Dato’ Murly Manokharan has only one speed setting: as fast as possible. He may only be 31 – an age where most young professionals are still clawing their way up the corporate ladder – but the fact that he’s the President and Group CEO of Aspen Group should give some indication as to just how nimble and quick on his feet he is.
Since forming Aspen Group in 2013, Dato’ Murly has set out to tackle the lack of affordable housing for middle-income earners – those who aren’t eligible for Malaysia’s public low-cost housing programmes, for instance – starting with TRI Pinnacle, the first privately initiated affordable housing project in Penang. Located in Tanjung Tokong, the 1,249-unit condominium has proved so popular that buyers have raced to snap up unfurnished units at MYR299,000 and upgraded units (which boast, amongst other things, IKEA furnishings) for just under MYR400,000.
It’s a project that’s prompted other players in the local property industry to watch with startled interest, not to mention many more would-be buyers, all angling to find out where the next Aspen projects are set to take root. Dato’ Murly certainly has plenty of plans for residential, commercial and integrated properties to keep him busy for his second decade in the industry. Perhaps we should really be asking: is the property industry nimble enough on its feet to keep up with him?
RISE AND SHINE
“I’m a person who’s constantly on the move,” says Dato’ Murly, who also describes himself as a Penang boy through and through. “I always think about what I can do to challenge myself, to the point that, as a young man, there were times when I even pushed myself too hard. Actual work kept me more excited than studying, so I started working when I was very, very young – I’m the type of person who likes to do something for real, rather than on a trial basis.”
After studying for a degree in architecture at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, which also gave him the opportunity to travel to Auckland in New Zealand, he returned home and joined a small architectural firm based in – where else – Penang. “Although they employed a small number of people, they’d been doing a lot of big jobs. Most of these huge projects were industrial, so, in my early years, I was really focusing on building factories. We were the first to work with companies like Intel and Motorola, for instance.
“Industrial projects take a maximum of four to six months to complete. You work around the clock, 24/7, so I had an extremely fast-tracked experience learning how to build factories. It’s a highly technical, very specialised industry to work in, so that was the kind of environment I trained in.” Using Penang as his base, Dato’ Murly spent two years zipping across China and America, building factories for overseas clients and embracing every project that came his way with open arms.
“I remember being 18 years old and rarely going home, brushing my teeth in the office, and having breakfast, lunch, and dinner there – going through that kind of lifestyle for seven days a week, around the clock. I guess you could say I was a super workaholic at a young age!” he laughs. “But I was getting bored of building factories. I wanted to learn how to build homes: high-rise apartments, which I didn’t have any experience with yet, or homes that would make people excited about being a consumer, rather than just industrial real estate. So, I explained to my boss that it was time for me to move on and do what I wanted to.”
His next move was to work for another small but established property developer, Ivory Properties Group. Ambitious and precociously talented, the 19-year-old Dato’ Murly started off in the company as a technical assistant in 2005, but, within a year, he was running the entire technical department. At the age of 23, Ivory Properties had made him COO and, as the company continued to expand rapidly, he successfully brought it to market for an IPO in 2010. Aged just 25 at the time of his appointment, he became the youngest Executive Director and COO in the history of Malaysia’s public listed companies.
“It moved so fast, so quickly that, when I look back on my time at Ivory Properties, it’s as if it was just yesterday,” Dato’ Murly muses. “It’s a story I like to share because the responsibility of being COO of a company, with the responsibility for 500 employees on my shoulders, made me a better person. When I made decisions, they were no longer about me anymore – they were about people who were part and parcel of the organisation. It was a turning point that taught me to look at people as a key asset.”
Armed to the teeth with confidence and a wealth of corporate experience, it sealed his resolve to strike out on his own, or as he puts it: “I always believed that building something relevant to people was more important to me than building what I liked or what I wanted to do.”
After spending over seven years with Ivory Properties, Dato’ Murly left to form his own company – Aspen Group – alongside Dato’ Seri Nazir Ariff Mushir Ariff (also formerly of Ivory Properties) as the company’s Chairman and Executive Director. Far from being a flight of fancy, Dato’ Murly had a clear idea of exactly the type of impact he wanted to make on Malaysia’s property market, even if his concepts seemed unconventional.
“I wanted to find a niche for myself. I wasn’t interested in competing with the big boys of the real estate industry – they all had huge balance sheets, massive projects and well-established branding. I knew I’d rather enter the industry and compete on my terms, not theirs.” Having cannily navigated a bullish property market all the way to 2012, what stood out most to him wasn’t the main players and their titanic construction sites, but a dearth of housing suitable for middle-income earners.
“I realised people my age – my close friends, university mates, colleagues – found it increasingly difficult to become homeowners. Prices in Penang had soared so fast that working people earning a mid-level income could no longer afford a decent property anymore. If you were a young couple about to get married or professionals in the workplace, you just couldn’t find your way to a comfortable life. The usual solution was to push themselves to buy something they truly couldn’t afford, and then work through the nose to pay for their instalments,” he says, pointing to Malaysia’s Gross National Debt, which has stood at over 50 per cent of Gross Domestic Product since 2009.
