BACK in 2003, when all of three Reits were listed on the local exchange, the new man at the helm of Mapletree Investments set out to convince his team at the underperforming property arm of Temasek Holdings that they needed a new business model.

Chief executive Hiew Yoon Khong remembers holding town halls in vacant spaces at the former Cable Car Tower and HarbourFront Tower 1. Mapletree started out holding non-port properties once owned by PSA Corp.

As the team of 50 thought hard about how to make the blank space start generating income, Mr Hiew began to steer it into the capital management business.

His conviction that developers must work more closely with capital markets grew from a "very intense learning session" amid the Asian financial crisis.

"When it happened, quite a number of weaker and smaller real estate companies were financially crippled," recalls Mr Hiew.

Then barely a year into his role as chief financial officer of Pidemco Land, Mr Hiew was fresh to the industry and more easily struck by the "stark financial mismatches" he saw on corporate balance sheets.

"Almost without exception, all the real estate companies at the time were funding long-term assets with short-term liabilities," he says. "A lot of reliance on value, as opposed to cash flow, (which) weakens the ability to sustain an elevated level of debt."

In the wake of the crisis, Mr Hiew framed the problem: How can you re-engineer a real estate company's balance sheet to sustain earnings and withstand the next trough in the cycle?

"We're talking about a period in Singapore when the capital market was, relative to today, quite embryonic. So even if the companies wanted to tap the long-term bond market, the liquidity was not abundant and the cost was actually quite high," he says.

So he searched for answers in countries with mature capital markets. The Pidemco team set out to meet Australian, European and American players in the real estate securitisation market.

Back home, their "prototyping and experimenting" yielded the formation of smallish private equity funds. After Pidemco merged with DBS Land to form CapitaLand, Mr Hiew led the team that listed Singapore's first real estate investment trust (Reit) - CapitaMall Trust in July 2002.

Today, the market capitalisation of Reits and stapled trusts on the Singapore Exchange is about $69.8 billion. Mapletree manages four Reits which together command 17 per cent of market share and are backed by a strong pipeline of assets across Asia.

Singapore's property market may be moving more sluggishly of late, but Mr Hiew still senses a "high appetite" for real estate investments overseas. Last year, Mapletree entered the serviced apartment business in the United States, created two Japan-focused private funds and acquired its first office building in Australia.

Operating in new markets is a challenge, but the 53-year-old Mr Hiew - who was named Outstanding CEO of 2014 at this year's Singapore Business Awards - approaches the unknown by "going back to the basics".

"The key characteristic of a Reit that is of use to investors is the sustainable yield over a long period of time," he reiterates.

"Once you have defined that, it's a matter of staying focused on that requirement and configuring the portfolio that supports that. And then be nimble - watch the market carefully."

The father of two picks Reits over physical real estate any day. He owns no other property aside from the one he lives in.

Not that the beauty of a finely made building would ever be lost on him. "To me, a good building design is one where the space is configured in a way that minimises the sense of tiredness when you are in that space for an extended period of time.

"When there's a sense of comfort, people will stay longer. Whether it's a shopping mall or an office, the benefit is clear."

This theory is at work in VivoCity's wide walkways and the high ceilings of Mapletree Business City in the HarbourFront and Alexandra precincts respectively that Mapletree has transformed over the years. More recently, the word is that Google plans to move into the second phase of Mapletree Business City.

Mapletree cannot confirm or deny the reports, but if the tech giant does indeed move in, it would be yet another vote of confidence in Mapletree.