This article by Jennifer Tan (left, Director, Research & Products, Equities & Fixed Income, at the Singapore Exchange) was published in SGX's kopi-C: the Company brew series. The article is republished with permission.
|Having weathered storms through his career, chartered accountant-turned-chief executive Kong Chee Min is well-schooled in the craft of versatility.
Kong, who joined SGX-listed then-SM Summit Holdings Ltd in 1996 as an accountant, rose through the ranks to become part of the management team that oversaw the metamorphosis of the optical disc manufacturer into Centurion Corporation, a worker and student accommodation owner-operator.
"I never imagined that the company would have to reinvent itself, but the advent of faster and cheaper Internet had a far-reaching impact on the industry, and the entire supply chain was ravaged," recalled the Bachelor of Accountancy graduate from the National University of Singapore.
"There was no choice but to look for options outside this space."
After evaluating various alternatives, management came across an opportunity in the purpose-built accommodation sector. "Singapore relies heavily on foreign labour, and there was a shortage of purpose-built accommodation for foreign workers in the city-state. This business model is scalable, and can be exported to other Asian markets," he added.
In 2011, the injection of a 5,300-bed asset via a reverse takeover heralded Centurion's entry into the purpose-built worker accommodation space, and Kong was appointed CEO of the Group that year. Three years later, with the acquisition of RMIT Village in Australia, Centurion diversified into the purpose-built student accommodation segment.
“We're constantly monitoring and exploring other opportunities in Specialised Accommodation. This includes senior living or retirement housing, co-living and variations of worker accommodations.”
-- CEO Kong Chee Min
The Group's transformation journey taught Kong many indelible lessons. One was that nothing is impossible or certain.
"In whatever you do, you cannot afford to be complacent," he pointed out. "You need to be cognisant of shifts in the marketplace, and be ready to reposition yourself at a moment's notice."
His professional training also put him in good stead to assume a management role. "Being an accountant gives you a bird's eye view of the operations - all the inflows and outflows, as well as an understanding of the internal controls and processes that need to be put in place for the business to perform optimally," he said.
"It's never just about crunching numbers."
Leaps and Bounds
Listed on SGX in 1995 and dual-listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2017, Centurion has a current market capitalisation of about S$350 million.
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The Group owns and manages purpose-built worker accommodation assets in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as student accommodation assets in Singapore, Australia, South Korea, UK and US. It was ranked by Euromonitor as the largest purpose-built worker accommodation provider in Singapore and Malaysia.
As at 31 March 2019, it owns and manages a portfolio of 31 operational accommodation assets totalling 62,656 beds, through two established and professional brands - Westlite and dwell. With projects under development and undergoing asset enhancement, the Group's portfolio is expected to grow to 68,756 beds by FY 2020.
"Most countries lack purpose-built accommodation, which allows for the creation of specialised communities - be it foreign workers or students," Kong noted. "Such communities provide residents with amenities and services that enhance welfare and quality of life, as well as meet existing legal and regulatory requirements."
As a result, this segment of the real estate market is growing by leaps and bounds. "Supply is unable to meet demand, so there's massive growth potential," he added.
In the first quarter of 2019, Centurion added three new operating developments to its portfolio - student accommodation assets dwell East End Adelaide in Australia and dwell Dongdaemun in South Korea, as well as worker accommodation asset Westlite Bukit Minyak in Penang, Malaysia.
"In the area of purpose-built worker accommodation, we're planning to export our current business model to Southeast Asia and the Middle East," said Kong, who was named "Best CEO" for the category of companies with less than S$300 million in market capitalisation at the Singapore Corporate Awards 2016.
For purpose-built student accommodation, Centurion already has a presence in the major education hubs of the US, UK and Australia. Certain markets in Europe - like Ireland and Germany - look attractive, while in Asia, it has ventured into South Korea, an emerging education hub.
"We're focusing less on the US market because yields there are too compressed, and interest rates are still high," he added.
Currently, Centurion's worker accommodation business accounts for 70% of group revenues. The student accommodation segment - which contributes the remaining 30% - is more resilient, and less impacted by economic cycles. It targets to grow revenues from both segments to a 50:50 split.
