Sustainability of a business is extremely important, while being completely innovative and future- forward, says Joanne
by FARA AISYAH / pic by ARIF KARTONO
A LEADER — the best word to describe Joanne Kua (picture), the ED and group CEO of KSK Group Bhd.
However, the eldest of Malaysian businessman Tan Sri Kua Sian Kooi’s four children, Joanne said she has never dreamed or thought of herself as a businesswoman.
She, however, acknowledged that not everyone gets the opportunity to work in a family’s business.
In her case, she just naturally seized the chance to prove herself, and is still working hard to give her best while she is at it.
A Decade of Challenges
Joanne returned to Malaysia in 2010, after working within the securitisation team of Deutsche Bank AG in London for three years.
Since she joined KSK Group as a young leader 10 years ago, one of her principles has been about mutual respect.
“To be able to lead a team is to be able to gain the respect from them, which is really important for a leader. The way I deal with it is to do a lot more work than everyone else.
“Every time I walk into a meeting, I have to prepare myself a lot more than what others have prepared. Generally, the moment you say something and people think that it makes sense, that is when you gain respect because people will know you have done that amount of work,” Joanne said.
In 2010, Joanne led the RM1.6 billion sale of Kurnia Insurance (M) Bhd to AmGeneral Insurance Bhd.
In 2012, she took the helm as group CEO and spearheaded the rebranding of Kurnia Asia Bhd to KSK Group; and in 2013, she led the privatisation of KSK Group.
The economics graduate said as a CEO — young or old — the biggest challenge is the obligation to the board, shareholders and people.
In addition, a CEO also needs the capability to expect the growth of the company and plan it for the next couple of years.
Learning Curves in London
She said her experience working in Deutsche Bank has helped her hone her skills in crisis management.
“I learned a lot because we were in the middle of the Lehman Brothers crisis. Businesses were very challenging and a lot of things needed to be fixed.
“One of my biggest take away from the crisis is that in a crisis mode, you have to be a lot calmer. You have to learn to take a step back and really understand what the real issues are and fix them,” Joanne said.
She said she was lucky to be able to learn that quickly and very early on. Joanne is now leading businesses in three countries, including KSK Insurance in Indonesia and Thailand.
“Managing businesses in three countries is first and foremost the management of time and priorities. No matter how good we are, we cannot do everything ourselves.
“There is power in bringing a diverse group of individuals. Once you understand your people’s strength and put the team together, then it is a lot about empowerment already.
“Giving them the power to decide is all about the experience…allowing them to make the decision and knowing that the accountability will also come with it are very important and actually very powerful to do,” Joanne said.
As a leader, she said, there is also a power in having self awareness — knowing what her strength is and understanding her weaknesses.
Ventures into KSK Land
KSK Group has always wanted to be a diversified conglomerate, Joanne said.
“Property development is something that our chairman has been wanting to do, but we never got the chance to diversify.
“When we saw the chance after the sale of Kurnia Insurance, we decided to go into property development,” she said.
Joanne is also the MD of KSK Land Sdn Bhd, which was established in 2013.
Its maiden project 8 Conlay is an integrated development which has a gross development value of RM5.4 billion.
8 Conlay features a five-star Kempinski Hotel — the first in Malaysia — lifestyle retail quarters and YOO8 branded residences serviced by Kempinski Hotels SA and designed by Steve Leung & YOO (Tower A) and Kelly Hoppen for YOO (Tower B) — the first collaboration of its kind in South-East Asia.
Joanne said it is in the company’s DNA to sell trust instead of products.
“When you buy a property, you buy a really high-valued asset — something that you imagine you are going to own. We have the obligation to build it for you, based on what we told you,” she said.
She added that the group is going to focus on the branded residence project before venturing into others.
Joanne said branded residence such as 8 Conlay has a very niche segment of buyers from around the world.
As such, the market is less likely to be affected by the negative sentiments in the property market or global economy.
Joanne said while competitors for 8 Conlay are from properties outside Malaysia, the company’s project is of the most affordable branded residences in the region.
