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Prime gamble that paid off

Published on Friday, 28 Sep 2012
Chris Liem
Photo: Engel & Völkers

After working as an investment banker for almost a decade, Chris Liem made a sudden about-turn in 2010 and moved into the luxury real estate industry, following his decision to bring the German brand Engel & Völkers to Hong Kong.

His move soon paid off as he carved out a client-orientated niche for the company, which led to it being voted “Best Real Estate Agency in Central and Sheung Wan” by in 2011, and “Best of the Best Mid-Levels Real Estate Agency” by in 2012. He explains the similarities between luxury real estate and investment banking, and the skills he has applied to both.

Why did you leave investment banking?
When I was in investment banking, time did not feel like it was mine. Instead, life belonged behind my desk, from 6am till late. Although the perks and financial rewards were great, I realised I could make money but never make back time.

How has investment banking helped your current career?
I worked independently on property-based investments before joining Engel & Völkers and became very familiar with the property market. I also became attuned to the high-pressure, fast-paced and, most importantly, goal-orientated nature of investment banking, which often mimics the luxury real estate world. This influences how I lead the team – us all working together to meet targets, goals and results.

I also learned the importance of building relationships with clients and understanding their needs. Clients just want a valuable investment of their resources, whether that’s in the securities markets or a new home.

What advice can you give those interested in the industry?
Luxury real estate is a fast-moving game – you have to be able to spot trends, identify opportunities and take them when you can. Our best agents predict trends two to three years away, staying ahead of the game.

You also have to be able to deliver on service and understand the motivations of clients – that’s our main focus, and why we’ve been so successful.

Why did you choose to bring Engel & Völkers to Hong Kong?
I chose Hong Kong because when I began investing in properties overseas, I saw a gap in the market here. Service wasn’t being delivered to the standards that clients deserved.
I was also aware of the vast potential and strength in the market for luxury property, and the unique opportunities Hong Kong provides to spread our reach into the rest of Asia.

How does Engel & Völkers differ from its competitors?
The Hong Kong property market is tight, and fiercely competitive. Two of the biggest players in real estate control 60 per cent of the market, so a major challenge has simply been brand recognition.

However, we have distinguished ourselves from the pack with service. I’ve interacted with players in the real estate industry across Hong Kong, but never have I come across an agency with agents like mine. Even though everyone in the business competes on property, we compete and outshine on service. That’s really what has led to us winning awards even though we have only been in operation for two years.

We work together as a team to build lasting relationships with all of our clients, and the steadily increasing stream of referrals to our business is a simple illustration of that.

Why choose Hong Kong as the regional headquarters for Asia?
Hong Kong is a gateway of capital, in both directions. On the one hand, Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China means that the city is becoming the yuan centre for external capital, where family trusts are not seeing opportunities elsewhere or they want to diversity their portfolio. On the other hand, Chinese clients see cheap and bargain-friendly opportunities in Europe and the US. This makes locating our Asia headquarters in Hong Kong a good strategic decision.

What are some of the keys to being an effective leader?
My success, and the success of Engel & Völkers in Hong Kong, is dependent on my agents, so that is a key factor in how I lead the team. I work on creating a culture based on loyalty, trust and success, in which we’re all going towards the same goal, hitting those goals together, and growing as a team.

How do you approach the work-life balance?
It’s a hard one to strike, especially in Hong Kong, but it’s one of the reasons I left investment banking – I wanted to own my time, and to create the life I wanted. While this partly meant taking the opportunity to play a global role in creating and owning a stake in an international brand, it also meant being able to live a life from beyond my desk. I have since been able to enjoy Hong Kong’s maturing post-modern art scene, introduced to me by my brother, who is a photo-media artist and painter. One of my favourite up-and-coming spots is the Identity Art Gallery in Central, off Hollywood Road.

What lies ahead for Engel & Völkers in the next few years?
Through our flagship location for the brand in Asia, I am working to continuing to build Engel & Völkers as a globally recognised name that is locally loved. Because of the success of our business, and the increasing amount of referrals, we have the capacity to grow significantly in the short and long term by expanding the business, increasing market share and extending branches into other parts of Asia. 

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