A model for success: Colliers International’s Hong Kong managing director Nigel Smith aims to lead by example
Buildings have long fascinated Nigel Smith. But rather than following his father into the field of architecture, he opted instead for the real estate sector, qualifying as a chartered surveyor. Then he set his sights on making it in Hong Kong.
“My father worked for a small practice designing hospitals around the world, and I got the bug for buildings while spending time in his office as a teenager,” says Smith, the managing director of Colliers International in Hong Kong. “But at school, it turned out that architecture wasn’t going to be my thing, which was fortuitous because I later joined an industry I love.”
Once sure of his ambition, Smith followed parental advice in aiming to qualify as quickly as possible. He did a four-year BSc in estate management in London, the third year of which involved practical experience with a firm doing property valuations. He then joined Knight Frank to complete the requirements for his professional qualification as a general practice surveyor.
Along the way, though, he also developed a strong conviction about wanting to work somewhere overseas. This sprang in part from travels linked to his father’s international assignments. But it also came from a feeling that there had to be more to life than the well-trodden path being taken by many of his contemporaries.
A subsequent round of knocking on doors led to a job offer in Kuala Lumpur. But with a Malaysian work visa still pending, Smith saw an advert in a trade journal for a marketing executive in Hong Kong with the then Jones Lang Wootton. It sounded interesting, so he applied. Within weeks he was on his way.
“I didn’t stop to think about the ‘what ifs’,” he says. “I packed my bags, took a flight, checked into the Luk Kwok Hotel [in Wan Chai], and was ready to start. That was 26 years ago.”
At the time, the Hong Kong property market was in a slump. But by late 1992, with the confidence boost from Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” and visit to Shenzhen, the sector took off.
“In the run-up to 1997, it just exploded,” says Smith, who continued studying – first for a postgraduate diploma in project management and then for an MBA. “Post-’97, it was more of a challenge. But even in a difficult market, there are always opportunities from a business point of view and to find an exciting career path.”
With this philosophy, he rose fast. He specialised in office leasing before moving on to CB Richard Ellis in 2002 for 13 years, which included an instructive stint in the firm’s Greater China group. “I saw the importance of letting people have their own ideas and helping them fit the pieces together.”
The thinking behind his move last year to Colliers was to have more P&L responsibility and a different kind of accountability. He now oversees close to 200 staff in the Hong Kong office across nine business lines, ranging from the sales and leasing of office, residential and industrial properties to valuations, project management and consultancy.
After observing things closely for the first few months to understand what made the firm tick, he rolled out a training plan for the whole team. This covered everything from looking and being smart, to understanding service expectations and putting more emphasis on actionable research. It also meant promoting the brand more, and giving individuals a pat on the back in recognition of a job well done.
“We had to be different and distinctive,” he says. “I took my time because it was important to take an honest look at ourselves. And I then made suggestions, drawing on knowledge I brought from outside the company.”
Allowing for seasonality and the vagaries of the market which, in any case, cannot be controlled, Smith’s focus now is on sustaining performance and revenue even when markets are relatively flat.
“Since August, we have been ‘off the charts’ busy, helped by five big-ticket deals for investment funds and local investors. Asia currently looks less risky compared to Europe, and the investment market has been very good for us. But we need to strengthen all the teams as the Hong Kong market gains momentum.”
As a leader, Smith aims to change people not by imposing his own methods and ideas, but by showing an example of success. Personal motivation, he believes, should come from enjoying the job and wanting to work. And if something isn’t going his way, he looks for “the door that is opening”, confident that there is always one.
“I’ve learned not to get stressed, upset or annoyed. I just ask myself who in the office is likely to come up with the next good idea. You can’t control the market, but you can look for opportunities, which is ultimately what our clients expect of us,” he says.
Over the years, Smith has pursued a number of all-action pastimes. Having mastered sailing, skiing, snowboarding and wakeboarding, he learned to pilot helicopters seven years ago, and now flies about once a month from Shek Kong or when abroad.
“I decided to try flying after seeing a photo on a friend’s wall, took my first lesson two weeks later, and qualified within six months,” he says.
“That’s me. I throw myself into things fully and intensely. I want to learn something new every day, and believe it is always important to push yourself.”
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
Nigel Smith’s top five tips on getting ahead in the real estate sector
Swot up “Get vocational knowledge either by taking a relevant degree or through distance learning. While many people in Asia are hired for a language ability, they must understand the industry and realise qualifications are important.”
Jump in “Put your hand up for any opportunity that comes along, even if there is no extra pay or it means working longer hours.”
Look around “Be observant of your surroundings and use what you learn. Think of the implications and look how to use information in a way that helps benefit your client and yourself.”
Stay open “Every sector will be disrupted in the next few years, so consider what clients will need to stay ahead of the competition. It is essential to come up with creative ideas and think differently.”
Nurture youth “Businesses must embrace change and learn to leverage the knowledge of the younger generation if they want to stay ahead.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as A model for success.