On the first day in his new job, Choe Peng Sum was given a fairly simple brief: “Just go make us a lot of money.”
Fast forward about 20 years, and it’s fair to say he has done just that.
The business he runs, Frasers Hospitality, is one of the world’s biggest providers of high-end serviced apartments. Its 148 properties span about 80 capital cities, as well as financial hubs across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
But it almost didn’t get off the ground.
When Mr Choe was appointed to launch and lead the company, Asia was booming; the tiger economies of Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore were expanding rapidly.
But as Frasers prepared to open its first two properties in Singapore, the Asian financial crisis hit.
It was 1997. Currencies went into freefall. Suddenly, people were losing their jobs and stopped travelling.
Mr Choe recalls asking staff if they really wanted to continue working with the firm, because when the properties opened they might not get paid.
“It was really that serious,” he says. “I remember tearing up because they said ‘let’s open it, let’s open it whether you can pay us or not’.”
Survival, Mr Choe admits, came through a bit of luck, and the misfortune of others.
He had convinced the board at parent firm, property group Frasers Centrepoint, to open serviced apartments rather than hotels – partly because getting planning permission in Singapore was easier.
But he also sensed it was a big, untapped market. And at the time of the crisis, it proved to be exactly what customers wanted.
“As we were going through this difficult patch, there were protests and riots in Jakarta,” he says. “A lot of companies like Microsoft called up looking for rooms for their staff because they were moving out of Jakarta.”
Frasers’ 412 apartments were quickly in demand. Occupancy soon hit 70%, and then 90%.
Explaining the popularity of serviced apartments, Mr Choe says that if people are staying somewhere for just a few days, they happily stay in hotels, but if they are going to be somewhere for one month to eight months, the walls of hotel rooms “close in on you”.
But now, Mr Choe, 57, faces new challenges – the travel tastes of millennials and the disruptive nature of Airbnb.
“The way to tackle Airbnb is not to ignore it. I will never underestimate Airbnb,” he says.
There’s been no significant impact on Frasers yet. Big corporations still prefer to put employees in big service apartments, he says, because they can guarantee a level of safety and security. But that is likely to change, Mr Choe admits.