Carmana and Sunday in Thailand
Carmana Co Ltd, an online marketplace for buyers and sellers of used cars in Thailand, was launched in 2016.
Meanwhile, Sunday Ins Co Ltd is a two-year-old insurance technology company based in Thailand as well.
Joanne said the ventures into Carmana and Sunday are vertical to the group’s core business of selling insurance.
“We started in Thailand because the country is a technology hub. With Carmana, a lot of our portfolio is in motor insurance in the past, so we understood what customers do with their cars.
“We saw a break in the market to put private car buyers and private car sellers together, and the used car market is very big in Thailand in comparison to the new car market,” Joanne said.
As for Sunday, Joanne said the group believes that technology is the future and that it is an enabler to its businesses. She added that the group aims for Sunday to expand regionally.
“Every time we set a business, it is about going regional. But Sunday is about two-and-a-half years old, so it has to have a life on its own to grow in the market it is in today,” she said.
Joanne said the definition of success to her is to have her own legacy.
She said sustainability of a business is extremely important, while being completely innovative and future-forward.
“For that, a CEO needs to build a business that is nimble, flexible and able to change very quickly especially today when things shift so quickly. It is also important to build a working culture that everybody would subscribe to and a place where people grow as an individual in the business,” Joanne said.
KSK Group is one of the companies that empowers women and allows them to work in the male-dominated industry.
The Malaysian Reserve talked to three of KSK Group’s women employees who are currently working on the 8 Conlay development. They are: Project management senior associate Sakinatun Nisah Januri; works and interior design senior clerk Wan Emas Merlini Wan Azizan; and safety and environment senior associate Atiqah Md Desa.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in the industry?
Sakinatun: At times, I feel that we are not on par with our male counterparts in various aspects, leading to self-doubt. Having said that, the most important thing is to have self confidence, to focus on the job and contribute, rather than worrying about being a woman in a male-dominated environment. Motivation, passion and an opportunistic attitude will help women get ahead in their career in this line.
Wan Emas: Working in a construction site is not as comfortable as working in an office environment I must say, and it is something that we have to bear as it is part of the working requirements.
Atiqah: Construction is an industry that is still male dominated. Women working in an actual construction environment may find themselves outnumbered by the number of men. At times, even a strong, confident woman may feel out of place among the majority of men and may face some communication challenges. However, with a culture at KSK Land that promotes diversity and inclusion, it helps us to overcome these barriers.
Q: What advice would you give to young women entering a male-dominated profession?
Sakinatun: You need to take chances, believe in yourself and keep going. Gender should never be the barrier for any profession as long as we have the same capabilities, skills and knowledge.
Wan Emas: One of the best sense of accomplishment is being able to be a part of building something from the ground up. Working in this line allows women to experience this feeling of achievement and develop a passion for building — a passion that shouldn’t be limited to just men.
Atiqah: It can be a challenging environment to work in as you are surrounded mostly by males, but it’s important to let yourself be heard and respected. Yes, there are friendly banters that take place, but it can happen anywhere. Stay focused on whatever you want to do and don’t doubt yourself.
Q: What is your favourite part about working at KSK Group?
Sakinatun: There is a sense of empowerment when working in KSK Land, as the agile system way of working gives you freedom and flexibility, and challenges you to do things differently, as well as to be a part of the team on a constant learning curve. It’s the people I work with too, here in KSK Land. There’s never a dull moment; we have a lot of laughs. We never overstep the line and there’s that level of respect.
Wan Emas: I decided to work in KSK Land because of their project portfolio. Being able to be part of the pioneer team in building the first Kempinski Hotel in Malaysia is truly gratifying. I see a lot of potential when it comes to my personal exposure in KSK Land. The culture that encourages transparency, inclusion, feedback and fairness, it’s the ideal workplace that inspires a sense of tribe-wide freedom and responsibility.
Atiqah: I feel very valued, being part of a hardworking and committed team at KSK Land. You are working in a job that you know can change people’s quality of life and you feel proud of the job you are doing on a daily basis. It is the satisfaction from building relationships and the sense of achievement at the end of the day, and of course, to be part of an iconic project like the 8 Conlay.