If there is one topic that gets Esther An fired up, it’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) – integrating responsible business practices into a company’s day-to-day operations. A judge in the ACCA Singapore Sustainability Awards last April, An is head of CSR at City Developments Ltd (CDL). In her time with the company, she has played a major part in driving the property giant’s efforts to embrace sustainable practices which have won CDL a string of local and international accolades.
An’s CSR journey began in 1995 when she was recruited to set up the public relations department for the rapidly growing listed group. While she had prior experience in advertising and communications, she lacked a real estate background. This was, however, seen as an advantage, with managing director Kwek Leng Joo seeking someone with a new perspective to help revamp the developer’s image and re-examine engagement with stakeholders.
When Kwek asked An about the public’s perception of the building industry, she was blunt. ‘I told him frankly that I didn’t think the sector enjoyed a very positive image because many people felt that the building sector had a negative impact on the environment. It’s more like you destroy first before you construct,’ An says.
Kwek agreed with her view. ‘He wanted someone fresh to come on board, without any baggage, to confront the problem head on,’ An recalls.
An joined CDL at a time when the company was undergoing a leadership succession after the demise in 1994 of Kwek Hong Png, the founder of the Hong Leong Group, CDL’s parent. The new leaders were keen to remodel CDL’s business approach, says An.
‘When we started, our vision was to change our business model to one where we would conserve while we construct. It was a very broad and bold vision.’ The aim was to minimise any negative impact on the environment and the community while growing the company, An adds. At that time, CSR was far from being a buzzword in the corporate world.
An says that CDL had to ensure that its vision was filtered down throughout its operations, including to contractors and sub-contractors as well as the architects and engineers who work with the main contractors.
It was a steep learning curve for An, a self-professed workaholic who was used to putting in long hours. Born and bred in Hong Kong, after graduation she first worked for the Government Information Services Department before being employed as account manager with advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. At the agency, it was not uncommon for her to work through the night to film TV commercials for a client before heading back to the office in the morning.
In 1990, she moved to Singapore after marrying a Singaporean. Stints at Saatchi & Saatchi and then Overseas Union Bank followed before she was hired by CDL.
She eagerly rose to the challenge to set up a new public relations department. ‘Even as a mother, I grabbed the opportunity and said yes, though it’s never easy to start things from ground zero, without an SOP [standard operating procedure] or manual to follow,’ she says.
She found the position to be a perfect fit for her. ‘I am quite an adventurous person. I like to pioneer something, to do things that I have never done before.’
An now wears three hats at CDL, with CSR her main portfolio. A complementary role is that of general manager of corporate affairs where she supervises and guides the corporate communications department; she is also Kwek’s executive assistant.
An chairs a CSR committee comprising several sub-committees covering a whole spectrum of components, of which risk management and corporate governance are the most important. The other elements of CSR include the environment, human resource and labour practices, responsible products, community engagement and involvement and human rights.
For CSR efforts to gain traction, the challenge, says An, is securing leadership commitment, resources and internal buy in, which requires getting stakeholders to understand the company’s vision. »
‘I was very fortunate that I had strong leadership commitment which empowered me to engage all the other heads of department and divisions to come on board together,’ she says. With Kwek’s mandate, projects could be implemented quickly and effectively.
CDL has adopted a triple-bottom-line approach as a key CSR concept. ‘That means we don’t just take care of the financial bottom line; we also have to deliver good social and environmental bottom line,’ An says.
One way to gauge how CDL has been faring on this score is through its sustainability report that has been published annually on a voluntary basis since 2008. An points out that CDL was the first Singapore-listed company to publish a Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Level A+ sustainability report in 2012, covering the group’s environmental andw social performance for 2011. (The + sign indicates that the report has been validated by an external auditor.)
Practising CSR goes beyond the feel-good factor, An emphasises. ‘There are many tangible and intangible reasons and benefits. Among them is branding and reputation,’ she says. ‘CDL is the first and only Singapore company listed on three international sustainability benchmarks, which recognises that it is aligned with international best practices. That has elevated our standing, especially among international institutional investors.’
Those benchmarks are the FTSE4Good Index Series, the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices and The Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations published by Canadian company Corporate Knights. This year marks the fourth consecutive year that CDL has made it to the Global 100 ranking.
But CDL is by no means sitting on its CSR laurels. ‘The recognition and listings and international accolades affirm that we are on the right track. But it doesn’t mean that now we can stop. It’s a continuing process,’ An stresses.
Indeed, among the CSR initiatives that she has developed is Project: Eco-Office, launched by CDL and the Singapore Environment Council in 2002 to help offices implement environmentally friendly practices by raising awareness among staff. Businesses are given kits with posters and stickers with green messages – such as those reminding people to switch off the lights when they are not in use – for display in their offices. They can also assess their eco-friendly credentials using an online rating system, and those who fare well can apply for an Eco-Office Label.
‘This is one of my pet projects,’ says An. ‘I feel very happy that we came up with the idea and expanded it, and it is no longer confined to CDL tenants any more. Many public sector organisations have joined.’
In 2011, CDL launched the Young CSR Leaders award with the Singapore Compact for CSR, the national organisation charged with promoting CSR. Teams of students are matched with selected small and medium-sized enterprises, with each team required to submit a proposal to transform the company into an exemplary sustainable corporation. ‘We want to develop the next generation of CSR champions,’ An says. ‘Nothing beats starting young.’
Youth engagement is something An feels particularly strongly about. She cannot imagine retiring, but should that day come, she would like to continue to educate by giving talks on CSR to students.
‘A good thing about this job is that I can use my work position to serve worthy causes that I believe in – for example, youth development and protecting the environment. I have some friends who quit the corporate world to join NGOs. They envy me for my position and in fact it’s through this corporate platform that I can do a lot more.’
Suki Lor, journalist