Please enjoy this transcript of Building Cities with Ivan Ko, Chairman of RECAS.
Welcome to our very first Denzity Insights episode!
One of the key skills you need to have when it comes to real estate investing is to learn how to envision how a city develops over time. We are kickstarting the series with Ivan Ko, Chairman of RECAS. I had met him at a PropTech event in Hong Kong a few years ago. Since then, Ivan has been an advisor to me and has helped me mould what Denzity is today. In this episode, he describes how a real estate developer needs to do on a daily basis, how the audience can understand what it is like to be a real estate developer and why we need more real estate experts.
As it can be difficult to catch some minor errors, transcripts may contain a few typos or inaccuracies.
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Alright, let’s get back to the transcript of the show.
Darren Wong: Hey Ivan, thanks for coming in.
Ivan Ko: Hey, Darren, how are you?
Darren Wong: Very good. Very good. Today is a very exciting time for me because as I said before: the whole journey with Denzity started with you. So it’s something that I’ve been waiting for for a long time and then it’s just interesting to have this format to talk to you more about your experience, your whole career and even something that I know you want to tell all the audience about, the real estate sector.
Ivan Ko: Yeah, I think that’s very flattering to me that you said your journey started from me. And I think it’s good that I can have this chance to kind of not walk through with you, but at the same time, see you grow with your Denzity ideas and also get the fundraise and now get started. I think this is a big time.
Darren Wong: Oh, yeah. I hope so.
Ivan Ko: Even though Hong Kong is facing a very tough moment, I think we can all get over this, especially in the real estate market, I think. And in any case, Hong Kong’s real estate market is going to be as popular as it was. So I think you did the right thing, and I do hope that your Denzity can be a global platform instead of just Hong Kong.
Darren Wong: That’s a lot of—, that’s a lot of stress on me now. But then for the audience who don’t know who you are, would you mind telling the audience more about your background? And also what you do?
Ivan Ko: Oh, yeah, why not?
I started doing real estate in 1993. And I started in the real estate agency from Beijing. I did that for seven months and then I was headhunted by Beijing developers. Ever since then, I started doing real estate development. I started doing real estate right from the beginning in Beijing, not from Hong Kong, even though I was in Hong Kong at that time. And then subsequently, I was made a GM of a piece of real estate development company in Beijing and after the whole development—, and that was a big, big opportunity for me. I was young. I think I was only 30 or 32. So that was amazing. And at that time, I realized we were the first group of people doing development in Beijing from outside. So at that time, we had something high. We had been doing this not Soho, but then the previous one of Soho. And then, later on, I started to do real estate development also in Hong Kong with another listed company.
So that was the path that I did for almost five years: real estate development in Hong Kong and, and also Beijing. Then, later on, I moved on to set up my own real estate finance company, which is a mortgage company I set up in a joint venture with IFC, the World Bank, and Deutsche Bank. At the time, we were doing real estate mortgage, I mean, residential mortgage underwriting business in Beijing, and that was also very pioneering. We’ve been quiet for a few years, but we were preparing everything: the market, the industry and the standards for standard securitizations of mortgages. But even today the securitization law hasn’t come out yet. So basically, we then closed down the business and I moved on to do real estate fund management and things like that. So I have part of my career in real estate development and part of the longer part, the later part of it being real estate finance or real estate fund management. Later on, I set up a joint venture with Macquarie capital doing real estate funds management into Macau. So now yeah, that’s where I am.
Darren Wong: That’s a long list of things. And then I think that when I met you, you told me a lot more about what you’re doing afterward too and that’s amazing. So to keep them all in the background, right, so I met Ivan through a property tech event like three, four years ago in 2016 or 17’. And I was running around trying to figure it out about property tech and how to do the business. Ivan was the only guy that talked to me afterwards. He had really good questions to ask the panellists. And then, I was just like, now I want to learn more about him, and the more I knew about your background, I was like, holy crap. I was just a junior-level guy that met you and everything. I was like, “Wow, I was talking to one of the pioneers out there.” So it’s something that is interesting, right? Because you talk a lot about your history, how you first started, you know, how you transitioned slowly with different parties and stuff. If you’re thinking back, is there a history? Is there a time where you think that like, that’s the golden time or something that you’re excited about among everything you have done?
