LAYING CORNERSTONES TO FILL THE GAP
Business Today Malaysia|February 2020
Business Today interviews Jason Chong, Co-Founder and CEO of Cornerstone Partners Group (CPG), on how to stay luxuriously lean in the world of hospitality
SHARON CHANG

Walking into the brightly-lit and artistic lobby – the ‘living room’ – of citizenM in Bukit Bintang, the first thing one would notice are the thoughtfully curated artworks everywhere, juxtaposed with iconic styling pieces from around the world.

Everything is designed with modern and stylish furnishings, painted art ceilings, foliage carpets, and large planters with hanging greenery. Guests are lounging on the ultra-comfortable Vitra-designed chairs and couches, some engrossed in their digital gadgets, while others were enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee. In addition, there is no reception, no concierge -- just an innovative front-counter -- where guests do their own self-check-in. However, there are a few hotel ambassadors standing close by to assist or for a friendly chat if desired!

While we were still appreciating the décor, Chong enters at some velocity looking for his team. The softspoken man, dressed in a well-cut suit for our meet, commands the kind of attention more often seen in larger corporations. Chong is not an easy man to pin down, not because he is aloof, but because he is, firstly, engaged with work, and always on the move.

CPG, established in 2014, maybe a relative newbie in the hotel industry, but they have gained a strong foothold in this sector with four hotel assets across three countries in Asia Pacific to date, added to their portfolio.

Chong sits down and tell us his plans and direction, and how the company has become one of the emerging players in the hotel industry.

THE JOURNEY

In the beginning, when Chong was requested to come home to help-out in the family business, it was a challenging period. Then, it was 1998, on the heels of the Asian Financial Crisis. The entire Development and Construction industry was something of a foreign concept to him, even though his family has been in the construction business for decades. His passion leaned more towards hotels fit-outs’ rather than the brick and mortar process. The first few years was purely a learning curve, attending meetings and looking at contracts, as he didn’t possess an engineering background.

Chong spent almost five years in Australia, completed his education with a degree in Finance, and worked in one of the big banks for less than a year. His initial plan was to settle down there, but fate brought him home. It was a drastic change of plans, but ever since then, there was no turning back.

CPG’s first property investment was an old operationally distressed hotel in Penang. Ironically, the owner of the hotel was their client whom his family has been servicing for decades. The initial intention was to turn the hotel into a condominium. But, in that year, many consideration factors played out. Firstly, there were many policy issues to abide and address, and the process would have taken too long with the Penang State Government. Secondly, the Penang property market was on a downturn – luxury condominiums were not selling well.

THE IDEA

“Due to all the obstacles and, after much and careful consideration on the potential of the property, we decided to convert it into a hotel instead. Since, my family’s business focus was mainly in construction and hotels fit-outs, while my partner’s business was in furnishing, why don’t we build our own instead?” Chong reminisces.

Chong being a seasoned traveller, noticed gaps in the hospitality market in certain developing countries. According to him, there were many missing international brands offerings in these key markets.

Thanks to the relationships the family has with the hotel industry, the contacts and mentorships which Chong has established over the years, CPG began its inroad into the hospitality foray. They transformed the old hotel into the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Penang.

As this was their first project with an upscale international hotel brand, working with them proved to be a great learning experience for Chong.

“Partnering with one of the biggest hotel brands in the market, means we have to adhere to their (Hilton’s) standards and requirements. They are one of the strictest and toughest operators to deal with, but the partnership has helped us understand a lot about the hotel business in such a short time,” Chong exclaims.

However, leveraging on the excellent location, the existing structure’s quality and the rapid development of Penang, it became clear that there were more advantages in conversion over new builds. “Moreover, being managed by Hilton also gave the property an edge, as we can tap into their huge customer base, which will be difficult if we were to build our own brand,” he adds.

WITH PASSION COMES PRESENCE

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