Mrs. Chiang was one of the first two women to be elected to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1995. She also holds directorships in the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund and Mandai Park Holdings.
Born in 1951 in Singapore, Mrs. Claire Chiang is the co-founder of renowned Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts. Through more than twenty years of development, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts has grown into a leading international operator and developer of premium resorts, hotels, residences, and spas, with 43 hotels and resorts, 62 spas, 75 retail galleries, and three golf courses in 25 countries. Currently, it operates four hotel brands, award-winning Banyan Tree and Angsana, as well as the newly established Cassia and Dhawa which offer different experiences to various target groups. In addition, it also operates Asia’s first and most awarded integrated resort in Laguna Phuket, Thailand – transformed from an abandoned and polluted tin mine purchased in 1983, as well as Laguna Bintan, Indonesia and Laguna Lăng Cô, Central Vietnam. Since the launch of the first Banyan Tree resort, Banyan Tree Phuket in 1994, the Group has also received recognition for its commitment to the overarching focus on sustainability towards environmental protection and developing communities where it plants its flags.
Mrs. Chiang was one of the first two women to be elected to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1995. She also holds directorships in the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund and Mandai Park Holdings. In 2015, she was promoted to be a member of Board of Directors for Denmark based ISS A/S. In the same year, she was voted as an Advisory Board Member of Academy of Chinese Medicine, Singapore (CMS), and most recently in April 2016, she was appointed a new Board member for Dufry AG, Switzerland.Besides focusing on business, she is also an active advocate for women’s rights, family life and the disadvantaged in society.
Were you born in a wealthy family that could back up your great success?
There are many children from great families who do not become leaders, and there are many who do not have great families but still become great leaders. Therefore, I always think leadership is a composition of personality, competence through training and experience from the journey you have.
I do not come from a rich family. There were 10 people in my family, all living in a two-bedroom flat and I had not had a bed to sleep in until I was 16. However, I never felt poor because I was lucky to have a mother who always believed in education and sent me to two very good schools. That was the early training, and I have to thank my parents who set the basis for my journey of learning. I love reading and I used to read at the libraries when I was young. For me, learning is a very important and endless process. I am still learning now at the age of 66. When I went to university, I met a very good mentor who gave me a good perspective: what development was about and what business was for besides money making which was obvious. They taught me that besides making profits, business is about creating values for the community and making the society resilient and strong. Since then, I have been involved with a lot of community services.
You are now a mother of two boys and one girl, how did you educate your children?
It cannot be denied that they were born into a wealthy family; what I could do is to teach them that wealth does not define a person but values do. Therefore, they started working since they were 14. They worked in the hotels, stayed in the dormitory and ate in the canteen. They took the bus to school. By the age of 16, they went to do community service – one of my sons went to Northern Vietnam, my younger son went to Burma while my daughter went to Brazil. It was not a day’s job. Since young, as a parent, I had to teach them about values as I believe in the foundation – Values. They were born in a wealthy family, but never lived wealthily. I had a budget for them.
They had to learn early about self-management and value management. I am very happy that my children have grown up to be good people. My eldest son is a good father to his 2-year-old boy. He does not mind doing little things such as bathing and feeding the baby. He is a responsible new father and the CEO of our food company in Thailand. More importantly, for me, values define a person and values strengthen the character, not wealth.
You are a successful woman, so do your children bond with you as a mother at home or do they feel pressured to live under the shadow of an overachieving parent?
It is overwhelming for children when their parents are successful because they have a lot to look up to and to follow. It is a matter of time, because the values that we gave them and taught them would help their confidence grow. They will gain their own experiences that they will be proud of as they grow older, and the journey with us as parents become closer. When they mature, I think they will appreciate what we do. We are a very close-knit family because we communicate a lot. Since they were young, we had established the meal of the day when we would all share what was going on that day – a daily discussion to be put on the table. We understand each other more, talk a lot and we can share life issues together.
We are a very verbal family and share our days via WhatsApp and calls. While travelling, I send them photos of places I go to and share with them my thoughts. We also go for three holidays a year as a family. With this communication, they learn, watch and feel what we, as the parents, are doing.
Yes, there will always be pressure as they will want to be successful like their parents, but it is constructive enough. As parents, we have to be mindful of that and give them enough space to be themselves. So we let them experiment and live their own life, try and do their own things. We must be there but not to “grab” them. It is about mutual respect – to give them the space to grow, something we need to be conscious of.
How can you describe your leadership style?
One word I would use to describe my leadership style is Adaptive. I am able to navigate. And I think women, in general, are good at it because they have to deal with so many things – they are good at multi-tasking. Adaptability and flexibility are what I learned from very early, which helps me prepare myself well to perform many different roles in politics, business, social and community activities, or in the family. On empowering the associates, it is important to exemplify my values to show what corporate culture means and the values we stand for through taskforce projects, where I get to work and coach the associates.
You are fulfilling many roles. How can you balance between private life and working life?
Women are like octopuses – the smartest creature in the ocean. An octopus has eight strong arms that can move in any direction, allowing it to take up many tasks at the same time. Women are good at that. An octopus’s brain spreads out over the whole body, making it sensorial. I am a multi-tasker, and the sensorial part of me enables me to have the insight and intuition to do things smarter.
With its soft body featuring 300 suction pads, the octopus is adaptable and can fit into many different environments. These are the qualities that I admire and aspire to be. An octopus is not good-looking. I think the good look is not what women should go for. If we are good-looking, we are lucky. However, beauty needs to be from the inside. When being attacked, the octopus will strike with its two hidden teeth to fight back. Thus, it is smart, adaptable and courageous.
