Don’t call Sarena Cheah a Daddy’s Girl, even though the daughter of Sunway Group founder and chairman, Tan Sri Dr. Jeffrey Cheah, is daddy’s girl literally. She bears a resemblance to her father in looks. Her features are softer but she has the same sparkle in the eyes as she spends a morning with PREMIER at the Kuala Lumpur headquarter of the Sunway Group, talking about the business her father built from scratch.
Sarena Cheah (right), Managing Director of the Property Development Division and Group Strategy & Corporate Development, Sunway Berhad at an award ceremony with her father Tan Sri Dr. Jeffrey Cheah, Founder and Chairman of the Sunway Group (photo: courtesy of the Sunway Group)
Cheah also resembles her father in outlook. She is very clear on what needs to be done. “The three-value system (integrity, humility or constant learning and excellence) we will continue to espouse on that, and build on that, as the businesses go different ways,” says the Managing Director of the Property Development Division as well as Group Strategy and Corporate Development at Sunway Berhad.
“Maybe 20 years down the line, the businesses may change, maybe our core businesses may change … I feel my obligation and my responsibility is to ensure that the foundation and core values are going to be brought and grown to a different level,” says the young woman who is, in the opinion of many, the most likely to succeed Tan Sri Dr. Cheah as head of the multi-pronged business group.
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Cheah remembers late-night business meetings in the family home as her father grew his business from an abandoned tin mining wasteland to what it is today, Bandar Sunway. The city within a city has everything, from theme park, hotels and mega shopping mall to a university and medical centre. Oh, and don’t forget the very modern above-ground transit system that gets you to the city-centre in just over 30 minutes.
“A strict parent, yet very empowering” is how Cheah describes her father and mentor. “We had a lot of freedom to grow up but stuck to certain core values,” says the eldest of three children. “Hard work. No short cuts” she says while listing the values that remain foremost in her mind. “There is always a right way of doing something … Whatever path we choose, we would do it the right way.”
“I’d like to say that the same core values have been translated into the company as well. A lot of his staff have been with him 20-30 years, and yet very professional. And I think that’s where I enjoyed the fact that even though I didn’t work outside, when I came in here, I learnt a lot because it was very professionally run.”
Graduating from Western Australia with a degree in Accounting and Finance, Cheah began her career with the Sunway Group in 1995 at the Corporate Finance and Group Internal Audit divisions. After pursuing an MA in Business Administration from Melbourne Business School she took on the role of Business Development Manager in the Education and Healthcare divisions for three years.
Returning later to where she started, in Corporate Finance, the young Cheah earned her stripes when leading the asset-backed securitisation exercise for Sunway City Berhad.
“I was actually very keen to work outside,” reveals Cheah of her decision to stay in the family business after studying in Australia. With fresh openness, Cheah reveals that she was aware “there was a preference for me to work within”. Still, she felt no pressure. “I was presented with the diversity of the group … I gave it a try and it was no regrets, because I worked under lots of different bosses with lots of leadership styles, and also rotated in the different business units”.
Daughter of the boss or not, Cheah had to work her way up the corporate ladder and whether her journey has been made easier because of who she is, Cheah doesn’t expect kid gloves. In fact, she doubles her effort because of who she is. “I can’t blame others for being a bit more careful with me. So then I think, how then do I break the ice? How do I earn their respect? ”
After a decade in the Sunway Group and her foundation set, Cheah’s focus areas became clearer.
In 2006, she became the Sales & Marketing General Manager in the Property Development division while taking on the role of Director of Strategy & Corporate Development, three years later. After several years focused on Sunway’s strategy and corporate development, Cheah who was appointed to the Board of Sunway in 2010, turned attention to the Property Development team with a key focus on Malaysia and Singapore.
As she rose through the ranks, Cheah picked up valuable lessons along the way. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which the Sunway Group saw coming but didn’t expect to be hit as hard was a valuable teacher. “Matching long term funding with long term projects, as well as the currency match… We learnt. And we don’t have that,” she firmly states.
With each Sunway development, Cheah also picks up something new that she applies to her projects – the latest of which is the development in southern Malaysia of Sunway Iskandar, the largest yet by the group.
Cheah walks the talk. She lives and breathes the core values of the company, including humility and constant learning. Stepping into her father’s shoes, the fit will be right even as she strides with confidence and authority along the corridors in her stiletto heels. She knows what needs to be done and how to move the Sunway business to the next level. “The platform has been set. To us, at least the second generation, we need to execute it, and see how we can make it more holistic as a service to the consumer. We want to grow the legacy that he has built and grow it in a very holistic and meaningful way”.
With 12 different businesses in the Sunway Group, the goal that Cheah has set for herself is to develop strong teams to build on the work of the “starters” whom her father had gathered to grow the Sunway business into what it is today. “Now we have a lot of assets which we need to further grow and at the same time replicate. So maybe a different type of team”.
Working 9-5 daily at the Sunway headquarters that overlook the iconic theme park with lush greenery that was painstakingly re-planted tree by tree, the mother to a 7-year-old takes her parenting as seriously as her work.
Weekends and evenings, she says, are for her daughter and husband, carefully pointing out the man in her life needs her attention too. But like all career mums, Cheah goes through the guilt of being away from her child and makes sure there’s quality time. Her face lights up when talking of her little girl who has promised (jokingly) not to grow up. In the same way, she lights up when talking of her father.
“Growing up with him was fantastic! Even though very busy,” she says of her childhood. “You will be amazed. He cuts my hair, he cuts my nails… he ensures that when he goes overseas he buys me hairbrushes, things like that… little, little things,” reveals Cheah.
As she acknowledges, it’s not the quantity of time spent with your child, but the quality of time. With the warmth that she speaks of her parents and the many references to her father in conversation, it’s clear that Sarena Cheah didn’t lack quality family time during the early, hard years of Sunway.
When asked about her favourite part of day, Cheah names without hesitation, the period after dinner, when she takes time to put her daughter to bed. Just like when dad took time to cut his young Sarena’s nails. Not all lessons that Sarena Cheah learnt from the founder of the Sunway Group it seems, was about building a business.
Premier meets Sarena Cheah of the Sunway Group
Published on Nov 2, 2015
Sarena Cheah, the person most likely to lead the Sunway Group of businesses, lives and breathes the core values of the company built from scratch by her father. How will she take the company forward?