Work

The secret behind property maverick Thio Gim Hock’s success

by Geraldine Tan // September 5, 2019, 6:23 pm

“As I go about God's kingdom work, I can see God's hand in every bit of my career. He helps me with my career and He gives me a hope for the future,” says Mr Thio Gim Hock, CEO of OUE. Photo by Geraldine Tan.

Mr Thio Gim Hock has an impressive resume. Despite being 81 years old, he continues to helm publicly-listed OUE. He is known for his sharp business acumen and innovative business ideas but above all, the guts to swim against the tide.

When asked what is it that has helped him to excel in his career, he is quick to tell you.

“All the developments were very successful because God’s hand was in it. I began to learn how to pray for God’s help in whatever I did.”

“As I go about God’s kingdom work, I can see God’s hand in every bit of my career.”

“Be faithful. Seek God; seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and I am very sure all these things will be added unto you,” Thio told a rapt crowd of about 200 people at a lunchtime talk, referencing Matthew 6:33.

His audience had gathered in the heart of Singapore’s central business district (CBD) to hear him speak at a talk entitled, Grow, organised by FCBC Marketplace Connect.

“As I go about God’s kingdom work, I can see God’s hand in every bit of my career. He helps me with my career and He gives me a hope for the future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Thio would know this well, having steered the real estate companies he was in through the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The industry was battered during the crises as business sentiment nosedived and property prices plunged.

Navigating tough times

The 1997 crisis sent Singapore’s property market into decline and remained subdued till early 2000s. During this time, Thio was CEO for Target Realty, a subsidiary of City Developments Limited (CDL). The company had quite a few projects gestating; one of them was a big piece of land in the CBD and they did not know what to do with it.

“It was an open planning plot, therefore, you could do anything. They wanted to do office, hotel, all that … it didn’t work out.”

He committed the matter to the Lord and was reminded of a project he had overseen in London. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we do 100% residential apartments?’”

His suggestion was met with incredulity as the project would create some 1,000 apartments in a down market.

“If we do that, it will be the first project where we have apartments in the city. And city living is very popular,” he explained.

Thio's advice to HPL to purchase land at Canary Wharf was God-inspired. The project, Canary Riverside (left, foreground), went on to do very well. Photo by Joseph Gilbey on Unsplash.

Mr Thio’s advice to HPL to purchase land at Canary Wharf was God-inspired. The project, Canary Riverside (left, foreground), went on to do well. Photo by Joseph Gilbey on Unsplash.

He had proposed a similar idea while he was an executive director at Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), urging the company to buy a plot of land at Canary Wharf which, at that time, was considered the backwater of London. HPL heeded his advice and the residential project was not only oversubscribed, it also commanded the same high prices as in London’s West End.

CDL mulled over the idea but only began construction of the project after Thio left. Today, The Sail, mainly made up of residential apartments, occupies that plot of land.

But that is not all.

Wisdom from above

During his early days as CEO and group managing director of Overseas Union Enterprises (before it took over OUE), he proposed moving Mandarin Hotel’s lobby to the fifth floor, and turning the first four floors into retail space.

“It was a great decision that the Lord helped me make,” shared Thio as it helped create $550 million in value for the company.

The company also had a multi-storey carpark in its portfolio, which was generating about $1 million in annual revenue.

Mr Thio Gim Hock, chief executive of real estate company OUE

Mr Thio standing at the lobby of OUE Bayfront, which was previously a multi-storey carpark. He tells how God gave him the idea to turn it into a office building, more than tripling the land’s revenue stream. Photo courtesy of Mr Thio Gim Hock.

“But it wasn’t a good use of land. We studied it and discovered we had permission to build an office, so it is where our present office is now. And we put that in the real estate investment trust for $1.1b, all with the help of God,” revealed Thio.

He also attributes God for the bold idea to implement a deferred payment scheme for the Twin Peaks condominium project. Sales stalled following the government’s property cooling measures. The scheme helped to turn things around.

“In my work, I always pray, ‘God, tell me how to do this.’ When we have problems, I always ask Him for help on how to solve the problems.

“God gave the ideas – new ideas, new designs, the way to layout, the pricing. He put those in my mind, they were all from God. They were all successful and the company made a lot of money.

“As you serve God, God gives you these ideas. Sometimes you think it’s your own idea but when you reflect back, you know it is Him.”

Serving God at work

Thio’s life was transformed at 50, when he encountered God for the first time. Up till then, despite seemingly having it all – high-flying career, happy marriage, three loving children – there was an unexplainable emptiness which he later found out was a God-shaped hole in his heart.

He was born into a Christian family and while he identified himself as a believer, he did not have a relationship with God.

That encounter in 1988 ignited a fervour within him to get to know God, read the Bible and share the Good News with everyone he met.

The following year, God put a burden on his heart to start a lunchtime office fellowship in HPL. It started with five people meeting weekly in the boardroom and it soon outgrew the location, as 50 to 60 would gather.

Mr Thio makes it a point to commit all his staff and the projects he is working on to the Lord. Photo from Mandarin Orchard Singapore's Facebook page.

Mr Thio makes it a point to commit all his staff and the projects he is working on to the Lord. Photo from Mandarin Orchard Singapore’s Facebook page.

“Many people were saved. We prayed for the sick and many people were healed. And because they were healed, they begin to believe and they brought their families in,” recalled Thio.

It was not just his staff that he reached out to.

“Salespeople will come and try to set up a meeting and normally, you send it to your staff. But I would say, ‘Okay, come to my office to promote your product. But on one condition – after you finish, you give me equal time, you listen to me,’” he said.

“I’ll share the Gospel with them and I led many of them, on their knees in my office, to the Lord. I took advantage of my position,” confessed Thio, drawing laughter from the office crowd.

“Once you know Christ, you can’t help but talk about Him!”

81-year-old CEO and evangelist to 300,000 strong crowd

About the author

Geraldine Tan

Geraldine is a former news journalist, public relations practitioner and research editor with a penchant for puns, punctuation and a positive attitude. She is always up for the next new adventure and is on a quest to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Geraldine is now Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.