Poverty and lack of education are not hindrances to success, as Benjamin Lai proves.
Born to rubber tapper parents who struggled financially to bring up their five children, Benjamin Lai is proof that poverty and lack of education are no hindrances to success. Having dropped out of school after Primary 6, Lai worked as a mechanic and a labourer to make ends meet before moving to KL a decade ago to embark on a new career as a real estate agent, thus changing his life for the better.
As a person who is quiet in nature and had limited qualifications, Lai admitted that it was quite a struggle at first. “I worked really hard to learn the trade, spending 12-14 hours a day, and six months into working as a real estate agent, I finally got my first break and have progressed successfully till this day,” the Seremban lad recalled.
Here, the co-founder of realty company Focus Estate Agency Sdn Bhd and winner of the MIEA-PropertyGuru Top Online REN Award at the recent MIEA National Real Estate Awards 2017 sat down with Smart Investor for a tête-à-tête about the real estate industry in Malaysia, property investment, and of course, the story of his success.
Smart Investor (SI): Congratulations on winning the 2017 MIEA-PropertyGuru Top Online REN Award! You have been in the industry for 10 years. In such a competitive business, can you tell us about the skills you think are important to be a successful real estate agent?
Benjamin Lai (BL): To survive in such a tough industry, I think that the real strength lies in one’s character. I am someone who follows up with the client even after the business transaction has been completed, as I believe that client satisfaction is key to maintaining goodwill, referrals and repeat businesses.
In addition, I believe that it is important to embrace change, with technology very much changing the way we live. I leverage heavily on PropertyGuru to reach suitable buyers and advocate the power of online listings to my team members.
SI: Let’s discuss the real estate industry in Malaysia: what trends do you see emerging in the country?
BL: Property technology or proptech is definitely something to watch out for, as this is set to revamp the way properties are being bought or sold.
With the majority of Malaysians having access to the internet on both handheld devices as well as desktops, real estate agents ought to leverage on websites such as PropertyGuru which provide market index and data on the current prices, a place for agents to effectively reach buyers through effective listing, as well as write-ups on new and upcoming properties to update home buyers on the properties that are available in the market.
Other emerging trends include the usage of videos, virtual reality (VR) technology and drones to access a showroom, all of which are cost-effective ways of reaching the audience as compared to the brick-and-mortar method.
SI: Do you consider that investing in Real Estate is safer as compared to investing in other assets? Why do you think this is the case?
BL: When I first joined the industry, I knew nothing about real estate, but as I learned the ropes − that, and with 10 years in the industry to back me up − I have found that real estate is indeed the best way to invest and get returns effectively. This is because lands or properties appreciate much quicker than that of leaving savings in the bank or investment schemes.
Of course, you should do your homework on what’s affordable based on your median income, repayment to the bank, along with location before you invest. Location-wise, I would pick places which are central, easily accessible, and with relatively established businesses in the vicinity.
SI: You mentioned earlier that you moved to Kuala Lumpur to find better job opportunities. What inspired you to make a career in real estate?
BL: I have always been interested in sales and intrigued with the role of a real estate agent, but without much of a paper qualification, I was limited in my choices. And so, when my brother introduced me to the world of real estate and asked me to join him in Kuala Lumpur, I immediately jumped to it.
It was not easy, and after six months of struggling to learn the ins and outs of the industry and working long hours, I got my first commission from a sales property. It was truly a “never give up” moment for me, and I have been in the business for the past 10 years now, and have never looked back since.
SI: Do you believe it is possible to have a successful career while having a fulfilling personal life? How do you strike a balance between these two?
BL: It’s always essential to have a work-life-family balance! I currently own a realty company alongside my brother, and needless to say, I have worked hard and will continue to do so because I believe that it is the hard work that distinguishes us from the rest of the pack.
However, at the end of the day, I still think it’s family that matters the most. My late mother used to work from morning to night, as she had so many mouths to feed.
I am inspired by her tenacity and have always held on to her words that encouraged me to dream big and work hard. While hard work is part and parcel of what I do, I have also built and mentored a great team at work, and that has allowed me to focus on my tasks at work while at the same time spending quality time with my family.