Ivan Ko: Oh, well, certainly. I think it was the best timing because in the year of 93’,
94’ it was just the beginning of foreigners being able to invest in real estate projects in China and via debt companies in China. They don’t have office buildings; they can only brand hotel properties, hotel rooms as their offices, can you imagine? And I still remember at that time when I completed my first pre-sale—, because that was just an empty piece of land and we had to draw and solve the building of the office, the oil and gas company came to us and they wanted to buy the whole floor. I was talking about just using these drawings to talk about how much the price is and that and then later on when we received the payment, they paid all cash. $20 million, we had to count the cash one by one.
Darren Wong: Wait, with like two suitcases, holding it and being like.
Ivan Ko: No, the whole room. The whole room was filled with renminbi notes.
Darren Wong: Really? Wow okay
Ivan Ko: And so that was very interesting. I still remember that I had to pretend that I didn’t want to sell the property to them. And they were so keen.
You know at that time I was responsible for marketing and sales. So that was the golden moment. Later on, when we moved to 97’, 98’, the Asian financial crisis, we had a bit of change in the market. Because previously it was the commercial market which was very, very in demand
in Beijing and in other cities in China and then in 98’, 99’ it shifted to residential. It slowly shifted to residential, because at that time people started to have their own savings; they have money and they want to buy their own properties instead of living in a quarter assigned by their
state enterprises. So then the whole market changed, and then the property market in mainland China just took off. So that was the real golden period for almost like 20-30 years.
Darren Wong: Mmhmm. So after all that, how do you lead back to Hong Kong then? Because like, obviously, you have a real estate development firm in Hong Kong, and others among other many projects you’re doing, how do you lead back to Hong Kong in the end?
Ivan Ko: Oh, well, in fact, I did five years in the Beijing real estate development company, and then I joined a listed company in Hong Kong. They both have a portfolio in Hong Kong and also a portfolio in mainland China. So I started doing real estate development in Hong Kong, even though I haven’t long stayed in mainland China for ten years, but I still flew to Beijing on a weekly basis for 10 years. Can you imagine?
Darren Wong: Wow, that’s crazy!
Ivan Ko: I was young. And so yeah, every Monday and Tuesday, I flew to Beijing. And then every Friday night I came back. So is very like I always told my friend’s dad I’m doing the Silk Road between Hong Kong and mainland China [laughs].
Darren Wong: [laughs]
Ivan Ko: Literally all the way back and forth every single week. That must be hectic! That’s I don’t know, like even for me once a month or once every two months I’m tired already. I don’t know how you do that every single week. That’s crazy.
Ivan Ko: Well, it was very enjoyable.
Darren Wong: Really? Oh good, that’s great then.
Ivan Ko: It was very enjoyable yeah. Because when you see the market, when you meet the people, when you know that—, at that time in the year of 94’, 95’, no one knew how to do real estate development in Beijing. We were the first one. And Sun Hung Kai people and Henderson land people, they were there. But also, everyone didn’t know how to do it, including the government officials in Beijing. They don’t know how to do it. So we had to think about how to do it. And then I told my colleagues, I have several Hong Kong colleagues working with me at the time and I told them that “Hey, let’s face this, no one knows how to play this game.” And every day we have to go up to the stage and fight with the contractor, the vendors, and a couple of officials.
Every day we are being punched, bleeding in the nose and then the next day we have to go up and fight again because no one knows how to do it. So finally, a year later, you will be very, very well versed with what’s going on and how to do it, how to talk to people, what will be prioritized and what should be back in the queue and so it’s very interesting. Very pioneering.
I feel very excited.
Darren Wong: That’s something that I want to talk to you about. This whole interview, because a lot of people don’t know what a real estate developer does. And frankly, these are the things in our industry that were like, even before I got into a real estate firm like holy crap, it was not that easy. There’s a lot of things to do and it’s something that I want to do more these kinds of videos and then, you know, for us, right, I think that we can have your whole journey, like a three to five hours video. So easily as something that I will focus on is more about your firm, what do you guys do and everything to give the audience a better picture?
So what’s a typical day for example right, today for you and your team in a real estate development firm?
