A witness to a 'golden property era'

Updated: 2018-04-06 07:24

(HK Edition)

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Commercial real-estate veteran Edward Cheung is credited for his contributions at the onset of the mainland's property boom in the 1990s. He tells Lin Wenjie the Belt and Road has now given developers fresh impetus to their thrust overseas.

When Cushman & Wakefield launched what turned out to be a long sustained push into China's nascent property market in the 1990s, it bore testimony to the impending birth of a spectacular boom that has drawn few parallels today anywhere in the world.

One of the key witnesses to that campaign has been Edward Cheung Kwok-ching, chief executive officer of Cushman & Wakefield Greater China, who has actively contributed to the "golden age" in the Chinese mainland's real-estate industry over the past three decades.

He has helped the Chicago-based commercial property services group evolve and spread its wings across the mainland, raising its profile as a global industry and market leader.

Cheung started his career with a major international consultancy firm in Hong Kong back in 1987 - joining the ranks of property consultancy C Y Leung & Co which had been part of an Asian partnership with US-based Debenham Thouard Zadelhoff (DTZ). DTZ itself went on to merge with Cushman & Wakefield in 2015 under a new identity and logo.

Cheung was named Cushman & Wakefield's business development director for the mainland in 1993, helping to establish the group's Shanghai office the same year. He was subsequently appointed general manager of the Shanghai office, where he acquired expertise in planning and marketing residential and commercial projects across the mainland, lifted the staff strength from 30 to more than 500, and took up managerial responsibilities for consultancy and strategic planning.

Looking back on his mainland stint, Cheung recalls that the Chinese property sector was still very much in the doldrums in the mid-1990s, with foreign enterprises having limited access to the market. But, shortly after former leader Deng Xiaoping floated the idea of developing Shanghai's Pudong New Area, Cheung was convinced the "golden egg" had been laid.

"Shanghai's property boom took off after the city hosted the APEC leaders' summit in 2001 with foreign companies flooding in to set up branch offices or regional headquarters in the metropolis. Hong Kong developers also got involved in large-scale urban development projects in Shanghai," reminisces Cheung.

As a real-estate services provider from Hong Kong, Cushman & Wakefield initially served mainly Hong Kong builders that are well-versed in developing commercial real estate, extending all-round services like agency leasing, asset services, capital market activities, facility services, or investment and asset management. A number of landmark shopping malls and office buildings were built in Shanghai by Hong Kong investors from the year 2000.

"A few years later, we saw mainland developers, who had previously focused on developing residential real estate, diversifying into the commercial sector. They would turn to us for consultation and help as we are already an experienced service provider in that sector. With a growing number of mainland clients, our operations have taken a big leap forward in the past decades," says Cheung.

Different opportunities

As the biggest player in the industry, Cushman & Wakefield has set up 18 offices across the Chinese mainland in the past 25 years. With the property market having matured in first-tier cities, the company has gone into second and third-tier cities to explore new opportunities.

"The opportunities in first-tier and second-tier cities are quite different. First-tier cities are now renewing the buildings that were completed in or after 2000. But, in second-tier cities, large-scale development projects are still needed to meet the macro-economic demand. Hangzhou, for instance, has seen new economy enterprises mushroom in the city as more and more people work there, boosting demand for both commercial and residential properties."

As many of its mainland clients are State-owned enterprises, Cushman & Wakefield has actively engaged itself in the country's key development strategies, such as urbanization, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, where it has created a new business sector its competitors have yet to lay their hands on.

"We've always been trying to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and find where our advantages lie. As we have many State-owned clients, we found that we understand what they want, we understand the government's plans quite clearly. That's our advantage, so we've invested a lot of our resources in it to meet the government's needs."

Cushman & Wakefield started its Belt and Road project five years ago, building up connections with enterprises looking to expand overseas, and sending research teams to African or Central Asian countries to collect background information and do market analysis, in order to design tailor-made projects for its clients in every single market.

"Real estate is an important component of the Belt and Road Initiative as many of the countries and regions involved are in great need of a modern environment to fuel their growing economies. But, many State-owned developers have little understanding of the Belt and Road countries, so they come to us for help. We then started the Belt and Road project which has made us unique in the industry," says Cheung.

Cushman & Wakefield also helps to accelerate China's urbanization program by signing an agreement with the China Center for Urban Development to start a research program, while providing one-stop urbanization services to meet clients' needs - from town regeneration to new zone development.

"We not only conduct prophase research, such as identifying how many houses or apartments are needed and how much employment opportunities we need to provide, but also help to get businesses to set up offices in the towns. We have a convergence service platform that offers consulting, valuation and advisory services, as well as investment and financing services for the urbanization projects," Cheung says.

The company's paramount objective at present is to constantly adapt itself to the changing needs of customers. "Developers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. For instance, they now want a string of services instead of a single service; they also want innovative ideas with effective execution. Thus, we urgently need to achieve high levels of coordination and equip ourselves with more resources and talents to generate innovative ideas."

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(HK Edition 04/06/2018 page7)