Centurion also aims to enhance returns through selected asset enhancement initiatives. RMIT Village, which provides affordable, self-catered student accommodation just a stone's throw away from Melbourne's RMIT University, has achieved a high average occupancy rate for the first quarter of the year despite an ongoing Asset Enhancement Program (AEP).
Of the 160 beds under the AEP, 113 have been completed, with the remainder expected to be completed in the current quarter. These additional beds, together with new assets, will add 7,248 beds to Centurion's existing portfolio this year. The new assets are expected to achieve optimised occupancy over the next nine to 12 months.
The Group also targets scalable growth through joint ventures and asset-light strategies, including the set-up of private investment funds.
In November 2017, Centurion established its inaugural private fund, the Centurion US Student Housing Fund, which raised US$89.5 million. A year later, it announced the successful first closing of its second fund - the Centurion Student Accommodation Fund - with total committed capital of S$70 million. This fund will invest in purpose-built student accommodation outside the US.
"There are opportunities that may be out of our reach because of size, and such funds allow us to house much larger assets on our balance sheet," Kong said.
"Going asset-light enables us to efficiently leverage our capital and resources to grow our portfolio, and gain optimum returns in a relatively shorter time frame."
Banking on its deep management expertise, the Group will also seek opportunities to provide fee-based investment and property management services for accommodation assets owned by third-parties.
Centurion, which snagged The Enterprise Award at this year's Singapore Business Awards, is seeking to diversify into other accommodation assets.
"We're constantly monitoring and exploring other opportunities in Specialised Accommodation," Kong said. "This includes senior living or retirement housing, co-living and variations of worker accommodations."
Co-living, where young working professionals share apartments with common areas that promote community experience and social interaction, is popular in metropolises worldwide. Senior living, which includes independent living, assisted living as well as retirement villages, caters to the needs of adults aged 55 and beyond.
Looking ahead, Asia's industrialisation wave will drive demand for quality accommodation to house expanding foreign or migrant worker populations, Kong said.
Growing awareness by regional governments of the need to improve the welfare of their foreign workers, as well as rising demands for Responsible Business Alliance-compliant accommodation from the manufacturing sector, bodes well for the Group. The RBA is a non-profit industry coalition committed to supporting the rights and well-being of workers affected by the global supply chain.
The student property market also retains a favourable outlook. According to Knight Frank, exponential growth of the global middle class has spurred demand for education, and consequently, the number of students studying outside their home countries has jumped by 23% over the last five years. The OECD has forecast the globally mobile student population to expand to 8 million by 2025, from 5 million in 2019.
Another factor is low supply in the markets of Australia and the UK. According to Knight Frank's UK Student Housing Development Pipeline 2018-2019 report, the country's purpose-built student accommodation market is experiencing severe undersupply of beds, with full-time students outnumbering bed space by a ratio of 3:1.
"Because of this, the UK remains a key market for the Group," he added.
Australia is another bright spot. Deloitte Access Economics expects international student numbers to jump to 720,000 by 2025 from about 500,000 today, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 3.8%, according to data from its Australia International Education 2025 roadmap.
Passion and Heart
Robust industry conditions aside, some of the key challenges faced by Centurion revolve around its customers. Moving from manufacturing a product to providing a service involved a steep learning curve, Kong admitted.
"It's not just about providing a roof and four walls for our residents - it's about people management with a heart," he pointed out.
"Previously, we manufactured a product, and it was just a matter of quality control and getting the specs right. Now, we're dealing with people - not just one or two, but several thousand. That's where service standards are critical."
Centurion's residents are also vulnerable groups in society. "They have left homes and families, and have physical, mental and social needs," he noted. "Our staff must have the heart and passion to ensure our customers are satisfied and happy."
Regulatory and legal risks also abound. Any change in government policy - such as the issue of student visas - can have a negative impact. "That's why it's important for our assets to be geographically diversified," he added.
When he's not dealing with the Group's day-to-day operations, Kong is spending time with his three daughters - a 14-year-old and twins aged 21.