Ivan Ko: Well, usually every single project, no matter big or small, every one of them, they have problems every day. You never know, sometime in the daytime, you hold your meetings with your colleagues and talk about this working procedure and the drawings, the
variation orders, (variation order is something that you have to amend the drawings, amend the work) and then carry on with the construction and then maybe in the afternoon, you have to meet with the contractor and then, later on, meet the supplier or these creditors and talk about the price and then, later on, you have to meet a government official or banker to talk about the mortgage financing. How are you going to provide a mortgage retail buyer? And then at the end of the night, you might end up with a client. Then you have to meet them because most of the time in real estate development in Beijing or Mainland China, government officials, bankers, vendors, contractors, clients, they all want to meet the general manager of the development company.
If they don’t meet you, they won’t take action. That’s the big difference between doing real estate development in mainland China and in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, real estate development is very easy. You just call the consultant in and tell them what you want and discuss it with them. And then after the meeting, all the consultants just go to the government liaise with the government department and the government department does not have to see me. Not for one single meeting, no. They just deal with the AP, an architect, and surveyor and things get done.
It’s very comfortable doing real estate development in Hong Kong and the problems that you face, I mean, those are out of expectation problems. You don’t expect problems, like one day when we were doing the demolition in our site in Beijing on Finance Street, a contractor called us and said, “Oh, we have a problem here.” So then we went down to the site to see what the problem was. And it was an old lady sitting on the caterpillars machine. And she said that she doesn’t want to move so we called the police.
He said, “No one can ask her to move.” And then finally we gave her some money, and because she thought that we were disturbing her life. (She’s one of his neighbours. So we have to give her what we call 干扰费(ganrao fei) (interference) fee to compensate for the disturbance we have caused to her and her neighbours. So then she went away and we could carry on with our work.
So very interesting every day you have problems pop out and you never know what that problem will be. And that’s my development’s work.
Darren Wong: You make it sound like everything— my life is easy, it’s a lot easier. I thought it was hectic but sounds like you’ve done a lot more. A lot more real problems to deal with compared to me.
Ivan Ko: Well, real estate investment is very different. Real estate development is kind of like you have to be on top of the situation every day, and you have to expect anything you don’t expect.
Darren Wong: So this is something that’s interesting, right? Because as a developer, like I see as someone who’s at an early stage, they already see a long term of what’s going on because it’s risk is very high compared to like, my work before in real estate investing where I can be like, “hey, there’s 1000 projects out there. I don’t have to be the early stage,” versus the developer, they take a lot of risk and obviously the reward compensates for everything else.
So back in the day, right, like, obviously, Beijing or Hong Kong, you know, it’s very easy to see now, but back in the day, obviously, they aren’t as developed. So how do you assess and compare different projects when you’re bidding and stuff like that?
Ivan Ko: Well, we have to always look at where in China, you have to first of all, look at which city, because some cities have a rare, very good market depth. For some of them they don’t. Like Beijing is very good. Shanghai is very good. But when you go to 大朗 (Dalang), or 沉阳 (Shenyang), it’s very different. And the culture, the way they do it, their local practices can be very different. So you have to first of all, understand which city you are focusing on and then whether the market is deep enough, and then how will the government do and whether they are credible or not. And whether you have the relationship there.
As you know, in China doing business in China, you always have to have a good relationship; it’s what they call 关系 (guanxi). Yeah, and or you have a good local partner. So those are the few things. Certainly the normal things here are location, location, location, and market study, things like that. Those are normal, normal things.
Darren Wong: Because I found from hearing it right, even though obviously, the audience are not all with the developers, but then if I’m an investor too, there is some takeaway right away. My head was like, “Hey, you got to understand which city you want to go for.
What’s going on? Who do you know? Do the local players actually understand the culture and opportunities and do you, working with them, actually rely on them to work together as a team?”
So I even find from viewing the audience, they might not be a developer who does stuff, but I think the audience would hopefully learn from that. And for people who are not in the sector, right, how would you explain to them how to understand, to envision that community development, because I think as a developer, you have to really envision what kind of space; how people interact with the space, what kind of things would happen around the neighborhood? So I want to know what you think about that.
