When Cyrus Pun held his wedding celebration in Myanmar recently, he was amazed at the sartorial flair on display. “I saw people wearing diamond-studded saris and fabrics made with real gold threads,” exclaims the executive director and head of real estate at Yoma Strategic Holdings.
“They’re a sociable crowd who enjoy attending events,” says the 36-year-old, still looking gobsmacked at this showcase of affluence. While much has been said and written about the pent-up demand for the finer things in life in Myanmar, witnessing this manifest in the flesh is something that has to be seen to be believed, as Pun can attest to.
On a separate occasion, Yoma held a sales event and sent out elegantly printed invitations to guests. “Some turned up in formal attire, thinking they were attending a cocktail party,” he says. Thankfully, with canapes at the ready, the guests were none the wiser that the event was envisioned as a much more low-key affair.
In the five years since the transition to a civilian government began in 2011, the people of this formerly isolated country have shown a relentless thirst for the material pleasures that are commonplace in many other parts of the world. Whether it is feasting on a fried chicken meal at KFC, to driving a Volkswagen car or owning a piece of property, Yoma Strategic has already made these options — and more — available to the population.
Building blocks of Yangon
The company was established by Cyrus’s father Serge Pun, a former exile who left Burma for China in 1965 with his family after the military coup. He eventually found his way to Hong Kong in 1973, where he got his first job in real estate, settled down and had four sons. He only returned to Myanmar in 1990, where he came to the realisation that the time was ripe to invest in real estate developments there. He founded his company Serge Pun & Associates (Myanmar) Ltd in 1991 and his first real estate projects there included the high-end Pun Hlaing Golf Estate, featuring an 18-hole Gary Player-designed golf course and FMI City, the country’s first gated community.
Today, Yoma Strategic Holdings, which was listed on the mainboard of the Singapore Exchange in 2006, has a diverse portfolio of developments in Myanmar. These include Star City, a 135-acre satellite town that will feature 10,000 homes and 1.7 million sq-ft of commercial space upon completion as well as a 10-acre Landmark Development project in the heart of Yangon city, which will also involve the restoration of one of Yangon’s most famous heritage buildings into the Yangon Peninsula Hotel.
The company is also involved in a diverse portfolio of businesses in the automotive, consumer, luxury travel and telecommunication sector. The group recorded a revenue of $111.9 million and a net profit attributable to shareholders of $37.2 million in financial year 2016.
“Quite often, people describe us as the biggest real estate developer in Yangon, but our focus is on being a specialised player in the field that develops properties in a way that is pioneering and innovative. We are well-known for being more daring — we like to take the business to places no one else has gone to,” says Pun during our chat at the company’s office in Shenton Way, a few days after hosting us at Pun Hlaing in Yangon for his cover shoot. Clean cut and with boyish good looks, the England-educated Pun, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the London School of Economics, speaks with a crisp British accent that would make Benedict Cumberbatch proud.
“So if you look at the developments that we do in Yangon, actually most of them are very groundbreaking. For instance, we were the first developers to manage our estate and provide upgrades to the property. The value appreciation we bring to customers is a lot higher,” he adds.
Pun joined Yoma in 2007 after his father Serge approached him to join the company. Prior to this, he worked for Hutchison Port Holdings in the South China Commercial Division based in Hong Kong. Three out of four Pun brothers are involved with the family business. The oldest, Melvyn, is chief executive officer of Yoma. Cyrus, the second-born, heads Yoma Strategic’s real estate developments in Myanmar. Third son Ivan helms Pun + Projects2, a lifestyle company that operates stylish restaurants in Yangon, including Port Autonomy and Rau Ram. The youngest, Sebastian, is pursuing his interest in aviation.
Although the family members split their time between Hong Kong, Singapore and Myanmar, they are a closely knit bunch. Just the night before this interview, the family had gathered in Yangon to celebrate Serge’s and Sebastian’s birthdays. Even though it may seem more than mere coincidence that the brothers have ended up with the family business, Pun says he cannot be sure if this was part of Serge’s grand plan or plain serendipity.
“If you ask my father, he’s said that it’s always his intention for us to decide our own destiny. He takes a very liberal view on what we choose to do as long as we are dedicated,” he says. “However, he recently said in an interview that he’d always wished that some of his sons would come back to work for him. How much of that was just manipulation…” Pun trails off in a fit of laughter, before adding: “He’s just the grandmaster of strategy.”
