Edgar Sia II made his fortune a decade ago feeding the Philippines’ appetite for chicken. Now he stands to make an even larger one feeding China’s appetite for gambling. Sia’s company DoubleDragon Properties spent the last few years building, among other things, office towers along Manila’s once-sleepy waterfront. Sia figured he’d lease the space out to call centers and business process outsourcers, key drivers of economic growth in recent years. He estimated that he could collect about $14 a square meter.
He didn’t count on demand from across the South China Sea. DoubleDragon got its towers up and running just as warming ties between Beijing and Manila sparked a boom in arrivals by Chinese eager to open offshore casinos offering online gaming to countrymen back home where casinos are illegal. DoubleDragon’s Meridian Park complex is a 10-minute drive from Manila’s Entertainment City casino complex. Sia found himself not only among the largest commercial property owners in the area, but the only one with new property to rent.
By the end of last year, tenants were signing leases for nearly $24 a square meter. “We were positively surprised with the outcome,” DoubleDragon’s 42-year-old chairman and chief executive says, with considerable understatement. The boost from offshore China gaming is just part of a property push that’s helping turn Sia from fast-food tycoon into one of the country’s biggest commercial landlords.
Far from Manila Bay, DoubleDragon is building shopping malls, hotels and industrial warehouses in smaller cities across the Philippines. Last year, it tripled net profits to roughly 7.4 billion pesos ($141 million) as revenue more than doubled to 14.3 billion pesos. DoubleDragon’s stock has climbed more than 50% this year. The company is now looking to cash in on its office towers and community malls, package these as a REIT and raise as much as 15 billion pesos via an IPO.
“Most of the baby steps and growing pains happened in the past five years,” says Sia, whose aim is for DoubleDragon to build about 1.2 million square meters of leasable commercial space by the end of 2020. “In just about a year more, the company will already become a strong adult.”
Sia’s own entrepreneurial upbringing began early. While studying architecture in university at the age of 19, he dropped out to lead a group of classmates build a 5-story hotel for budget business travelers, borrowing 40 million pesos from parents and a government pension fund to buy the land and pay for construction. “I was talking to the landowner who didn’t take me seriously,” he recalls. “So I grew a mustache to make me look older.” Sia shaved his mustache. He still owns the hotel.
In 2003 one of the country’s largest shopping mall chains, Robinson’s, opened a new wing in Iloilo offering discounted rents for restaurants. Sia seized the opportunity to launch Mang Inasal, a fast-food chicken restaurant that means “Mr. Barbecue” in the Iloilo dialect. “It was a Filipino comfort food that had not yet been turned into a fast-food fare,” Sia says. “So we created the concept, and then rapidly grew to fill and dominate the gap.”
By 2010, he had grown his barbecue-chicken chain into the country’s second-biggest fast food group, with more than 312 branches, making it bigger than McDonald’s. He sold 70% to rival Jollibee Foods for 3 billion pesos and earned a spot as the youngest member of Forbes Asia’s 2011 list of the Philippines’ 50 richest with a fortune of $85 million when he was just 34 (Sia sold his remaining 30% of Mang Inasal in 2016.) He was No. 24 on last year’s list with a net worth of $475 million.
Sia’s wager is that rising household incomes and improving transport are about to trigger a sea change in the way consumers shop in these second- and third-tier cities. Small, family-owned supermarkets and shopping centers, he predicts, will give way to nationwide chains whose size gives them leverage over suppliers and lower costs. “Five years ago,” he says, “the top three retail chains accounted for less than 10% of the sales of manufacturers such as Unilever or Nestle. That’s gone up to a third today. In five years, it could rise to 70% to 80%.”
In preparation, Sia is building 100 shopping centers under his CityMalls brand in cities with an average population of only 160,000, each about a tenth the size of malls in bigger cities. The aim, Sia says, is to introduce big-name retail brands such as SM Savemore groceries or Watsons drugstores into these small, but increasingly affluent communities.