Ivan Ko: For this, that’s very important because it goes along with the first decision. The first decision in real estate development is the most important decision. It’s to buy the land. Which land does one want to buy, and why does one want to buy it? And if that decision was right then everything subsequently will be easy. If the first decision was wrong because you bought the wrong piece of land, no matter how hard working you are, or what remedial measures you take, you’re not going to correct the wrong decision you made in the first place. So, basically, you will have to look at the environment, the neighbourhood, and also all kinds of these building regulations or planning regulations associated with the land.
You will have to imagine, because during the time when you buy the land, it may be an old house or have old properties sitting on land where you have to imagine the future. How are you going to put a beautiful building there and have it be welcomed by your neighborhood, or people that you want. And so the next thing is you have to imagine what you want to do
with this piece of land. So you have to talk with the architect, and talk with several architects, not just one, because one architect can give you some ideas, because architects are very creative. They have done a lot of different projects at the same time so they might be able to give you some ideas of what others are doing, what is the trend, and how you can save money, these kinds of things. So talk to the architect, talk to surveyors, and maybe talk to your competitors. Competitors would also like to tell you their story because they are not doing the same project as you are and because everybody is unique within a location. No two projects are the same, even though they might be neighbored to each other.
So basically, you can have a lot of information coming to you and then you get the feedback to examine this and that. And then finally you come up with what we call the “positioning of your property.” What do you want to build? What’s the image that you want to give? And then what design you want to have. For example, would the composition of the commercial element be together with the residential element, or how would we want the traffic to flow, that sort of thing.
Sometimes you don’t have the ideas so then you have the architect propose them to you as a developer. So as a developer, being the main core of the value chain, you have a lot of people helping.
Darren Wong: Mmhmm. That’s good. I think that’s kind of exciting. Thinking about that in my head, like how things are working. And, you know, it’s a lot of things that have components combined together, that is hard to explain. So this is kind of good to give us like an overview. So from all those experiences and a skill you have learned, for example, envisioning the future over the years in the real estate market right, you started from Beijing and Hong Kong and I know there have been other places as well. How do you transfer those skills to other places? Are there any similarities within places like work differences, when you go to different areas to focus on different types of people, and therefore different groups of experts and so on?
Ivan Ko: Well, once you acquire the method and you have done the full cycle then you know how to do it in other countries or another place. Basically, the methodologies are the same, but then in different markets you prioritize different things. For example, in certain markets you prioritize relationships first. Whether you can find the right partner, the right banks, or the agents that will help you, and then in other markets, you start with the asset first. Meaning that you have to find the right piece of land first. And that’s not the rest of it. So if you have different markets, you have different priorities. The second thing is whether you will be able to put together a capable team to help you, that is also very important. Otherwise you wouldn’t be running around resolving problems, which is very difficult. And so, basically, I think, once you have gone through the whole cycle, you know, if there is a project in London or New York or in Japan, Tokyo, you know the way. Sometimes we use top down, that means the analytics goes from the top, macro view and then the micro, and then down to the site and then the neighborhood. Other times we go from the top up. So it all depends on the market.
Darren Wong: I see. I think that so far I’m getting like a crash course about real estate development. That’s actually pretty interesting. And I only have because I know you’re busy only a couple more questions because something that even in my head, I have to ask you in this format for the audience, right? That’s, you know, I’m sure I said before no audience is going to be a real estate developer, they would be an investor. So what kind of tips and advice would you give to the audience who wants to participate in early stage real estate projects for example, early stage that maybe is you know, like half a year from a CA and stuff like that. What kind of advice do you have for them?
Ivan Ko: Well, always you’ll have to use your eye to see what the property or what the project is. Never do it on paper. Never believe in paperwork because real estate is something that you have to visit the site yourself. Do it many times: daytime, nighttime, in the morning, you’ll find different stories about the neighborhood, about the environment. Maybe you can talk to the neighbors, see what feedback you will get. Sometimes you hear some very old stories, which might be relevant to you.
And sometimes some people might be able to tell you what will happen in the neighborhood in the future. So you’ll have to be almost treating it as your new baby that you’re going to see him or her, every moment when you are free or even when you are not free you still have to look at it and check out this and that. So doing real estate development or real estate investment is different from doing securities or buying bonds, that sort of thing. For those kinds of financial investments, you can do it on paper. But doing real estate investments and development, especially development, you will have to do it on your own by yourself in person. Don’t rely on paperworks. You’ll have to see the real thing, that real situation, the environment. And then the second thing is always be prepared to roll your sleeves and do whatever it requires you to.
