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“徐荣灿,亚洲奥莱教父”—— 新加坡《海峡时报》独家对话砂之船集团董事局主席




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.

徐荣灿是新交所上市房地产投资信托基金(Sasseur Reit)的董事局主席,他给自己取了这个名字,因为他从学生时代起就热爱意大利。也是在那时,他开启了自己的创业之旅,从母亲和哥哥那里借了6500元,在大学里开了一家小咖啡馆。


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,在中国许多购物中心陷入困境之际,徐荣灿的奥莱却越来越好。他最初在重庆开设了第一家奥莱购物中心,现在正把触角伸向更远的中国市场。目前砂之船在中国经营着10多家超级奥莱,其中四家奥莱作为Sasseur Reit的初始资产去年在新加坡成功上市,Sasseur Reit上周市值接近10亿新元,上周五收盘9.62亿新元。


"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.

“我父亲不识字,他是村里生产队的队长,”回忆起自己30多年的经商历程,徐荣灿感慨道:“我几乎没有经商的经验。” 1987年,这位年轻的商人在意大利和法国进行了一次漫长的旅行,他被眼前的景象惊呆了。巴黎和罗马是设计和高级时尚之都,每年伊夫·圣洛朗(Yves Saint Laurent)和萨尔瓦托·菲拉格慕(Salvatore Ferragamo)等大牌的新品发布都是万众期待的盛事。

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 艺术商业

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?

这让我不禁想问: 为什么亚洲没有更多的本土时装品牌? 亚洲的购买力迅速增长,创意资源丰富。砂之船能起到促进它们成长的作用吗?

"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.

今年早些时候,资生堂首席执行官鱼谷雅彦(Masahiko Uotani)与中国电商平台公司阿里巴巴(Alibaba)合作,在中国销售高端化妆品。当我对像资生堂这样的高端品牌为何选择与阿里巴巴合作时,他给了我一个非常合理的解释。

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."

“每次我见到马云或他们的管理层,我都发现他们渴望提升品牌。因此,我们最高端的产品系列—Cle de Peau Beaute也在淘宝进行了上线。他们非常了解自己的产品细分市场,对这一类产品不会进行打折促销,他们知道如何精准锁定购买这些产品的5亿富裕阶层客户。”


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? 为什么选择新加坡

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.

大多数寻求海外投资的中国企业,如果需要一个通向世界的便捷窗口,往往会选择香港。我很好奇,为什么砂之船选择新加坡作为其房地产投资信托基金的上市地点。徐荣灿表示,砂之船集团主要投资者、专注于消费者的私募公司L Catterton熟悉新加坡市场,为成功上市带来了更多的支持。


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.

为管理房地产投资信托基金,他聘请了在帝国理工学院(Imperial College)和欧洲工商管理学院毕业的资深行业专家安东尼•洪明发(Anthony Ang)。拥有35年行业经验的洪明发曾在ARA Group、GIC房地产和经济发展局(Economic Development Board)担任高级职位。


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.

而作为Sasseur Reit发起人的砂之船集团拥有更庞大的规模,包括Reit内的4家奥莱,砂之船集团在中国目前已经开业的奥莱一共有10家。徐荣灿表示集团正面临前所未有的增长机遇。未来10年将是奥特莱斯在中国的黄金时代,传统零售商的许多不良零售资产为他的公司提供了一个巨大的机会,使其轻资产化,并使其选择的那些资产扭亏为盈。


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”他毫不犹豫地说。“他们家西装的版型与裁剪比其他品牌都更适合我。”

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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