What Pun does know though, is that the “seeds” for his interest in real estate development were planted when he was a young boy following his father to project sites in Hong Kong. “My interest and passion was always in building homes, nice residential homes,” he says.
When he joined, his first project was to develop a mixed-use property in Dalian, where they converted an abandoned building into a mall and residential apartments. He says: “With real estate development, there is the excitement of seeing something starting from scratch — from you having a vision and putting it down on paper, planning it out and through a very long process, materialising this vision gradually.”
Although he is of Burmese heritage, he has only just set up residence in Yangon over the last three years. But his connection to the country is growing at a steady clip. For one, his wife hails from Myanmar — they were introduced through business contacts — but he declines to speak more about her. “I’ve always known about Myanmar through family ties, but never had a chance to live there,” he says. “The people of Myanmar are very charming, very religious, calm and peaceful as a culture and there’s a lot of appeal in that area.”
He visibly lights up when talking about the Landmark project in the heart of downtown Yangon, which he says has the “potential to define the central business district of Yangon”. This 10-acre project comprises a luxury residential condominium tower, serviced apartment building, business hotel, two office towers and a retail podium. The jewel will be the restoration and conversion of the former Burma Railway Company Headquarters, which was built in 1877, into the Yangon Peninsula Hotel.
“It is a beautiful red building that every Yangon resident knows. It has so much history behind it and it is very exciting to restore it to its former grandeur with a mix of modernity with the old,” he says.
International experience, local knowledge
It is this combination of local insights with international appeal that has made Yoma Strategic so successful, says Pun. It is no coincidence that the company is listed in Singapore.
“Singapore ranks as one of the world’s main financial hubs. It has the right infrastructure, framework and corporate governance, and it is important that we list in a place where investors have a lot of confidence in, given that Myanmar is an emerging market where there are a lot of uncertainties,” says Pun, who flies into Singapore once a month. “Myanmar has always been fairly close to Singapore and with Singapore being a landing spot for regional investment, this helps bring in a lot of investments into Myanmar from here.”
The company’s international outlook is also an advantage when working with foreign partners. “You can relate to the same things and talk the same business language,” he says, noting that Yoma Strategic has a long-standing strict anti-corruption policy that foreign investors value. At the same time, “any foreign investor going into Myanmar wants to make sure their partner subscribes to the local values, understands the sensitivity of the people and to be there in helping the country grow”.
This clear sense of direction keeps him going. “Some of the projects that we do may not be anything special in an international environment, but in the Myanmar context, they are in every way groundbreaking,” he says.
For example, the Star City satellite town project is Yangon’s biggest real estate development for a reason. He points out that infrastructural issues continue to plague the city, such as electricity and water shortages, as well as cramped living conditions, and then outlines how the satellite town will alleviate these problems.
He explains: “A lot of these people live in these conditions not because they can’t afford to live anywhere else, but it is because they don’t have anywhere else to move to. We really see this as an opportunity to improve living conditions and improve lifestyles. The only way you can do this in an effective manner is to build on a larger plot of land where you can provide all the infrastructure.”
This is why at Star City, the company has invested in not just a water treatment facility and back-up electricity generators, but also a hospital and an international school within the estate.
“The satellite town can change the way people live — by taking people outside the city centre, where they have more focus on health, sport and bringing up their children up in a healthy, green manner,” he says.
But being a trailblazer can come with its drawbacks, he acknowledges. From detractors who say the satellite towns are too far away from the city centre to take off, to competitors who imitate them, he’s experienced it all. “We’ve even seen sales contracts where it is exactly a cut-and-paste version of mine,” he says. “I take it as a compliment.”
He brings up the example of the Louvre pyramid in Paris, which was designed by Chinese American architect I M Pei, an architect he particularly admires. “When I talk about being daring with a development, that’s what it is. When it was built, it was such a contentious issue, but now you consider it a landmark of Paris.”
“These things will come because if you are daring with your mission, you will create something at that time that no one has thought about. Because it is such a new concept, people reject it,” he says. “But if it is truly something of beauty, very quickly people will turn around.”