Never be afraid of talking to the contractor or delegate everything to your subordinate to deal with the property agents. Get to the frontline; get the feeling; get the touch, know the details. Sometimes you might have to use your street wisdom. So yeah, a lot of things to learn and no matter how many years in real estate development you have been in, you’ll always learn something new, something you don’t know. So every day you prepare to learn something, or to get to know something that you are not aware of, or you don’t know. So this is very interesting because consumer behavior is always changing. And you have to get a very close touch of what’s going on in the consumer, in your talents, in your target audience. And then at the same time, product design, the building design, it’s always evolving. The use of materials, the space planning, the flow, the mood, that sort of thing. It’s very exciting and I would advise anyone who is always curious, keen to learn and willing to learn, hard working, go into real estate development. This is the most interesting industry, among all others.
Darren Wong: I can feel a lot of passion when I hear you talk about your work. It sounds like, you know, because we’re in the same industry, we know how hard it is, but then it’s very rare to find someone like you that still has so much passion for doing this for so so many years. So that’s something that is very, very good to hear from you. So something that is interesting when you mention about being at the neighborhood, at the site, like you know, how we’re interested in proptech ourselves. So do you think technology such as virtual viewing or drones to check out a neighborhood can help investors understand the investment better, and how far do you think technology is from like, mature so far?
Ivan Ko: Well, I think the technology that is available can help a lot in real estate development because we don’t necessarily need to go to the site. We can fly the drone and look at the progress. I remember when I was doing the peace project in Beijing, we had to rent an office close by so that we could look out from the window and see the progress of the project every day.
So that is one way. It’s very physical, but now, you don’t have to do that. You can have some CCTV or IoT to see what’s going on and check. But at the same time, I think the basic element is the same: that you have to do your own investigation, your due diligence, by site visit by talking to the neighborhood, by talking to the elderly nearby to learn about the old story and things like that. And so basically, technology will help a lot, especially when we have this building information modelling (BIM), which tracks all the changes in design and budget. They are surveyor calculators. And once the architect changes the M&E, fields of quantity can change by themselves. So, these kinds of things can help make the whole process more efficient.
So technology I think does play a major part in the whole process, but, I will say putting technology into construction and real estate development is also a challenge because this is a very old industry. So as human beings who previously lived in caves, we now have our own buildings. At the same time, the practices, the cultures, it can be difficult to change. So putting in technology into a construction site, or a real estate project can be quite challenging and you have to prepare to kind of educate them and also get them on board to agree with the use.
Darren Wong: I mean, that’s why we’re here, right? We’re trying to figure this out in Denzity, obviously trying to figure out the whole research part of learning what’s going on out there. So I think this is something that echoes really strongly with what we believe in. So besides BIM, virtual viewing and stuff, like drones, what other technology and property tech, or construction tech that you know or think is gonna impact a lot for the whole real estate industry?
Ivan Ko: Well, most of the time it’s the IoT or the surveillance systems, the facial recognition for property management. Also, robotics being used on construction sites for dangerous, or some very difficult work, where the human cannot get into. So those robotics can be another one. I always imagined that one day we can have a robot to clean the curtain wall. Because cleaning the curtain wall is so dangerous. And if we can have a robot, which can play music or dance while he is cleaning the curtain wall, then people can look at the building and see all this is very interesting. So this kind of thing, I think it will change and it will kind of get to more common use.
Darren Wong: I see. I think that’d be a really good PR actually for you know to drive presale, right? That’ll be a cool kind of scheme. So that’s kind of cool. So I think I said before I know you’re a busy person. I’ve got one last question I have to ask, you know, for myself one day, like compared to today, it’s a lot harder. Is it a lot harder to be a developer and would you recommend people considering to be a developer or would you rather them try different aspects of the real estate sector?
Ivan Ko: I would say being, I mean, joining a developer is the most crucial part of this whole value chain, because as a fund manager, even though they are at the top of this betting chain, they are not the organizer. The only major organizer is the developer, because they have to organize a lot of different resources: the land, the people, the bank, the consumer, the contractors, government officials. They have to deal with many things. So they organize all these together, and then they kind of divide the risks into a different section, and shifts the risk from their own to other parties; each one takes on certain risks, like the architect, the contractor, and then the banker, they bear different risks in the whole development. So once you’ve done the full cycle, then you can comfortably move on to other positions like a fund manager, property agency, whatever, because now you understand the whole thing, and you can move on to set up your own business like a prop tech, density, etc,. Yeah I’d say it’s a very good learning curve.