The balancing act is a blend of reasons and experience, a blend of creativity and being smart. That is the composition you might learn in your journey when you have to work so much and with many things. More importantly, you need to know what is important to you, what to add in or take away, and how to do it because you cherish what you want and defend it. However, it could be the time when you do not know and do not have the values needed to drive you, and you might get confused. The balancing act is easy when you are very clear. You will not see Claire Chiang shopping in Singapore, I have no time for that. I can buy what I need along the way. You have to set priorities and trade-off because everyone has only 24 hours a day. As for me, I divide my time into small parts for work, for my family and for myself. My year plan is fixed for the year 2018.
Furthermore, I plan ahead all the important occasions for my family, with a notice to all members that I need them to be home at that time. No matter how busy we are, we still have family trips three times per year. I plan for my family, my business and the community. Planning skills are very important in order to prioritize what is important to you. I think I work hard and also play hard. For me, I enjoy my work from starting the Banyan Tree Gallery where I do merchandise shopping, to now looking at lifestyle programmes to bring people together so as to compose the Banyan Tree lifestyle community. There is no separation between working and playing; they are all integrated. That’s what I like about it.
Being a businesswoman and a leader, do you think that women need to try harder to get to the same position as men?
Yes, women do have to work harder. The world and reality are male-dominated. There are a lot of prejudices. The system is still not positive for women. Do you want to change this fact? Yes. Can you change that? Not fast enough. So what can you change? You change yourself, change your mind and change your spirit. You choose the place you play, the company you work for that is pro-woman and pro-family. You have a choice. Don’t wait for people to change their mind. Don’t wait for the government to change their policies. For thousands of years, the situation has been like that. Change yourself. Choose an area you are passionate about, and choose the people you like to work with.
You get positive influence and you act. People are motivated because there are meaning and purposes. If you do not have that, I will tell you to walk out. Hope, motivation, and changes can happen. If each one of us does that bit and vocalize our wishes, the world will listen and change. Nowadays, more women are getting education, but the wages are still low. If we walk out and set up our own companies, the labour market will have fewer working women, which will lead to the demand for them. Maybe those positive changes are not for our generation but for our daughter’s generation. The labour market will then have to pay attention to our daughters. If it’s not for our daughter’s generation, it will be for our granddaughter’s generation. So each of us can continue to make changes.
Being an inspiring woman, what message would you like to send to all the girls and women who admire you and would like to thrive for success?
Do not just think of all the obstacles around you; get over them. Look at what you have. Polish what you have, and look for solutions to handle the problem. If you cannot handle the obstacles by yourself, find help from your partner, family or friends. Don’t struggle with the issues alone. Don’t feel that you are alone. However, being yourself is still the first step to change.
When you are young at the age of 30, go and work for a company as you might not know what you want. You should work until you know what values and what matters to you, and you make a decision. Stick with that company for three to five years to really know.
Most importantly, ask yourself every day – “what do you want in life?” The purpose defines it. For me, the power of the mind is what is going to sustain me. Learning, reading and using the mind to think of the values that can guide us – especially the Asian values that befit us. Finding the ‘I’ within the society and family, and the ‘I’ within myself, negotiate the conflicts of “what do I want?”
In the end, who will define the purpose of life for you? It’s yourself. Your own mind to yourself – you own the strongest resource that no one can take away. Cherish, defend and polish – The solution to the world in this century lies with women. The woman power has to be the change-maker. We can create new values for the next generation if we seize the opportunity. Women have to respect themselves, love themselves and other women, love what we want to do and believe in all that so as to create that change. I feel that Vietnamese women are learners – they are desperate for a new order, with incredible energy and grit for life. I hope you do not take values from the West; embrace your heritage and use it as a base to grow.
Have you had any common principles that affect whatever you do in different roles?
I am holding many positions but there is always the thread that ties all various sectors I am involved in, including politics, business, society and community as well as women’s groups. Those are my commitments to creating a better community, and my value in having a responsible business to support community resilience. Those are also what helps me keep a balance between business profits and community benefits. I have to face a chain of endless decisions to make every day. I am in the business so I have to take efficiency, accountability and the return on investment into consideration. However, it is not always one thing over another. It is about finding a solution where people’s values will always be enhanced.To give an example, I think Banyan Tree Group is the only hospitality business in the world where all service charges are given to the staff. One third will be used for service recovery in the case where staff members make a mistake. Another one third will be used for training and welfare. The rest is distributed equally.
We don’t make profits over people, we choose fairness for all. Empowering people is not just giving money. We have our staff do mentoring on young people. Besides giving scholarships, we also make efforts to figure out what the youths are doing and why they are doing it. We actually do, not just talk.In order to show how we conserve the environment, I can provide another example. Banyan Tree Group is also the first hotel that actually employs a full-time marine scientist – a conservation specialist – in Maldives to look at how to protect corals, conduct research, collect data and share with government and UN agencies. We are happy that with our championing of the cause, the Maldives government now requires all hotels to have CSR champions and researchers. In this situation, we choose environment over profit.
Those two examples are to tell more about the mission we are pursuing: “Embracing the Environment, Empowering People”. The empowerment enables our staff to engage and participate actively in doing good deeds for the society. Our hotels will also map out what the community needs are – with specific sustainability projects in their destinations.
Could you share with our readers about Banyan Tree Group’s expanding plan?
We will be expanding our company’s footprints globally. In the next three years, ten hotels will be opened in China. By 2025, we will have had another ten in the rest of the world. Tourism has a lot of potential, especially in Vietnam, a country with 19 million young people and many beautiful, undiscovered destinations. There are many things that we, as an international hospitality group, can do to let the world know more about Vietnam and let Vietnam connect with the rest of the world. With this continual expansion, we hope Banyan Tree’s valued guests can easily find Banyan Tree Group’s existence everywhere they go around the world.
Thank you so much for this inspiring talk. I wish you good health and great success in any role you will perform in the future.