How did you connect with Kardan Land, and what was your role as VP of business development? What part was most rewarding? Tell us about the challenges of working in the Chinese real estate market as an outsider.
Shortly after relocating to Beijing in 2005, I met the Chairman of Kardan Land, who was looking to reinvest the proceeds from their multi-billion dollar European portfolio into China. I began advising the CEO on strategy and marketing, and quickly joined the founding team. In my last role, I generated a flow of development opportunities, looking at sites in dozens of cities, building partner relationships, and working with engineering and finance to evaluate investments. Once a development opportunity was secured, I presented projects to lenders and financial partners, and contributed to strategy on pricing, positioning, product mix, and phasing.
Luckily we entered China relatively early, and prudently we focused on smaller cities, where foreign investors were not yet active. We purchased land from local governments, and catered to residential buyers and retail customers who were eager for international-grade projects. We were also working in a dynamic environment, acquiring land to develop retail space for tenants that were not yet active in China. It was one hell of a ride, developing over 30-million square feet across 5 cities in under a decade. The most rewarding part was using all of my different skills at work, from business analysis, through creative thinking, to cultural sensitivity, to relationship building.
Tell us about the genesis of Otherz, and what led you into real estate tech?
In real estate development I spent more than 200 days a year on the road. Often I had only two days to decide whether a city was worth investing in, and figure out which areas to prioritize. I would wander the streets, asking taxi drivers, small business owners, and random people for recommendations. I realized that there is a wealth of location-sensitive, time-sensitive data that is only accessible to those who can talk to strangers.
The idea behind Otherz was to build a tool that makes it easy for people to talk to others around them, socialize and become an instant local through a social media app. We gained early traction outside of real estate but soon found that users were more interested in commercial information from local businesses, so we shifted our focus to retailers and business owners, and ultimately to the owners of large real estate projects who can benefit from higher visitor engagement.
You have participated in hundreds of negotiations with some of the world’s largest financial institutions (Blackrock, GIC, China Construction Bank), operators (Frasers, Oakwood), and retailers (Zara, H&M, Uniqlo). When it comes to negotiating, what has most consistently made or broken the deal?
In my experience, the deciding factor is always the ability to generate trust. Our first shopping mall development was located in a new area on the outskirts of Chengdu. We knew that we needed a strong anchor, and realized that Zara would be key. Other fast fashion brands would not consider the project unless Zara was on board. But Zara had already committed to another location. Through a series of long and detailed meetings, we got them.
The deciding factor was their belief that we were building a true partnership for mutual benefit. They trusted us enough to lease their first store in an untested location within a province of 90-million people. Other brands followed, the project was a success, and we later sold to a Blackrock subsidiary. Today it’s owned by Asia’s largest retail REIT.
Why did you join StealthForce?
I have rich experience in real estate development and software development, and in securing anything from development loans for $500m projects to seed rounds for emerging startups. I like to work at the intersection of the physical and virtual worlds, which means I do not fit most typical corporate roles. StealthForce allows me to serve traditional real estate companies and remain engaged in the startup community.
Tell us about a rewarding recent consulting engagement.
I am currently working with the owners of a large residential portfolio on transitioning focus from luxury markets towards a younger, less affluent demographic. I am helping the company think outside of its existing cost structure and build a new business model to meet the demands of its new target market. The work includes sizing the market opportunity, understanding how the company’s assets can be leveraged to capture this opportunity, figuring out the best way for the company to innovate without damaging its existing projects and obligations, and translating the vision to a detailed action plan. This project is a joy, enabling me to spend time with very smart people and use the full breadth of my skills.