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CUHK MBA Connects Singaporean Real Estate Whiz In Touch With China

Singaporean Justin Lau found the CUHK MBA provided him with an unparalleled network in the world of real estate

Singaporean Justin Lau was put in touch with some of Asia’s real estate leaders throughout his MBA study at CUHK. He explains how these connections have helped and why CUHK was the only school for him.

Justin, 34, studied Real Estate as an undergraduate at Kingston University in London. “I came back to Singapore in 2003 and the job market was really bad in Asia as it was hit by Sars and the Iraq war had just started. So I spent two years in property management and was promoted twice but I always knew I wanted to be in Real Estate Finance, specifically in real estate lending.”

Real Estate Finance is when bankers lend money to property companies, investors or organisations to invest and/or develop properties. Justin landed a job at Mizuho Corporate Bank in Singapore where he remained for over a year before moving to United Overseas Bank also based in Singapore where he was Relationship Manager.

Justin was involved in structuring a financing package for the development of a transactional office with a 15 years lease (considered unusual in Singapore then) in 2009. To get ahead in Real Estate Finance, Justin says the crucial thing is “to have a passion for real estate. You need to know the different real estate asset classes, macroeconomic conditions, property trends and have a good knowledge of finance.”

On deciding to do an MBA Justin only really considered CUHK. “A lot of its alumni are involved in property finance and my mentor under the Elite Mentorship Programme (EMP) is Micky Leung, a Director of the Wharf Estates China. Other prominent alumni include Victor So who was Kerry Properties’ Director. Thomas Kwok, who is the joint-chairmen of Sun Hung Kai Properties, also lectured the university’s students on the property industry in Hong Kong. The very same lecture he gave to a class at Harvard.”

When Justin applied for the programme he could see the people he wanted to meet and knew that crucially the professors have connections, the classmates have prestigious backgrounds and CUHK has the largest alumni network in Asia. This would be a perfect opportunity to network.

With the economy failing in many parts of the world in 2009, all eyes were on China and Justin says that was another driving factor behind choosing CUHK. “CUHK has good connections in China, the professors are either critical of Chinese policies or pro-China. There are Chinese Business concentrations, I was not a student of that class but I sat in on all the lectures.”

Justin was impressed by the caliber of the teaching staff. “We have professors like Chak Wong, a Rhodes Scholar as well as a former Managing Director and Head of Structuring of IBD Asia of Barclays Capital and former Managing Director and trader in UBS London and Hong Kong, co-heading the APAC structured products groups. The advanced level of finance was a major pull to CUHK as were the multitude of other course options”.

The MBA career office is really good; “Louis Vuitton came and asked for my profile, two other classmates interned at Louis Vuitton. Companies like these aggressively hire from CUHK as we speak English and Chinese and the luxury goods industry is huge in China and continues to grow. There is also Li & Fung, a trading group that is based in Hong Kong, who recruit from our school because of our students’ diverse profile”.

But for Justin it was the relationships with professors that stand out, “we would all go out for meals together, there was always a chance to ask questions, they are well connected. Professors would also organize unofficial visits into China where we would visit a factory where they were connected and gave us a chance to talk to staff and local Chinese.”

The final term of Justin’s MBA was spent at HEC Paris, a decision he made due to Professor François Ortalo-Magné who is “the real master of real estate finance”. Having graduated last December Justin still pays regular visits to CUHK if he is back in Hong Kong on business.

Justin now works at Maybank in Singapore, where he specializes in financing listed property companies, Reits, developers and companies with property business. “When I returned to Singapore I had the opportunity for property investment. The job involves analyzing potential real estate opportunities in every part of the world, constructing financial models and checking tax breaks of each country. But I declined as the investment climate was not favourable.”

Property markets throughout Asia are going through a shaky time and Justin predicts there will be major correction with property values in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and first-tier cities in China. “Capital values of residential properties have started to decline while rental of commercial properties are likely to soften. The demand for hotels looks fairly stable for now but if tourists’ arrival to these destinations falls due to the current economic situation in Europe and the U.S, room rates will correct too.”

Real estate is a popular topic for Chinese students, “it is good hedge against inflation. Also, for the Chinese’s culture home-ownership is really important as the Chinese were displaced when they came to South East Asia and the same for Chinese who went to Hong Kong”.

His MBA has landed him a better job but also means that he can pursue a passion for teaching by lecturing on corporate finance at a private school in Singapore.

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