Some of the most enduring architectural images of the COVID-19 pandemic are the world’s eerily deserted shopping malls and airport terminals. To be at the helm of a company that manages and operates shopping malls and malls in airports would have tested the nerve of the most skilled CEO.
Thankfully, WCT Malls Management in Malaysia – which operates Paradigm Mall Petaling Jaya, Paradigm Mall Johor Bahru, gateway@klia2 and SkyPark Terminal – was in the hands of CEO Selena Chua.
Since earning her Bachelor of Science in Estate Management at the National University of Singapore, Chua has built a resume that showcases her extensive retail industry experience. She was Leasing Director for SRCM for more than a decade, two years as General Manager for John Little Department Store and nine years as Vice President at the pioneering Capitaland Retail.
People don’t hang around the malls just for the air-conditioning and coffee like they used to. Even our aunties who were not online are now online.
In her six years as CEO of Malls Management, Chua has been instrumental in the growth of WCT Malls.
Under Chua’s leadership, the company has become one of the leading mall operators in Malaysia. Before the pandemic, Chua says her first three years were highly dynamic.
"Within six months of joining the company, I opened Paradigm Johor Bahru," she says of the 120,000-square-meter mall. "Nobody believed we could open the mall on the promised date but we did."
Chua then quickly switched modes and revamped their airport mall as part of an extremely profitable year.
"In 2019, we outperformed all the other divisions of WCT, even though we started as the smallest division. So we were on a high," she recalls.
But in 2020, the pandemic changed everything. Still, Chua looked for the opportunities such as digitalizing the company. She also used the time to upgrade the malls with new plumbing, lights, toilets, interiors and signage while undertaking the most stringent COVID-prevention protocols to keep her workers, shoppers and retailers safe.
For a business that relies on its tenants, Chua chose to pursue a compassionate approach.
"We spent much time listening to our tenants and understanding their individual issues," she says. "We crafted new ways to help them, and it wasn’t just about giving them rebates.
"We had to think of creative ways to help them ensure cash flow and continuity of business. While many lost tenants during the pandemic, we maintained our occupancy."
In 2023, WCT Malls Management won the Marketing Initiative of the Year at the Retail Asia Awards for its Voucher Bonanza Sale scheme. It encouraged people to return to malls with discount vouchers, financially boosting struggling businesses while attracting customers with attractive deals. It also attracted new businesses into the mall and motivated existing tenants to renew their leases.
While many lost tenants during the pandemic, we maintained our occupancy.
According to Chua, shopping patterns have changed as people visit malls with specific intentions.
"People don’t hang around the malls just for the air-conditioning and coffee like they used to. Even our aunties who were not online now are," she says.
Focus on community
Chua is dealing with two specific properties: airport malls and community malls.
"Other people may call them suburban malls. We call them community malls because we exist for the community," she says. "Our patrons need to touch and feel more than just pure retailing.
"Now we must give them a reason and purpose to visit, such as meeting friends and relatives, eating or undertaking activities they cannot do online or at home. We’ve switched up the dynamics by offering more classes, entertainment and edutainment."
Even though she is the CEO, Chua knows what her patrons need because she is always on the ground. Rather than fancy air and graces, she likes to visit her malls incognito as a regular shopper.
"I don’t like to be recognized," she says. "Nobody knows I’m there because I’m walking around in my shorts, T-shirt and cap. I need to feel the inconvenience if I’m carrying my bag.
"How does the shopper feel if they go to the washroom? What’s it like to walk through the car park? Therefore, I know what the issues are, the problems they face."
I walk my malls like a shopper to understand their needs.
And these aren’t just quick visits.
"For example, when I’m in Johor Bahru, I don’t just pop in," she says. "I’ll stay a couple of days, eating, shopping and walking around the mall. I walk my malls like a shopper to understand their needs."
Beyond the malls
Chua’s thinking extends outside the mall, with the company supporting local charities.
"We have a food bank that collects food, dry goods for the poor. We also work with various children’s homes," she explains. "This year we collected and revamped all our company’s old laptops and desktop computers. Then we gave them to different homes so the children will now be exposed to technology."
From the community to the C-suite, Chua maintains a generous mindset. She has her eye on the next generation of leadership.
"Young people are now better educated, but studying and working are very different," she says. "We ask our young staff to join us at our monthly Head of Department meetings so that they learn how we make our decisions. I make it a point to explain why I do certain things based on specific numbers that they see in the financial statements."
At the meetings, Chua shares the company’s performance with the staff and discusses how we can improve and rectify the items that are not in order.
"This way, we train our next generation of leaders."