Self-made billionaire

By Cecilia Chow and Timothy Tay / EdgeProp | September 6, 2019 3:10 PM SGT
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Chairman of Worldwide Hotels Choo Chong Ngen had dropped out of school at the age of 14. “I didn’t like to study,” he concedes. “I was very playful and always cutting classes.” However, the hotel tycoon has always been very entrepreneurial. He grew up in a kampong in Hougang, which in the early days was mainly forested area with several pig farms before it was developed into Singapore’s biggest HDB housing estate with 51,000 housing units.
At the age of 10, he started selling icecream for five cents to passers-by. “My father didn’t give me any pocket money, so I [sold] ice-cream to earn money for myself,” says Choo. He went on to become a fishmonger, and then sold textiles. By the age of 21, he had saved enough to purchase his first investment property – a strata-titled shop unit in Katong Shopping Centre.
Worldwide Hotels chairman Choo Chong Ngen’s first business was selling ice-cream at the age of 10 (Pictures: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
The next decade saw him amass more strata-titled shop units in Katong Shopping Centre, City Plaza, Sultan Plaza and Lucky Plaza.
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“He has sold most of the shop units, although we still own six units in Sultan Plaza,” says his daughter, Carolyn Choo, Worldwide Hotels’ managing director and CEO. “But since going into hotels, he has expanded his portfolio to more than 100 investment properties.”
Choo’s hotel portfolio was recently valued at $3 billion. Choo had also developed six apartment projects in Singapore – both within and outside of Geylang – before focusing on hotels for the past 25 years.
His early years as a hotel owner and operator were “very difficult”, he says. His first hotel was at Geylang Lorong 16. “I had to run around and tackle all the issues myself,” says Choo in Mandarin. He is still very hands-on today. After attending board meetings most mornings, Choo will visit his hotels, resolve issues and inspect his properties to see if anything needs upgrading. “My father is personally involved in the design of the hotels,” says Carolyn. “He likes to talk to the staff and get customer feedback.”
Carolyn, Choo’s only daughter, is managing director and CEO of Worldwide Hotels Group
Choo’s fortune is likely to rise on the back of Singapore’s strong tourism performance over the past two years. Singapore attracted 11.1 million visitors in the first seven months of 2019. This was 1.8% higher than the same period in 2018. For the whole of 2018, total visitor arrivals totalled 18.5 million. The average occupancy rate (AOR) for hotels in the first seven months of 2019 was 86.1%, just 10 basis points shy of last year’s 86.2%, which had been the highest since 2007 when the AOR hit 86.8%.
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Certainly, the global market uncertainty and the US-China trade war are having an impact on the Singapore economy. However, Choo remains confident about Singapore’s prospects. “In Singapore, land is very limited,” he says. Development land is “getting lesser and lesser”, he adds.
Carolyn agrees. Prior to the tender for the Club Street hotel site which they purchased, the last hotel development site offered for sale in the Government Land Sales (GLS) programme was in 2013, she points out. That site was on East Coast Road and has since been developed by a joint venture between Master Contract Services and Keong Hong Holdings into two hotels: a 131-room Hotel Indigo and a 451-room Holiday Inn Express; as well as Katong Square, a multi-storey complex with carpark, F&B outlets and retail shops.
An upcoming hotel site that will be launched for sale is on River Valley Road. The hotel site is on the Reserve List of the 2H2019 GLS programme. The future hotel will be linked to the Fort Canning MRT Station, and is located within walking distance of Clarke Quay and Fort Canning Park.
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Hence, Choo believes there will “definitely” be opportunities. He adds: “It’s how you view an opportunity and make use of it.” That was how he made his fortune: By entering the no-frills, budget hotel business in Singapore, which slipped under the radar of most of the giant hotel groups.
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