For Dato’ Murly, it was all about finding what he calls ‘holistic solutions’: “I don’t think many developers know how to build homes that are truly affordable and relevant to the people or the market. I wanted to build a property where people could truly live in, within conditions they’d be proud of – a conducive environment in which to raise a family. It’s not just about building a home, but looking at the way people live. It’s often horrible because they don’t have the means to do anything like renovating the space or purchasing appliances. Our business model allows them to live good-quality lives in goodquality homes, at a very affordable price.
“The way Aspen Group operates is different, as is the way we consider our products. We looked at what could happen during the post-completion stage of our property, and how much time and money people might have to spend renovating it. After all, if you purchase a property, you don’t buy an empty shell – you must have the means to furnish your home after moving in. In the past, if you bought a MYR500,000 home, you’d easily spend up to MYR100,000 on minor renovations before it was ready for use or to rent – costs which always come at a high margin or are expensive when done piecemeal.”
Settling on a subsidy-based model, he boldly reached out to big names, including Panasonic, Signature Kitchen, LG Electronics, Samsung and IKEA, with the intention of bringing in additional services to bolster the appeal (and economic efficiency) of his development. “We pioneered a business model that presented an entire ecosystem upfront. Previously, you never saw these brands working with a local developer, building a product that would come completely furnished with their products. We were the first ones to bring those brands to the table during the construction stage, and provide these services as part and parcel of what we do for the consumer.”
Purchasing one of Aspen Group’s fully furnished homes, according to Dato’ Murly, isn’t just a pocket-savvy move for a consumer – it’s an empowering one, too. “We realised huge savings back to the buyers. The ability to buy a reasonably priced home, fitted with all the necessities, made a lot of sense to me. Whatever they’ve saved can be parked into their end financing – and for property in Malaysia, it’s probably one of the cheapest forms of financing – so it’s like taking a personal loan and parking it into their property. A consumer’s ability to do everything is so much more meaningful.”
NEED FOR SPEED
Barely pausing to revel in the success of TRI Pinnacle (although he mentions that Aspen Group, which listed on the Singapore Catalist Board last month, is currently turning MYR1 billion in sales each year), Dato’ Murly remains keen to unlock potential winners in Penang’s property game. His grandest plan, Aspen Vision City – a mega-scale mixed development – will span 245ac of prime freehold land in Bandar Cassia, Batu Kawan, consisting of condominiums, serviced suites, hotels, offices, financial and medical centres, commercial outlets, an international school and the northern region’s very first IKEA store.
“The strength of having an ecosystem in the form of a partnership is so important for young brands,” he says of Aspen Group’s collaboration with Ikano Pte Ltd, which owns the IKEA franchise in Malaysia. “You want to show people you’re the best at what you do in your industry, because you can have the best of different industries working with you as partners. In IKEA’s case, not many people could talk in the terms or language that made relevance to the brand for business opportunities.
“I’ve redefined the art of negotiating with brands: I tell them who and what they are, and how they can use the strengths I think they have by serving people better. The ability to see that kind of angle is very important.” It’s the sort of nuanced perspective he also applies to members of his own team, where positivity is an overriding factor – Dato’ Murly looks for the best in people, rather than at their flaws.
“I always tell my staff their weaknesses are for them to figure out, and I’m solely interested in their strengths. We have a talent management team and we only send people for training in what they’re already good at. If they excel at something, I want to make them even better. That style of turning staff around and giving them a positive attitude makes us a bit more different. Once you learn how to help people on their terms and give them the ability to be the best, you indirectly become a better leader.”
His approach even worked its magic on FA Penang, which Aspen Group owned and sponsored until recently, pulling the football club out of a MYR20 million debt hole in 2014 and pushing the team from the fourth division to the first over the course of three years. “Every season, we pushed ahead and kept upgrading, while the company grew at an almost equal rate! It’s the little behind-the-scenes things that have made the team what it is today, and if they have character, persistence, and discipline, I think we’ll have a great team.”
From real estate to football, could Dato’ Murly’s astute strategies see him playing more beautiful games further afield, like Kuala Lumpur or even overseas? “Obviously, I want to be a Malaysian-based global company. All of us should be Malaysian – our people and the talent we have. We want to start with regional expansion, so, instead of saying I’m in real estate, I’d prefer to call myself a service provider. In today’s context, we don’t build homes or shopping centres just like that – we infuse services into what we do.”
“When you convert your business model into that of a service provider, the wider world becomes more relevant to you. You can park your services in any part of the globe. By all means, I want a truly Malaysian company with the people, culture, attitude and spirit that we have. I’ll never relocate myself outside of Malaysia. But I want to be a global leader – hence our listing in Singapore, which will strengthen our position as a key regional player – and create a global service that uses real estate as a platform.”
TEXT RENYI LIM
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY KIM MUN / HOPSCOTCH PHOTOGRAPHY