Serena Lau’s experience in mainland real estate allowed her to prepare for bigger challenges as MD of RHL International
Many children follow in the footsteps of their parents, though few quite so closely as Serena Lau. Like her father Francis, Lau is a general practice surveyor. She’s also the managing director of real estate solution and surveying firm RHL International, of which her father is chairman. On top of that, both are past presidents of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors – an achievement especially noteworthy for Lau, considering she is the first and so far only woman to hold that title.
Lau’s career started in Sydney, Australia, where after graduating with a degree in land economics from the city’s University of Technology she started work in the valuation department of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
She returned to Hong Kong in 1992 and joined RHL during a time of rapid property development in mainland China, a hallmark of the early 1990s. She was placed in charge of a number of projects in the region, overseeing project coordination, sales and marketing. “I became familiar with the mainland market even before Hong Kong,” she says.
Lau explains that valuation requires effective liaison work and that communication is a vital soft skill to arrive at fair compensation. “It means little to landlords if we just give them a number. We should provide analysis and a clear picture of what is going on in other buildings in their neighbourhood. Sometimes we come across difficult landlords who need more patient, detailed explanations.”
As it expanded on the mainland, RHL established joint-ventures and wholly owned offices in various Chinese cities. This saw Lau take up responsibility for staff training and management.
“The mainland experience is very important. I think my achievement is in properly managing multiple projects in various cities simultaneously. Each city has its unique attributes. The differences are not just limited to real estate projects; there are also cultural distinctions among the people,” she says.
“A main part of my responsibility is to optimise the combination of professionals in different teams. I take into account not only individual employees’ technical skills and professional knowledge, but also their individual approaches to project implementation. For the offices in different cities, I have recruited individuals with varied attributes to cater to the specific requirements of clients in these particular cities. I honed my management skills in China.”
Lau has drawn on the connections made and experience accumulated on the mainland for projects in Hong Kong. “Because many of our clients have business interests on the mainland, it has become easier for us to work for them having had exposure to the China market. There are many great ideas originating from China which can be applied back to the local market,” she says.
Although Lau is busy with projects both in Hong Kong and across the border, she has also participated over the years in public organisations in the capacity of advisor and board decision-maker. She says this has been motivated by her thirst to learn from others and make contributions to the community. “I always benefit through interaction with other professionals and it always inspires me when I am involved in different cases,” she explains.
For example, when she was board member of the Estate Agents Authority, she observed that a good chairman creates positive synergy with the board. “The chairman was determined to improve the image of estate agents. She recognised that the authority needed to put efforts into building credibility. The authority achieved that through multiple measures, such as disciplinary action and promotion.
“When the leader sets a clear direction and communicates it to all, everyone will be united and understand their individual roles, and fulfil their duties accordingly.”
Lau is also a member of the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS) and has been involved with its work on the “Ageing in place” concept which, in cooperation with the government, empowers the elderly to live in their own homes or familiar community as long as possible. She says her involvement in public bodies helps her recognise the difficulties in making decisions. “When you are able to make a decision by taking into account the diverse opinions and interests of different stakeholders, the final decision will invariably be a good one. I have learned to see things from multiple perspectives.”
Her advice for young surveyors is that they should seize opportunities to learn as much as they can and take advantage of the high level of training available in the city. “The edge of surveyors in Hong Kong is that they are able to deliver projects of fine quality even though construction timetables are tight. By contrast, many projects in developing countries may have been completed quickly at the expense of quality. The expertise of Hong Kong surveyors in achieving sustainable good quality is likely to be highly sought in the region in the future.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Surveyors Times, the members’ magazine of The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Building across borders.