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Ashish Manchharam

Become – High Profiles
July 20, 2018

Ashish Manchharam owns the room—figuratively, and quite literally. We’re in one of BASE Residences’ loft-style apartments at 31 Hong Kong Street. It's a 5-storey heritage shophouse that his real estate company, 8M, owns and manages, one of 42 conservation buildings (mostly found in Districts 1 and 2) in its $500 million portfolio.

Tall and prepossessing, Ashish emanates an undeniable presence. The former Head of Investment honcho at Jones Lang LaSalle, cuts a dapper, business-like figure in his navy blue suit, save for a slightly motley collection of bright rubber bands and bracelets around his wrist.

I soon learn that some are from his children. The blue rubber band is for his 8-year-old daughter’s starter campaign against bullying, #bullyfreebylara, and the other—woven loops of elastic—was a gift from his 4-year-old son who, after seeing his sister’s, wanted Ashish to wear one from him too.

On his wrist are also strings from prayer sessions the 40-year-old attends. One’s brilliantly hued, still fresh from this morning’s session, while another has been bleached with age. Meant to be worn until they fall off, they offer blessing and protection over the wearer. Knowing how Ashish has each of his properties blessed upon purchase, I wonder how much influence belief and superstition have on the business of real estate.

Conversations with Ashish Manchharam

Founder & Managing Director, 8M Real Estate
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: 8M’s logo is filled with auspicious symbolism. Would you consider yourself superstitious?

ASHISH MANCHHARAM: A little bit. I think it's more around... If there is something that I can do to help us, I would do it, you know? It's preventative. [laughs] There is some truth to superstition and when we look at real estate, we do consider that.

REN FENG: How much do your feelings affect your business decisions?

ASHISH: It does definitely have an impact. When you walk into a prospective property, and you feel like you can do something with the place, or if it doesn't feel right—that is definitely something to think about. There have been properties in Kampong Glam that were up for sale, but my tenant told me that shops in that location never did well—in such instances, I just kind of hold back. The way I see it, if someone has made a lot of money owning the property, and it has had a good history with its former owners too, then that property has some good luck to it. We've bought a lot of properties where the seller made a lot of money, because I believed in the luck of the place or there was just something about it.

REN FENG: 8M primarily invests in heritage shophouses. What else makes a property worth investing in?

ASHISH: The obvious answer is location, but we also concentrate on what we can re-purpose things for—what a property can possibly become in the future. There’s a lot of development happening right now. There have been a lot of residential collective sales and we will see a lot of new properties and buildings coming up. Conservation enclaves will become even more scarce, and I think everyone sees the benefit of conservation, not just from an investment perspective, but also a cultural, heritage aspect. So areas like Hong Kong Street where a lot of the properties are being repurposed, will happen more and more. Re-adaptive use is important for us. Is it a good spot for an office, hotel or residences? We're trying to see how we can create value out of what's already there, and improve the property as well.

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REN FENG: What do you do to counter that kind of cultural obliteration that can come with the process of gentrification—which is pretty much what you do?

ASHISH: This is something that happens all over the world—it's a re-adaptation of use. Before the shophouses on Hong Kong Street were used for housing dried goods, these buildings probably used to be something else. That phase has gone through its time, and given the area's proximity to the CBD, this area is interesting to people for a lot of reasons. You have a lot of smaller, boutique hotels, F&B, and offices readapting these buildings. It's an area that is constantly changing. So yes, you lose a little bit of the old, but it's being repurposed to meet the demand. If there's no demand for it, there wouldn't be gentrification.

REN FENG: What kind of space do you think heritage shophouses hold in the future?

ASHISH: I think there will be more accommodation and residential use for heritage shophouses. Currently, most of these spaces have their upper floors being used as offices, but BASE Residences and Ann Siang House are examples of what it could potentially be. Ann Siang House used to be a shophouse, then it became offices and retail outlets, and now there’s F&B on the ground floors. It won’t be in every location, but places like Hong Kong Street and Ann Siang Hill where it’s a little quieter and has a little more of a neighbourhood vibe, you can see that people of a certain age group are starting to look at them as locations that they would want to live in, especially given their proximities to the CBD.

REN FENG: What is the focus of your properties going to be like?

ASHISH: Our focus for our properties are going to mid- to long-term accommodation. It will be a studio-esque product, where we offer people a room with common facilities like a living area, kitchen, laundry… for pragmatic reasons. For example, people who stay there may not be cooking every day—maybe once a week at most, so the use of the kitchen will be quite low. Hence, a common kitchen would be practical, and they don't have to worry about cleaning because someone else does it for them. We want to price it right and eventually target domestic living for the younger generation.

REN FENG: How much of a demand do you see for it domestically?

ASHISH: The environment here is such that a lot of younger Singaporeans live at home with their families. As they grow older, they'll have their needs and want their own space,  but options are so limited. I think it will be very attractive for them to be able to lease or rent a room with the flexibility of coming in for a week, month or year—particularly in locations like Keong Saik or Hong Kong Street, which is an interesting vicinity. So, that's the vision for a few of our projects. 

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What we're genuinely trying to do is create destinations.

REN FENG: Do you have a definite vision of how you think a property or an area is going to be when you purchase it?

ASHISH: No. I think generally you take a loose view, and you have to be creative in order to create. When we acquired our property at Amoy Street, it was kind of dead. It was right next to Club Street but nobody really focused on the area even though it was right in the middle. Over time, we refurbished and re-positioned it, and brought in good operators, which helped put the location on the map, leading to more tenants. Yes, the location is quite prime, but you also have to be creative with what you are doing in order to get people to come to your destination. And what we're genuinely trying to do is create destinations.