By the end of last year, Sia had achieved half his goal by opening 51 CityMalls. The average occupancy rate is already 96%, according to DoubleDragon, helping it more than double rental income last year from commercial and office buildings, to 2.5 billion pesos. International property consultancy Savills projects that CityMalls will account for about 40% of the community mall stock in newly urbanizing areas by next year. Sia says he’s already locked up the best locations in many emerging towns and cities: “Maybe [a competitor] can do it in one or two cities. But can you do it 100 times?”
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Sia is also ramping up in the hotel sector where he got his start. DoubleDragon operates the Hotel 101 and Jinjiang Inns budget brands in the Philippines aimed at business travelers and tourists, particularly from China. As of the end of 2018, Sia had two Jinjiang Inns and one Hotel 101, contributing a combined 534 million pesos to DoubleDragon’s revenue. Two more are under construction and DoubleDragon plans to build four more this year and next. Sia is also looking for foreign partners to expand the Hotel 101 abroad.
Building community malls in small towns, Sia says, made him realize there’s also still room for another major grocery chain in the country. So in April, he launched the first branch of MerryMart, a chain of grocery stores owned directly by his family, on the ground floor of DoubleDragon’s Meridian Park complex. His aim is to open 1,200 MerryMarts by 2030. “If we properly prepare and execute,” he says, “MerryMart can still catch up with the large retail players in the Philippines.”
But the Manila Bay investment may be DoubleDragon’s biggest money-spinner. It broke ground on the Meridian Park complex in 2015 and, by the time four of its six towers were completed last year, the company had emerged as the area’s biggest owner of new office space, according to David Leechiu of Leechiu Property Consultants, which helped find tenants for the complex.
Its timing couldn’t have been better. Offshore gaming operators’ share of office space in Metro Manila rose sevenfold in 2018 from 2016, according to Leechiu Property, faster than any other industry. By the end of last year, they accounted for almost 30% of office rentals, tripling from two years earlier.
Most online casino operators favor Manila Bay because of its proximity to Entertainment City, which caters largely to Chinese visitors who become potential customers once they return home. Property values in the district jumped 81% between 2016 and 2018, according to Leechiu, outpacing the 58% rise in Makati, Manila’s financial district.
Sia leased 100,000 square meters in his first four office towers before they were even completed, 60% to online China gaming companies. For now at least, he can virtually name his price, says Leechiu. “The deal that we did [at 1,250 pesos a square meter] is for the last vacant space in the entire Bay area for the next 12 months. The tenants know that, so they grabbed it,” he says.
Not everyone is a believer. Before its recent rise, DoubleDragon’s stock spent three years in a tailspin. One nagging investor concern: Sia is building brick-and-mortar malls in an age of online shopping. Luis Limlingan, managing director at brokerage Regina Capital Market Development in Manila, says retail shops now take up just half of Philippine malls’ leasable space, down from 80% over the past 20 years. That has made DoubleDragon a no-go for some investors. “None of the large institutional local funds invest in it,” he says.
Sia says his malls are well-positioned to absorb the impact of e-commerce in the Philippines. Online buying and delivery of groceries has yet to take off in the Philippines, he says, and “CityMalls are already 75% food and services, and more than 80% of things sold in CityMall retail shops are basic non-discretionary items.” As e-commerce spreads to the smaller cities where CityMall dominates, Sia says, they’ll double as pickup points and fulfilment centers for online stores.
DoubleDragon’s rising rental income is proof enough to other investors. “DoubleDragon’s stock started to recover this year because the assets that were completed so far have started to generate good recurring income,” says Henry Ong, an independent personal financial advisor who follows the stock. And as Sia’s expansion converts into steady cash flow, it may give him a war chest for greater diversification, says Leechiu. “Once he has a scalable recurring income base, it’s so easy for him to use it as a springboard to go to other places. It’s so easy for him to go to other sectors.” Sia’s partner Tan agrees: “[He’s] the type of entrepreneur with unlimited potential. His ability to create new compelling ventures and execute with speed is unparalleled.”