The developer’s life is very interesting. You bump into different problems or different issues every day. So it’s good.
Darren Wong: Yeah, like I think that because you and I, we both know a couple people that aren’t in the real estate industry trying to get into prop tech. And for me, it’s like their learning curve is so much because real estate is not only about tech it’s about the people, about the industry, it’s about the whole machine in the world, and how can you make that one piece that makes everything works? So it’s something that echoes hard too because if I were if I weren’t working in the real estate fund, there’s no way I would even think of Denzity. There’s no way I would even consider that as an option. So something that you know, like it’s coming from you is something that is kind of interesting. So what kind of—, last thing I have, what kind of takeaway do you want the audience to have from this interview?
Ivan Ko: I think that if you have not joined the real estate industry, please join it. It is a very big industry. The value chain and the things that you can do is numerous. I mean, it’s unlimited. And I will say the real estate industry, the longer you stay in the industry, the more projects you’ve done, the better you are. Not like IT where 15 year old students can beat a senior guy and experience doesn’t come too much. But in real estate, the longer you stay, the more experienced you are, it’s better. Especially now when people might live to the age of 120. So, the healthier you are the better but at the same time, I think be prepared to learn things, because the industry is also changing. And so I think the real estate industry, get into it. If you can become an employee of a developer, then yeah, join it. That’s the best start of your career.
Darren Wong: Hmm. I feel like this is not only for development, it’s for investment too, because a lot of people like management, it’s a very big whole sector that the more you’re in you just know more and more because I know a lot of people too, they’ll tell me that like “Oh my first real estate investment wasn’t great at all.” But the more I do it, I know what I want, the more I know what to do. So it’s something that I think is so unique in this industry because the more you know, you know that there’s so much more out there and you just want to be a sponge and learn more and more. So it’s something that I think the audience will appreciate. And if people want to reach out to you to learn more about your work, how would we suggest they find you?
Ivan Ko: Oh well, they can find me through Denzity. Yeah, or they can email me or WhatsApp me. I welcome all kinds of content or connections, especially if you are interested in real estate industry or development, real estate fund management, I can offer some advice or help or whatever it is, I think this industry needs a lot of good people, talented people, and people who are keen to make a successful career.
Darren Wong: I see that’s good. I’ll obviously after this call, I’ll ask you some kind of links and stuff like that for people to reach out to you. And I’ll put everything in the show notes. And then I want to say, Ivan, I think that I want to do a long form in the future, to dive in your journey, because I’m sure there’s a lot more of your stories that you haven’t told me and the audience yet. So something that I really want to know personally, as well. And thanks for the time. I really appreciate it. And I just hope that you come on board next time again for our interview.
Ivan Ko: Yeah, Yeah my pleasure. And also, thanks, Darren, and I think you have a good start.
Darren Wong: Thank you.
Ivan Ko: Let’s roll it out. And make this successful.
Darren Wong]: Yeah, I hope so too. It’s been a while. So thanks, thanks a lot and talk to you next time then, thank you.
Ivan Ko: Okay, thanks. Bye bye.
Ivan Ko [33:06]：我的意思是，加入開發商是整個價值鏈中最關鍵的部分，因為作為基金經理，即使他們處於投注鏈的頂端，不是組織者。唯一的主要組織者是開發商，因為他們必須組織許多不同的資源：土地，人民，銀行，消費者，承包商，政府官員。他們必須處理許多事情。因此，他們將所有這些組織在一起，然後將風險分為不同的部分，並將風險從自己的風險轉移到其他各方。每個人都要承擔一定的風險，例如建築師，承包商，然後是銀行家，他們在整個開發過程中承擔著不同的風險。因此，一旦完成了整個週期，您就可以輕鬆地升任其他職位，例如基金經理，房地產經紀等，因為現在您已經了解了整個過程，就可以像創業公司一樣建立自己的企業了。道具技術，密度等。是的，我想說這是一個很好的學習過程。