by Lynette Leong
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
At the peak of the global financial crisis of 2008, I was the CEO of the largest commercial real estate investment trust (REIT) in Singapore. As a publicly listed company on the stock exchange, we were responsible for maximizing shareholder value by generating profits every quarter, no matter what the markets were doing.
We faced a crisis of our own when a major tenant in one of our office buildings decided not to renew their lease, leaving us with 32% of the building standing vacant. We were under huge pressure on how to deal with these losses, especially since demand for office space from new tenants was low.
One morning, an employee came in excited to announce that she’d found a tenant: one willing to pay one and a half times the asking rent for a short term lease! We would not have to report a loss to our shareholders! This patch for the vacancy seemed to be a godsend, but when I asked who the tenant was, she revealed it was a casino that wanted to use the space to train croupiers for an 18 month period.
My immediate response was no: we could not rent the space to this company. My faith and conscience went against participating in casino-building and all that went with it. My employee pointed out that we were in a desperate situation. “What are we going to do?” she asked. “We have no tenant lined up, and it doesn’t look like we’ll have one for a long while!”
I had no immediate answers for my colleague, so I said to her, “Ok, let’s go for a prayer walk. We’re going to give this up to God.” This employee was a Christian, but had never heard of a prayer walk. At the time I hadn’t really practiced prayer walking much either, but I felt like I wanted to walk around the building and we could pray and walk together, asking the Lord to take control over the situation.
So she and I headed out to the office building and walked around, up and down, and all the way through the vacant building, asking God to take control and provide for us as Jehovah Jireh. The words of Psalm 15:1-2 came to mind: “LORD, who can dwell in your tent? Who can live in your holy mountain? The one who lives blamelessly, practices righteousness, and acknowledges the truth in his heart.”
Determined to trust God and be blameless, we turned the prospective tenant down.
There was no immediate solution. We were still faced with this threatening risk that we would not find a tenant for a long time, but we had to have faith that God was working, even though we couldn’t see anything happening. So we waited.
Several weeks later, I had a sudden download of wisdom from the Lord: this office building was situated in a prime residential and retail area in Singapore, and maybe it was not in an ideal location for an office-building anyway! So, we decided to apply to the government for a Change of Use permit, rezoning it from being office space and allowing us to redevelop it into apartments. Such a permit was rarely given in land-scarce Singapore especially in that location but miraculously, the government not only approved our application but did it within a few months!
However, our REIT specialized in commercial real estate, so we would not be able to do the residential development of the rezoned building. So, I began exploring the option of finding a buyer for the building as future apartments.
Fairly soon, we found a buyer. Not only was this location for high-end residential and retail use attractive to the buyer, the 32% vacancy which had been such a liability to us before as office space actually became an advantage as the buyer had to vacate only the remaining 68% office tenants to make way for the redevelopment. As a result, they offered to buy at 43% more than the value of the existing building as office use!
In the end, we saw God reward our obedience and answer our prayers. While that short term tenant would have given us approximately US$8 million of rental income for only 18 months, rezoning and selling the building yielded us US$86 million in profit!
In the months that followed, whenever we met with any difficulty, my employee and I headed outside and went prayer walking. Many more employees joined us for prayer walks over the years. I have seen God’s promises to be true again and again in our times of corporate crisis: when we pray, he hears us. And when we ask for wisdom, he gives it generously (James 1:5).
Lynette Leong is the CEO of Environmental, Social and Governance Funds & Stewardship for CapitaLand Investment in Singapore. Prior to this role, Lynette was CEO of CapitaLand Commercial Trust, where she led the profitable growth of its assets to triple in value and become the largest commercial REIT and office landlord in Singapore with high sustainability standards.