Among the effects the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on business has been the bifurcation of leadership’s purpose. On one side of the cleave was the steady hand required to see a company through the uncertainty and panic of the pandemic’s early days; on the other is the firm yet flexible management necessary to kickstart prospects in an industry stalled or hobbled by years of pandemic living.
The experience of Isyak Masagoes falls squarely into the latter. Hired to head endowment asset management company Warees Investments, Isyak was first approached during the thick of the first wave. “At that time I was helming a key profit centre in a government agency,” he says. “It was a time of uncertainty and near constant rule changes.”
That’s the advantage of being niche; we’re very close to the community and we are able to bring everybody together.
Isyak, a former Regional Commodity Manager for BMW Asia and a key leader in the asset management division of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, was offered a chance to stretch his abilities and contribute to Warees Investments. The pandemic had changed the game for the development of commercial and residential property, and a new approach was necessary.
“They saw the strengths I could offer in terms of digitalisation, my experience in administering real estate endowments and developing funding models for property development,” he says. “I was apprehensive, though, because at that time the construction sector was facing immense challenges in terms of labour shortages and project delays.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Isyak considered this as a good opportunity to further contribute to the company, its shareholders and to the community at large. “It was the right thing for me, I felt I could contribute to the company and, given enough time, I believe I can steer the company and make the necessary changes in processes, culture and governance to see it through the post-pandemic era,” he says.
The rocky road paved by the COVID-19 crisis meant that Isyak’s appointment had to be delayed so that he could stabilise the operations and strategies in his previous role. Originally scheduled for 2020, his debut as CEO was delayed by almost a year. “In a way I’m quite fortunate,” he says. “I had a nine-month lead time before actually taking up the position, which allowed me time to study the market and to research the company. When I actually came in, I had quite a bit of clarity as to what I needed to do.”
Isyak’s term as CEO builds on the foundation of his predecessors, and it was upon this foundation that he has built what he calls a “core-flex strategy”.
“It’s basically a modality in business,” he says. “And it’s not just for the business, it’s also for the people. The pandemic brought on a change in the demand in real estate; companies are downsizing office spaces and accommodating hybrid models. Another business we’re in is hospitality, which also took a hit.
“Similarly, the needs of the workforce have changed. Employees want clearly defined goals but prefer flexibility in work arrangements to achieve them. So I strongly believe that by adopting a core-flex modality, we could remain agile, explore trends in growth areas, and be ready to pivot in any direction.”
While the core of Warees Investments remains in developing unit endowment assets, maximising returns to traditional tenancies, asset recycling and outright sales, Isyak says there’s scope for much more. “We’re pivoting our assets to growth areas such as co-living, co-working, piloting ESG initiatives in property development, and even projects that support social causes,” he says.
“Increasingly, people want to be able to work from anywhere and they don’t want fixed office spaces. When they need accommodation, they’re not looking for hotels. They want co-living and co-working spaces with communal and shared facilities so they can interact, and that’s what we want to explore.”
Having accepted that the industry is unlikely to completely revert to its pre-pandemic state, Isyak says the focus is on change and change management. One of the biggest changes for Warees Investments – and real estate as a whole – is digitalisation. “How we benchmark rental rates, how we monitor projects, completion dates, payment claims, everything should be seamlessly done digitally,” he says. “In terms of collaboration, going digital really saves time and improves environmental friendliness.”
Despite the upheaval across the industry, Isyak says that Warees Investments is a niche company and as such meets a need no other real estate company does. “Few can build mosques the way we do; few manage shop houses the way we do. We talk to every stakeholder very closely. We know every tenant, every banker, every member of an executive committee. That’s the advantage of being niche; we’re very close to the community and we are able to bring everybody together.”
That includes the partners and suppliers that comprise the wider Warees Investments team. “Our strategic partners provide us with industry insight,” Isyak says. “We can’t be everywhere and know everything, so we depend on our partners for that. We meet frequently, we look at growth areas and we share insights.”
Some of Warees Investments’ key partners, such as Ascott and the CapitaLand Group, take the lead in these discussions, depending on the extent of their expertise. “They’re leading the way in co-living spaces as well as property development in Singapore and abroad, so we’re learning a lot from them,” he says. “You have to listen. That’s how a synergistic relationship happens.”
By adopting a core-flex modality, we could remain agile, explore trends in growth areas and be ready to pivot in any direction.
Core-flexibility has become something of a buzzword in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Isyak says it goes far beyond that for Warees Investments. “People have talked about it for a long time, but it’s critical now that the world is changing so quickly,” he says. “It can’t just be the business that’s flexible; it has to be the people as well.”
That also applies to management; Isyak’s own leadership philosophy is to remain as malleable as water – a crucial attribute in trying times. “I believe in servant leadership,” he says. “We can give broad goals and directions, but then it’s time to listen and understand different needs. It’s for us to clear the path for success, and I think that’s where a leader can achieve a lot.”