REN FENG: What kind of energy do you want the neighbourhoods you're in, to have?

ASHISH: F&B is a big component of what we do. You've got to make sure that you're in an area where there are interesting F&B options, not typical to any other location. Even if it is just a coffee shop, it's got to be a bit more independent, focused on buying and selling local produce, and not what you would find in a mall. But in order to do that, you need to have critical mass. When you have size, you can have a number of everything like a cluster of F&B operators, so people will talk about that cluster. If you can do a couple of those, then suddenly it becomes a location that people want to go to.

REN FENG: How different is 8M from a traditional property developer?

ASHISH: If you look at our model, particularly for F&B operators, our model is based on the individual. So we take into account the views of a particular shareholder, chef or restaurateur. Sometimes it is a group, but typically it's about the individuals. We spend time understanding what they are trying to do, and see how that fits in with us. In a mall, it can be cookie cutter-ish because of large operators, while for us it's more relationship-driven, where we both have a better understanding of each other’s operations.

REN FENG: Given that you work closely with your tenants, who is your ideal then?

ASHISH: Nice ones? [laughs] To be honest, we see it more as partnerships, to the extent of making sure that they do well—because if they do well, we do well. I think you just want to have people who are like-minded, who see your vision for the property, and can add to that vision as well; someone very interactive, with a keen understanding of what we do, and can fit into that equation. I value strong partnerships.

REN FENG: Does this personal approach get harder as you grow?

ASHISH: I think it's easier when you are smaller. Sometimes you work with really good operators like what we've done with a couple of groups. And that helps because we have one relationship but maybe two or three outlets with that group, which makes it easier. However, as you grow, it becomes harder to maintain those relationships as well. I do make an effort to go to the establishments or meet up with the operators quarterly. It can get tiring, but if it's not me, then someone from our team will be in constant dialogue with them to ensure that we are aware of any potential issues.

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 REN FENG: How far ahead do you plan for the future?

ASHISH: Project by project. We have a pipeline right now that takes us out for another year and a half, but we're also enquiring at the same time. So it extends as we acquire. We're looking at growing the business quite aggressively over the next 5 years, and how we can value-add to what we already have. I think as we figure out what we want to do, our opportunities start to get more limited and the growth will fall off. But we're still in our growth phase and the next 5 years are certainly geared towards that.

REN FENG: Would 8M consider expanding to properties outside of Singapore?

ASHISH: One of the key advantages is having local knowledge. When you know your neighbours, who're across the street from you and what his business is, then you understand the market. And by understanding the market well, you can make the best-informed decisions. If I go into a different market, I'm already at a disadvantage because of the existing guys there, unless I’m able to partner with someone. However, to reach a level of comfort and understanding takes a long time. I'd rather be the best in my market and have knowledge of what I’m investing in—the idea is to be independent and locally-focused, giving us the ability to make better decisions. We can look beyond, but we’ll be selective about it.

REN FENG: As a heritage property developer, your actions have some impact on the culture of Singapore. Do you think there is an intrinsic Singaporean character or soul that remains in spite of change and development?

ASHISH: What has been ingrained in us from a young age, both through the generations and our education system, is a sense of competition. We try to be better, if not the best from a young age, which drives us to push forward. It’s not for everyone, but that can be said about progress and development too, right? There are Singaporean companies which hold a position in the world, even though we’re such a small country, and that’s because we’ve been provided with a good platform to be the best in our chosen fields.

REN FENG: Did you always want to be your own boss?

ASHISH: Yes, doesn't everyone?

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Having someone who can help you through your thought process is very important.

REN FENG: What are the best perks of owning your own company?

ASHISH: You can come and go as you like? [laughs] The downside is that you are never not working. But I'm passionate about what I do, so it doesn’t feel like it’s work. There’s a lot more flexibility in terms of what you do with your time and it allows me to spend time on things I really want to do. If I need to go off and spend time with my family on a Friday afternoon, I'll do it. If I want to go to work at 10:30am, I can. [laughs] You're also creating something for people: hopefully, a progressive environment that attracts people to come and work with us, because having been in the corporate world for a long time, I don't want a certain ‘attitude’ in my office. We’re a lot more interactive and I want to allow them to be able to do what they want, to an extent, and manage their own time. If they want to take half a day off, I’d say go ahead. As long as things are being done. The ability to create the kind of environment that you want is actually one of the most important things, especially in today's world—it attracts good people who want to be around you. One of the reasons why I left my job was because I ended up doing things that I didn't really want to do.

REN FENG: Who would you consider the most influential people in your life?

ASHISH: My dad was someone who was important in my personal development, and my wife gives me good support too. She's someone I can refer to quite a lot as a friend, and she helps with everything—not just work but how we deal with things socially too. I had an ex-boss at my corporate job who was very supportive and talked me through taking that leap of faith when I left the organisation, especially since I had been there for 15 years and was doing well. Having someone who can help you through your thought process is very important.

REN FENG: Now that you’ve taken the leap of faith, is there anything that you regret?

ASHISH: I regret not doing what I'm doing right now, sooner. From a career perspective, I would have hoped to achieve a bit more—maybe if I had started on my own earlier... in terms of family, I like being able to spend more time with my kids. I guess ultimately, there needs to be a balance.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap