Enviably located at Republic Plaza, Distrii Singapore, the South-east Asian offshoot of a Chinese property technology company of the same name, is this country’s largest technology-driven co-working space at 62,000 sq ft. So, it’s no small irony that its chief executive, Jo Hu, does not have a proper office on the premises. She and her team work at any unoccupied space over four of Distrii’s six floors and book meeting rooms like any tenant. Yes, there is room to store hard copies of necessary files but, by and large, Hu works out of her mobile phone, sometimes a laptop if she has to write long e-mail messages. There’s nothing that says a CEO cannot partake in the sharing economy.
It’s all in the name of efficiency and flexibility, the principles that underpin Distrii’s drive to provide a workplace of the future. Says Hu, who moved to Singapore from Shanghai last year to set up Distrii: “Everybody is looking for new ways to work. People’s habits have been changed by the availability of technology. This is a new trend that marks another stage of life.”
Distrii comes in by bundling hardware and software, offline and online, to create smart working spaces. The company has designed an app that helps members simplify daily business operations and improve efficiency. Features include tools for networking and identifying business opportunities, staff management, teleconferencing, and booking of co-working facilities.
A graduate in International Business Administration from Fudan University’s School of Management, Jo Hu has worked as a reporter for a television station and a scriptwriter for television dramas. Her entrepreneurial instincts steered her to Internet platforms and she had considered setting up an online television station before joining tech-driven co-working space Distrii in 2016.
But establishing co-working spaces is just one pillar for the three-year-old company with 40 locations in seven cities in China and Singapore. Hu insists that Distrii does not intend to compete in an already crowded co-working market led by titans Wework and Ucommune. Instead, it will focus on providing smart office solutions, parlaying on its proprietary technology, and expand into consultancy and building management. Distrii’s tie-up with City Developments Limited, the company behind Republic Plaza, for example, sees it producing a customised app that will tell registered visitors exactly which of the many lifts to take once they scan a QR code at the turnstile; maximise the use of meeting rooms, allow carpark payments and more.
As CEO of Distrii Singapore, 85 per cent of which is currently leased, Hu is behind the company’s strategy to expand into the region. But the 39-year-old was almost typecast for being a woman. The only female in a group of seven co-founders – and one with a business administration degree to boot – Hu had to prove her business acumen beyond her initial PR and marketing role. She stepped up when the company went through several rounds of funding. “When I had to negotiate for the Distrii team, I was tough in protecting the interests of the founders. I was not just negotiating for myself. We should be responsible for others.”
“People, men, even the founder (Distrii head honcho Hu Jing, no relation to Jo) think that because I am from the media, that I can write, that I am soft. In fact – no. I like legal, logical things. I enjoy negotiating with lawyers.”
Her abilities impressed Hu, a trained engineer and former chief architect and executive vice-president of property developer Greenland Group. He had told her there were two kinds of women. The “little” woman is soft, tender, sensitive and likes to dream. The other, the “big” woman, does business like a man. Says Hu with a laugh: “Now, he thinks I am a big woman.”
She has applied this show-me-what-you’ve-got approach to her leadership in Singapore. “The team here is good at doing things that you let them do. Now, I tell them, Distrii is a special platform, so pull out your special abilities. That’s why the Chinese run so fast, launch so many start-ups. Distrii has many locations in Shanghai and Beijing; you may be doing marketing or operations now but, later, you can be the boss of a centre. If you want to be a high-level operator, do more than your job description.”
Integrating Offline with Online
Here’s how Jo Hu stays mobile, flexible and almost paper free.