to get it.”
“Life will have its fair share of challenges. Many a time, giving up is really easy and tempting, but I don’t ever want to give up. All of us are here to learn, grow and evolve. Life for me is to be experienced, lived and loved fully. Moment by moment.”
Not willing to live life for just herself and her family, she joined a group of female entrepreneurs in 2016 to form LadiesFirst, a women-for-women social platform that aims to give back to society and serve as a catalyst for positive changes. Last year it partnered the Health Promotion Board to launch a calendar that reaches out to women, with practical health tips and recipes to help reduce the risk of diabetes.
This year, LadiesFirst is supporting the Arc Children’s Centre, which provides care and support to kids from low-income families and who are struggling with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. “We want to continuously give back to society. To date, we have raised close to $100,000. The money will go towards the running and upgrading of the centre, as well as supporting its beneficiaries,” she says.
So does she still dream about being a broadcaster? Her reply is emphatic: “No.”
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