Monica Lai is the complete antithesis of the stereotypical image of accountants as boring, dull and uninteresting. Glamorous, bright and very dynamic is nearer the mark. Monica, 49, is Group Deputy Managing Director for Ireka Corporation Berhad.
Graduating from City University, London, England with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) Degree in Accountancy and Economics, Monica worked for two international accounting firms in England (Ernst & Young) and Hong Kong (KPMG Peat Marwick) before joining Ireka in 1993. She wanted exposure to the corporate world and to bring back the learning experience to Ireka.
Today, Monica’s role in Ireka is to develop and implement business direction for the whole Group, and to manage and oversee the Group’s resources effectively. She is passionate about her work at Ireka and considers it a privilege to build on her father, Datuk Lai Siew Wah’s legacy of growing the company to its stature and size today.
Born in Kuala Lumpur, Monica strayed from home just long enough to study in Singapore at Tanjong Katong Girs’ School, then to the elite Rodean School in England before attaining her degree at City Univeristy, London. Her professional qualifications are from The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, The Malaysian Institute of Accountants and the Association of Taxation Institute.
Monica is central to steering Ireka on a trajectory of growth and innovation over the years. She was the driving force behind a small, high-level team that led to the listing of Aseana Properties Limited on the main market of the London Stock Exchange in April 2007, a first for a Malaysian property developer. The USD162m raised has led the way for Ireka and Aseana Properties Limited to develop its brand and business interests both in Vietnam and in Malaysia.
One of her crowning moments was the selling of the award winning The Westin Kuala Lumpur which made history in Malaysia for selling the hotel for RM1m per room in 2007. Today, thanks to Monica’s steering of the corporate funds, Ireka has added a hospital in Vietnam, three hotels in Malaysia, a shopping mall and 2,000 residential units in the upmarket Mont’ Kiara area of Kuala Lumpur to the Company’s portfolio. Monica also led the negotiations to sell the One Mont’ Kiara Mall and Office Towers in Mon’ Kiara at a record price of RM333 million in 2010.
She played a key role in the raising of RM515 million Medium Term Notes in 2011 to finance the Aloft KL Sentral Hotel, Harbour Mall Sandakan and the Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan Hotel. Monica is however especially proud of the RM100,000 raised at a Grand Charity Dinner in support of children with HIV in Malaysia during her tenure as President of the Kiwanis Club of Bukit Kiara in 2005/2006.
Ireka employs some 600 members of staff across its three core businesses of Infrastructure, Property and IT. The company was set up 48 years ago by Monica’s father, Datuk Lai Siew Wah starting off as an earthworks company in the tin mines, then being at the heart of nation building (e.g. NKVE Highway, KLIA runway, Tapah Reservoir etc.) and later into property development. Monica says that her father has taught her everything she knows about running a construction and property business successfully and with humility. “I learnt two very important things from my father – to know your business well because it is the only way to lead others to do what they are supposed to do and there is no easy way out of hard work!”
Monica is determined that Ireka’s business and operations remain competitive and the current priority is to expand its capital base so that they can meet the targets the company has set itself. Her vision is for Ireka to be a truly excellent construction based company
continuing to take up the challenge of creating properties that combine great originality and high value, thus making a tangible contribution to society.
Under her leadership, she would like to see Ireka nurturing its current qualified professionals and bringing in experts with different energy to seek new business opportunities that will steer the Ireka brand to new heights, and of course all this is to be done whilst caring for all its staff, and enhancing skills and expertise to maintain its entrepreneurial spirit.
“I want to push forward with the times, seeking to continually improve on our systems and to ensure that risk management is at the forefront of everything we do, a key requirement in today’s tough business world. We must of course achieve this without stifling creativity, for which Ireka has a reputation in the market.” As a boss, Monica is respected as the “go to” person for authoritative and decisive advice because she does not duck difficult situations. Her work ethic is quite simple, “I feel a great sense of responsibility towards Ireka’s staff because of my respect for the work they do, and their commitment to deliver for the company. I hope that my open and transparent management style means that colleagues can communicate with me directly and with ease.”
Her family is Monica’s life, especially her two teenage boys from whom she learns everything about being in the moment, enjoyment of modern music and current trends. In turn, they (and their friends) consider her the “coolest” mum! Monica says that from her soul mate and husband, Leonard Yee, she learns to stay grounded and to maintain a sense of humour about life. Monica manages to juggle a very demanding work life, being a daughter, wife and mum – all in the same breath. She takes it all in her stride and refuses to get overly stressed by it, or at least, manages it all in her inimitable style.
Monica is not afraid to try anything once and sportingly agreed to represent Ireka at the 2014 Rat race organised by The Edge newsgroup in the CEO category. She would be the first to agree that she is no sportswoman but was determined to do Ireka proud, and subsequently came second in the women’s CEO race. In conclusion, Monica’s main strengths are a mix of hard-working professionalism, an appetite for technical detail and the ability to get things done. If you were to ask Monica for her formula for life, she would say, “Make the most of everyday because it is a privilege, work hard because it really is the key to success and don’t take yourself too seriously!”