For many visitors and new arrivals in Singapore, Far East Hospitality Trust (SGX: Q5T) part of the Far East Organization is one of the first companies they deal with. The trust owns eight hotels in Singapore (including the Orchard Parade and Rendezvous Hotels) as well as four serviced apartments – which form a temporary home for many of Singapore’s new residents.
Far East H-Trust founder, Ng Teng Fong was born in Putien, in China’s Fujian province in 1928. When, aged six, Ng’s village was struck by an outbreak of smallpox, the family fled to Singapore, where they set up a soya sauce factory and grocery store on Weld Road.
As the eldest of 11 children, Ng Teng Fong had little in the way of formal education. He worked in his family’s factory and as a bicycle repairman and was expected to take over the family businesses when his father retired.
However, Ng had his own dreams and much to his father’s disappointment decided to open his own provision store with his wife in the 1950s – which sadly failed. Times became hard indeed with Ng’s family being so desperately poor that it was rumoured they had to give one of their eight children away.
However, Ng still dreamt of his own property business and finally, with the help of billionaire Eliya Thamby, managed to raise enough capital to establish his own development firm Far East Organization (FEO).
Ng’s first project was in 1962, in Jalan Pacheli, Serangoon Gardens. He built 72 terraced houses – and sold them for a cool $20,000 a piece.
Singapura Forum Hotel
He followed this up the next year by building his first hotel – the Singapura Forum (now the Forum Shopping Mall) on Singapore’s up-and-coming Orchard Road. The luxurious S$5.5m hotel went on to be sold for a whopping S$178m.
Ng continued to build in Katong and the Watten Estate in Bukit Timah in the late 1960s – but as his developments became more ambitious, so did the amount of money he heeded to borrow. He hit problems when a local institution withdrew credit facilities to him – and almost went bankrupt. Fortunately, he managed to secure lines of credit elsewhere and continued to build.
In 1969, Ng built the Hilton Hotel on Orchard Road and set up a number of alternative property businesses including Lucky Realty, Far East Land & Housing Development and Far East Finance.
In 1970, and with his success in Singapore firmly under his belt, Ng looked to expand, with Hong Kong in his sights. With the help of his eldest son Robert, Ng set up a number of companies under his new Hong Kong based Sino Group, including Tsim Sha Tsui Properties, Sino Land and Sino Hotels.
With his Far East Organization doing well in Singapore, Ng was able to fund more purchases in Hong Kong – and took full advantage of the property crash experienced in the 1980s to snap up land at rock bottom prices.
Tsim Sha Tsui East
Ng also took the surprising step of acquiring land in Tsim Sha Tsui East – an area of land that had been reclaimed from Hung Hom Bay. He predicted the region would become a lively retail and commercial district and was duly proved correct – a risky move that many consider a masterstroke that is still talked about today.
Far East Shopping Centre
Back in Singapore, Ng had set his sights on an area of Orchard Road near his Singapura Forum and Hilton Hotels for his next venture: Far East Shopping Centre – the first mall on the island to feature an atrium and external escalators.
Next, he moved further up the road to build the ubiquitous Lucky Plaza Shopping Centre in 1978, which dazzled Singaporeans with its transparent “bubble lifts”. This was followed by the Orchard Plaza and Claymore Plaza shopping centres – quickly earning Ng the moniker “The King of Orchard Road”.
Ng’s Far East Plaza Shopping Centre was the first in Singapore to offer serviced apartments as well as retail facilities and was considered the biggest tourist shopping centre in South East Asia. When it opened in 1983, all 114 shops were taken within just two hours.
Far East Organization was estimated to have built one fifth of the private homes in Singapore by the eighties, making it the largest private landowner and developer on the island – and earning its founder a new nickname: “Lucky Ng”.
By the 1990s Ng’s property empire was growing nicely and he took the step of handing over the running of Sino Group and FEO to his sons Robert and Philip respectively.
However, workaholic Ng didn’t exactly spend his days relaxing at the golf course, flying from Singapore to Hong Kong each week to meet with Robert and continuing to bid at land auctions himself.
Far East Organization continued to build shopping centres along Orchard Road as well as award winning condominiums such as The Bayshore and was responsible for converting the old General Post Office into one of Singapore River’s landmarks – The Fullerton Hotel.
Far East Hospitality Trust
In 2012, Far East Organization launched its Far East Hospitality Trust – as the first and only publicly-listed, Singapore-based hotel and serviced residence trust.
The trust has a portfolio consisting of eight hotels (including the Village Hotel chain, Orchard Parade and Rendezvous hotels) and four serviced apartment residences (including Regency House, and the Village Residences Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay).
But did you know…
- Far East Organization’s name was inspired by two large filmmaking companies of the time – Shaw Organisation and Cathay Organization.
- Ng Teng Fong reputation in Hong Kong was such that he was the only Singaporean businessman invited to the 1984, historic signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration for the handover of Hong Kong to the China.
- Ng was officially a workaholic, being known to even bring a penlight on dates with his wife to the cinema to enable him to read property reports during the film.
- Despite the fact he was officially named Singapore’s richest man in 1997, Ng had a reputation for leading a frugal life. He lived in the same modest home for 30 years, preferred to use a plastic bag rather than a briefcase and would even bring his own packed lunch on aeroplanes.
- Kids unhappy about taking abacus enrichment classes should take heart; billionaire Ng Teng Fong always used one of the ancient counting frames for his calculations.
Today, Far East H-Trust is Singapore’s largest diversified hospitality portfolio by asset value and is in the process of renovating its properties to improve their competitiveness.
Its parent company Far East Organization with sister company Sino Group form one of Asia’s largest real estate groups with over 17,800 staff members, combined annual turnover of US$5.5bn and total assets valued at a cool US$45bn.
A legend in property…
Ng’s business brain earned him a reputation for being a “legend in property”. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew held him up as a role model for entrepreneurs stating in 1996 “Ng Teng Fong never went to university (but) I think he has a pretty powerful computer up there where figures are concerned”.
Ng continued to guard his privacy jealously, modestly explaining that he was an “ordinary working man – and I often take my $2 mee from Newton Hawker Centre after work”.
Sadly, Mr Ng passed away in 2010. Over 500 people attended his funeral including politicians and businessmen and as a tribute to his accomplishments his funeral cortege travelled along Orchard Road to pass two of his most iconic developments – Far East Plaza and Lucky Plaza.
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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.