In an ever-advancing digital landscape, GuocoLand’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Andrew Chew sheds light on the risks and benefits of evolving ahead of the curve, rather than at the back of the pack.
Tatiyana Emylia | 8 October 2021
Photo by: Qinthara Fasya
Chief Financial Officer for GuocoLand
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The saying seemed to ring true in the built environment sector, where digitalisation appeared incompatible with the labour-intensive nature of this industry—that is, until the pandemic hit. With employees suddenly stuck at home, a number of firms found themselves having to aggressively push for digitalisation in the hopes of resuming construction and maintenance operations. A pioneer on this front, premier regional property company GuocoLand’s CFO, Andrew Chew, spoke with DigitalCFO Asia on the long-overdue evolution and hopes for the coming future.
Evolving as an opportunity rather than a solution
The company had long been exploring avenues to digitalise even before COVID-19 hit as part of their measures towards upscaling. GuocoLand had installed real estate management software to digitalise transactions including invoicing, sending reminders, payments, credit control, and the like. Doing so meant that the company did not need to increase their headcount as they expanded, even after adding a million square feet of additional space under management when Guoco Tower opened in 2016.
Digitalisation means more than cutting costs. When the pandemic hit, there was less disruption to existing processes: most data needed was already uploaded into the cloud, so employees could easily work from home and operate without much troubleshooting. While common fears surrounding digitalisation involve a complete AI takeover, system upgrading instead provides more opportunities for employees to upskill. Staff would also be able to focus on more value-added work rather than having to devote time to mundane tasks and transactions.
Teaching an old dog new tricks
On the flipside, Chew acknowledged the difficulty of digitalisation in the built environment. More than labour, processes involved for development are heavily paper-intensive, with countless regulations to follow and documentation to track. But it also meant that an overhaul for the industry was long overdue. It was when these processes were brought to a halt during the pandemic that became the catalyst for GuocoLand, OCBC, and local fintech Doxa to come together for a strategic partnership announced earlier last month.
The three entities are currently piloting the industry’s first end-to-end digital workflow solution for development projects, named Doxa Connex for Developers. The platform digitally connects all parties involved in these projects, enabling main contractors to virtually issue e-invoices across relevant parties, including architects, consultants, property developers, and finally to banks, to finally issue payments to the main contractor. The pilot program will be in supporting GuocoLand’s luxury freehold condominium project, Meyer Mansion.
If successful, the project could have major implications on how the industry may operate in the coming years: GuocoLand has set their sights on the long-term goal of streamlining the entire procurement and payments workflow process across the built environment value chain, looking perhaps at payments for subcontractors next as well as rolling out the platform across more complicated projects, such as Guoco Midtown.
For CFOs looking to digitise, it is understandable that most would not want to risk disrupting their workflow amid experimentation. One simple but significant step towards automation would be to implement a robotic process automation (RPA) within the relevant process. This sets up software to automate existing workflows, while ensuring hardly any change to the actual process—all that changes is who operates them, from human labour to digital automation.
The more tedious, but arguably more rewarding method would be to critically examine the company’s processes and changing whatever seems unnecessary. This may involve taking apart certain processes or chains entirely, but ultimately results in a more streamlined workflow.
It is clear that GuocoLand picked the latter.
With RPA, change happens only within the company, but when re-examining old cogs in the machine, firms have the potential to transform existing processes not just internally but as an entire industry as well.
Chew said: “With Doxa, various parties within the process chain are involved and transformed, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do here. It’s a small part of a bigger jigsaw puzzle, but an important part too.”