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“徐榮燦,亞洲奧萊教父”—— 新加坡《海峽時報》獨家對話砂之船集團董事局主席




Vito Xu,Don of Asian Outlet Malls



In some ways, Mr Vito Xu's life mirrors the spectacular rise of China and its embrace of the outside world after the late Deng Xiaoping opened the economy to foreign investment four decades ago, setting in motion history's most amazing economic leap by any nation.

There's first the name, Vito, which is a favourite among Italians and draws its roots from the Latin word "vita" (life). Not one you would ordinarily associate with a person born Xu Rongcan and into a humble farming family in Chongqing. 




The chairman of Singapore-listed Sasseur Reit gave himself that name because he has been a lover of all things Italian since his student days. That's also when he began his entrepreneurial journey with 6,500 yuan borrowed from his mother and brother, when he opened a small cafe at his university.

徐榮燦是新交所上市房地產投資信托基金(Sasseur Reit)的董事局主席,他給自己取了這個名字,因為他從學生時代起就熱愛意大利。也是在那時,他開啟了自己的創業之旅,從母親和哥哥那里借了6500元,在大學里開了一家小咖啡館。


It wasn't the most successful of businesses but, by then, the idea of running his own business was fully in the heart of the young Xu. Two years later, while in Shenzhen, he saw an opportunity for trading in clothing and, with that insight, opened a shop in his home town. That year - 1992 - he grossed his first million yuan in revenue.



Today, at a time when many Chinese malls are struggling, Mr Xu presides over a bunch of profitable outlet malls that he first opened in Chongqing, but is now taking farther afield in China. Four of those malls are grouped under the Sasseur Reit, listed in March last year, which last week nudged a billion dollars in market capitalisation before easing to $962 million at last Friday's market close.

如今,在中國許多購物中心陷入困境之際,徐榮燦的奧萊卻越來越好。他最初在重慶開設了第一家奧萊購物中心,現在正把觸角伸向更遠的中國市場。目前砂之船在中國經營著10多家超級奧萊,其中四家奧萊作為Sasseur Reit的初始資產去年在新加坡成功上市,Sasseur Reit上周市值接近10億新元,上周五收盤9.62億新元。


"My father was illiterate, but a village leader," Mr Xu told me recently, reflecting on his now three-decades-old journey as a businessman. "There was little experience in business."

The young businessman went on a long tour of ltaly and France in 1987 and was dazzled by what he saw. Paris and Rome were also capitals of design and high fashion. People waited breathlessly every year for the latest releases from houses such as those named after the Parisian designer Yves Saint Laurent and the Florentine genius Salvatore Ferragamo.

“我父親不識字,他是村里生產隊的隊長,”回憶起自己30多年的經商歷程,徐榮燦感慨道:“我幾乎沒有經商的經驗。” 1987年,這位年輕的商人在意大利和法國進行了一次漫長的旅行,他被眼前的景象驚呆了。巴黎和羅馬是設計和高級時尚之都,每年伊夫·圣洛朗(Yves Saint Laurent)和薩爾瓦托·菲拉格慕(Salvatore Ferragamo)等大牌的新品發布都是萬眾期待的盛事。

The people, he felt, were welcoming of him. Down in Sicily, they even thought he was Japanese because, at the time, few there had seen a Chinese person. Mr Xu felt at home. Like China, Italy too was an ancient civilisation, where people carried strong family values.

Returning to Chongqing, where people had just started to grow out of the drab clothing of the Mao Zedong era, he started his own high-end fashion clothing with a shop at the Li Ka Shing-owned mall in the city's Liberation Square area. Interestingly, he sold not only labels of the famed design houses but also his own brand of women's wear, which he named Sasseur.

The name stems from his first business, a cafe whose moniker translates in Chinese as "ship of sand", after a famous tune of the time by a Taiwanese singer. "Sasseur" is apparently a French transliteration, suggested by a Frenchman patron who was in Chongqing teaching the language.



Art Commerce 藝術商業

His corporate philosophy, he said, is art commerce - artistry and sophistication blended with commerce. As for his company's corporate colours, the decision didn't take too long. He borrowed the national colours of Italy.



That dual approach - fascination with the foreign and an eye for the quality home-grown - is sustained to this day. While Sasseur outlet malls have shops selling the biggest global brand names such as Burberry and Armani, there are plenty of Chinese brands as well with names like Li-Ning and Bosideng.