"My kids always worry that whatever they learn will be obsolete when they enter the workforce because the world is changing so fast. I tell them that while it's good to look into the future, don't look too far ahead, as you may get lost in the process," the 54-year-old said with a smile.
"The world is evolving no doubt, but nothing is for certain."
Instead, one should focus on adapting to changes that crop up, he added. "Always think that something can be done better, and go the extra mile. That way, you will add value to yourself, and add value to the company."
As at 31 March 2019, the Group operated a diversified portfolio of 31 operational purpose-built worker (PBWA) and student accommodation (PBSA) assets comprising 62,656 beds across Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, South Korea, the UK and the US, representing an increase of 13.1% in bed capacity from FY2018.
- The Group expects demand for PBWA to remain stable in Singapore as demand has continued to outstrip supply during the quarter. As at 31 March 2019, Centurion had a total of 26,100 beds across four operating worker accommodation assets in Singapore, with a high average occupancy rate of 95.9%.
- The government has kept the foreign worker quota in the construction, marine, processing and manufacturing sectors unchanged in Budget 2019, contributing to a stable supply of foreign workers.
- With the Jan 2019 opening of Westlite Bukit Minyak - its first development in Penang and seventh in Malaysia - Centurion operated approximately 30,300 beds across seven worker accommodation assets during the quarter. The assets, which are well-located in key manufacturing hubs, enjoyed an average occupancy of 90.3%, excluding Westlite Bukit Minyak. Westlite Bukit Minyak underwent retrofitting after completion in Jan and is expected to be ready for occupancy by 2Q 2019.
- Demand for PBWA in Malaysia is expected to be driven by the government's moves to ensure proper housing for foreign workers.
- Student Accommodation
- As at 31 March 2019, the Group had a portfolio of approximately 6,256 beds across 20 operational assets in the US, UK, Australia, Singapore and Korea, up 11.6% from FY2018. Overall average occupancy for its student accommodation portfolio - excluding dwell East End Adelaide and dwell Dongdaemun - was 88.1% for 1Q 2019.
- Despite uncertainty surrounding Brexit, increased acquisitions of PBSA assets in the UK by global investors as well as an uptick in the development pipeline underscore the resilience of the sector.
- RMIT Village in Melbourne achieved a high average occupancy of 80% based on available beds for 1Q 2019, despite its Asset Enhancement Programme. Of the 160 additional beds under AEP, 113 were completed in 1Q 2019 and the remaining 47 beds are expected to be ready in 2Q 2019. dwell East End Adelaide was completed in 4Q 2018 and began accepting occupancies in Jan 2019.
- Similarly, South Korea's international student population has been growing, with the country currently on track to hit its goal of reaching 200,000 students by 2023. dwell Dongdaemun has completed refurbishment and was ready for occupancy in late Feb; occupancy is expected to build up progressively and begin accreting revenue over 2019.
- Centurion's six US PBSA assets achieved healthy average occupancy rates for 1Q 2019. The Group remains optimistic about the US market, where demand is underpinned by the increasing number of university-age individuals.
- In Singapore, dwell Selegie achieved an average occupancy of 91% during the quarter. The positive supply-demand dynamics within the segment and the anti-cyclical resilience of this asset class point to a healthy outlook.
Centurion Corporation Ltd
Centurion owns, develops and manages quality, purpose-built worker accommodation assets in Singapore and Malaysia, and student accommodation assets in Singapore, Australia, South Korea, UK and US. The Group has a strong portfolio of 31 operational accommodation assets totalling approximately 62,656 beds in 2019. With projects under development and undergoing asset enhancement works, the Group's portfolio of accommodation assets is expected to grow to approximately 68,756 beds by FY2020.
The company website is: www.centurioncorp.com.sg.
Click here for the company's StockFacts page.
For the three months ended 31 March 2019 financial results, click here.
About kopi-C: the Company brew
Text: Jennifer LH Tan
kopi-C is a regular column on the SGX Research website that features C-level executives of leading companies listed on Singapore Exchange. These interviews are profiles of senior management aimed at helping investors better understand the individuals who run these corporations.
For previous editions of kopi-C: the Company brew, please click here.