That leads me to wonder aloud why Asia, with its swiftly expanding purchasing power and vast pools of creativity, hasn't had more home-grown fashion brands. Could Sasseur play a role to advance their growth?

這讓我不禁想問: 為什么亞洲沒有更多的本土時裝品牌? 亞洲的購買力迅速增長,創意資源豐富。砂之船能起到促進它們成長的作用嗎?

"There are some good Chinese brands and many up-and-coming young designers," said Mr Xu, "But they will take time to gain more international recognition. Seven out of 10 tenants in my outlets are Chinese brands, so that's how Sasseur can help."



For now, the China market is chasing global trends but he sees a time when young Chinese will lead fashion trends at home and display their own unique characteristics.


In the popular perception of China, the nation is a den of counterfeit goods and knock-offs of global brands with weak protection for intellectual property. But things may be changing.


Earlier this year, Shiseido chief executive Masahiko Uotani tied up with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce platform company, to sell high-end cosmetics in China. When I expressed surprise to Mr Uotani that such a premium brand would link up with Alibaba, he gave me a perfectly reasonable explanation.

今年早些時候,資生堂首席執行官魚谷雅彥(Masahiko Uotani)與中國電商平臺公司阿里巴巴(Alibaba)合作,在中國銷售高端化妝品。當我對像資生堂這樣的高端品牌為何選擇與阿里巴巴合作時,他給了我一個非常合理的解釋。

Within Alibaba, he told me, there are two channels. One is a low-end offering like Taobao, which supplies cost-conscious customers, including in rural China. The other corridor, with which he is involved, is focused on growing high-end brands.



"Every time I meet Jack Ma or their management agency, I find them keen to grow the brand. So, we give them even Cle de Peau Beaute, our most high-end product. They do no discounting and know their product segment, and know how to precisely target the affluent segment in their 500 million customers who buy those products."

“每次我見到馬云或他們的管理層,我都發現他們渴望提升品牌。因此,我們最高端的產品系列—Cle de Peau Beaute也在淘寶進行了上線。他們非常了解自己的產品細分市場,對這一類產品不會進行打折促銷,他們知道如何精準鎖定購買這些產品的5億富裕階層客戶。”


This was news to me at the time. So, I asked Mr Xu about how he perceived the issue himself.

His own company, he said, imposed stiff penalties on any store in his outlet selling counterfeit goods. At the same time, Chinese increasingly preferred to buy genuine high-end products, if they could afford them. Indeed, thousands of them have been going overseas to buy the real stuff from fashion centres around the world.




At home, when they buy these goods, they prefer to do it in bricks-and-mortar outlets than on online platforms because of the personal touch and lifestyle experience, he explained, shrugging off the challenge from online rivals.



Not that Sasseur itself had not tried online collaborations. But it turns out that the experiment had not gone too well and the company discovered that the overlap in customers of regular stores was no more than 5 per cent at the maximum. The middle-income households that Sasseur outlets serve live within 30km of the facilities and look for lifestyle activity alongside their shopping. Online shoppers, on the other hand, tend to buy cheaper and more standardised products and tend to live farther away.



Why Singapore? 為什么選擇新加坡

Most Chinese companies looking for overseas investments tend to use Hong Kong if they need a convenient window to the world and I am curious to know why Sasseur picked Singapore to list its real estate investment trust. Mr Xu said he did so on the advice of a key investor, consumer-focused private equity firm L Catterton.

大多數尋求海外投資的中國企業,如果需要一個通向世界的便捷窗口,往往會選擇香港。我很好奇,為什么砂之船選擇新加坡作為其房地產投資信托基金的上市地點。徐榮燦表示,砂之船集團主要投資者、專注于消費者的私募公司L Catterton熟悉新加坡市場,為成功上市帶來了更多的支持。


To run the Reit, he hired the veteran Anthony Ang, an Imperial College and Insead-educated technocrat whose 35-year career included senior positions in ARA Group, GIC Real Estate and the Economic Development Board.

為管理房地產投資信托基金,他聘請了在帝國理工學院(Imperial College)和歐洲工商管理學院畢業的資深行業專家安東尼?洪明發(Anthony Ang)。擁有35年行業經驗的洪明發曾在ARA Group、GIC房地產和經濟發展局(Economic Development Board)擔任高級職位。


Mr Ang explains that, while the Hong Kong stock market is significantly larger than Singapore's, its Reit market is smaller, with just 11 of the entities listed there compared with about 45 in Singapore. The S-Reits are also more international, tending to attract global investors seeking an Asian play.



On a personal level, Mr Xu enjoys the island's orderliness and is frequently in Singapore over weekends. Indeed, he chose to send his three children here to give them international exposure, enrolling them at Stamford American School. His fashion-expert wife Yang Xue, on whom he bestowed the name Sasseur as a mark of affection and gratitude, lives here.



Sasseur Reit has had a good run in the year past, clocking sales growth of 20 per cent. Mr Xu sees no difficulty in maintaining that pace, more so since three of the four properties in it are new. And he plans to add more assets to the Reit in time to come.

As for concerns that a falling yuan could hurt profits when translated into Singapore dollars, he said there has been enough currency hedging to compensate. Besides, the Singdollar itself has slid in recent months. The long-term yuan-Singdollar rate, he said, should be fairly stable.



The wider Sasseur Group has 10 outlet malls, including the four bunched in the Reit. The group, he said, is looking at unprecedented growth opportunity. The next decade will be the golden era for the outlet business in China and the many distressed retail assets of traditional retailers offer his firm a tremendous opportunity to go asset-light and turn around the ones it picks.

而作為Sasseur Reit發起人的砂之船集團擁有更龐大的規模,包括Reit內的4家奧萊,砂之船集團在中國目前已經開業的奧萊一共有10家。徐榮燦表示集團正面臨前所未有的增長機遇。未來10年將是奧特萊斯在中國的黃金時代,傳統零售商的許多不良零售資產為他的公司提供了一個巨大的機會,使其輕資產化,并使其選擇的那些資產扭虧為盈。


In the past 18 months, no fewer than 140 potential deals have been placed in front of him. The Sasseur team has been picky, signing fewer than 10 new malls, and these will be up and running in the next two to three years.



I am curious to know his views on Singapore retail, now that he visits the island so regularly.



"The Singapore retail sector is well developed but it suffers from a common problem with retail the world over - most establishments are not differentiated and are lacking in the life and spirit that can excite shoppers," he said. "Retail should reflect more of local cultures and flavours so as to create an emotional connect."



The mother of the tennis-loving Mr Xu died 13 years ago and his father, now 83, lives in their home village of Erlanggang. Among his many blessings, he said, is that his work meshes so much with his love for art, while having his lady love as a business partner.



I asked the dapper 54-year-old Vito Xu about his favourite brand of clothing for personal use. 


"Tom Ford," he said, unhesitatingly. "Somehow, their suits are cut in a way that fits me better than any other brand I know."

“Tom Ford”他毫不猶豫地說。“他們家西裝的版型與裁剪比其他品牌都更適合我。”

Fast facts


Mr Vito Xu is chairman of the Sasseur Group and its Singapore-listed real estate investment trust (S-Reit), Sasseur Reit. He is 54 years old.

Born into a farming family in Erlanggang, Chongqing, Mr Xu was educated at Southwest Normal University. In 1989, with 6,500 yuan, he started his journey of "art commerce" by creating the Sasseur brand with a coffee house.

In 1992, he entered the clothing industry, opening a garment store and working as an agent for international brands.

He then created his own women's wear brand - Sasseur.

In 2008, he built Sasseur (Chongqing) Western Outlets, the first such outlet. It won that year's Top 10 Fashion Landmark of Chongqing. Mr Xu was also named Chongqing Fashion Icon by the local government.

The Sasseur Group today has 10 outlet malls in China.

Mr Xu was awarded Knight of the Order of the Italian Star by the Italian government in 2015.




Sasseur Reit is a Singapore-listed real estate investment trust that started trading on the Singapore Exchange in March last year.

The first listed outlet mall Reit in Asia, its initial portfolio comprises four retail outlet malls in China, located in Chongqing, Bishan, Hefei and Kunming, with a combined lettable area of 312,844 sq m and an occupancy rate of about 96 per cent.

Sasseur Reit is managed by Sasseur Asset Management, which is an indirect wholly owned subsidiary of Sasseur Cayman Holding.

The S-Reit has a market capitalisation of $962 million, based on its closing price last Friday.






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