Tiong Bahru has evolved into an interesting enclave of indie cafés, coffee joints, artisanal bakeries and restaurants. Antique and art galleries, independent bookstore BooksActually, yoga studios and offices of creative agencies have also sprouted up in Singapore’s oldest housing estate, which is also the first to obtain conservation status.

Joining the milieu are the realtors of SRI, a real estate agency that opened its 2,000-sq-ft office space a month ago on the ground floor of a block on Eng Watt Street, off Seng Poh Road. The co-working space environment with its bar-height work tables is best suited for realtors who work flexible hours and, sometimes, remotely.

SRI, founded by managing partners Bruce Lye and Benson Koh two months ago, is a spin-off from SRI5000, which the duo co- founded six years ago as a division of SLP Realty. They have kept SRI, the acronym for Singapore Realtors Inc. “But we felt SRI5000 was too much of a mouthful,” explains Lye. “SRI is a brand that people already recognise, and it’s simpler, so we dropped ‘5000’.”

 

SRI trio (from left) Bruce Lye, Benson Koh and Tony Koe

 

The choice of Tiong Bahru was intentional, and the office’s location on Eng Watt Street is ideal, given its ample parking space. “Before we selected this location, we spent a week coming at different times of the day to make sure it wouldn’t be inconvenient for our agents.”

A well-honed tradition at SRI5000 was the adoption of “5000” by member agents for their vehicle registration numbers and the last four digits of their mobile phone numbers. The number has become synonymous with the team’s identity, and the tradition has continued in the new firm. “The number is still in our hearts,” says Lye. “One of our agents recently won the bid for the latest car number plate — SLF 5000 — and has put it on her new Lexus.”

 

Café culture

The Eng Watt Street unit now occupied by SRI was once a showroom of tile company Rice, which vacated the place last year when it moved into its own building on Henderson Road. SRI gutted the unit to create an open floor plan with a café-like space. A meeting area-cum-pantry at the rear features a skylight.

“People are drawn to this place because there’s more sunlight compared with our previous place, which was in a conventional office building,” says Koh. “Now that we’re on a ground floor, there’s more sunlight, a park just across the street, coffee joints and cafés in the vicinity.”

At SRI, there are currently 120 agents, many of whom had moved over from SRI5000. Another 80 are coming on board, and that will bring the total to 200. While the majority are from SRI, about 15% are agents who are crossing over from other agencies, says Koh.

SRI5000 split from SLP Realty to have greater autonomy, according to the duo. “There were many levels within SLP,” says Lye. “We had many ideas, but we couldn’t always push them through.” SLP Realty is a subsidiary of SLP International Property Consultancy.

Including SRI5000 and SLP Scotia (renamed Scotia Real Estate in March), SLP Realty had about 1,100 agents. Lye, 33, and Koh, 34, were also not keen on managing the agency and wanted someone to help them with the day-to-day operations. “We felt we lacked the experience,” says the former.

That led to the appointment of Tony Koe as CEO of SRI. The 45-year-old Koe was executive director of SLP International for four years before leaving in May to team up with Koh and Lye. Prior to that, he was with JLL and Knight Frank.

Things came to a head at SLP when parent company ZACD Group announced early this year that it was transforming the latter into a private-equity firm, with Ryan Gwee as an equity partner and group managing director of ZACD Group since end-2015. Gwee was CEO of Asia Capital Pioneers Group and, before that, head of private banking at Standard Chartered Bank (China). Also in place is a team of ex-bankers in ZACD’s new financial services arm.

ZACD also launched its Asia Pacific Real Estate Opportunistic (ARO) Fund Series II in February, with a target to raise $300 million in equity. The ARO Fund Series II will focus on investments in three asset classes: high-end residential property in Singapore, industrial properties with a focus on data centres in Asia, and student accommodation in Australia.

The repositioning of ZACD into a private equity firm caused some confusion about the role of SLP, according to a source. “Some clients called asking whether SLP was still a real estate agency or whether it was now involved in fund raising, which put some of the realtors in a bit of a predicament.”

 

Efficiency and transparency

However, the trio at SRI saw their departure from SLP as an opportunity to start afresh in their own outfit. While they will maintain the same culture, the new firm will give them the opportunity to roll out all the tech initiatives that they wanted to introduce. One example is the introduction of greater efficiency and transparency with regard to billing and payment processes for commissions and co-broke agents’ fees, says Koh.

Not knowing when a payment will be made is a source of frustration to co-broke agents, says Lye. If they are informed in real time when payments are made, they will not have to keep calling to find out. “Most people may not think it’s a big deal, but it is important to agents.”

At SRI, the group will continue to focus on resales — from mass market to luxury homes — which form 80% of the business. It will stay away from new project launches, as these involve a lot of manpower and time commitment. “It’s a numbers game,” says Lye. “Leading up to the launch, agents have to spend two months hyping the project and collecting cheques. But on the actual day of the launch, only a fraction of those who submitted cheques will actually buy. So, for every three happy faces, there will be seven sad agents at the launch. As team leaders working alongside our agents, we know how they feel and want to avoid that.”

A case in point was the launch of executive condominium Treasure Crest in Sengkang. A total of 1,077 e-applications were received over a 10-day period last month. On the first two days of booking over the weekend of July 16 and 17, 362 out of 504 units were sold. The conversion rate from e-applicants to buyers was 33.6%, “which is considered good in today’s market”, says SRI’s Koe.

“In another recent EC launch, there were 240 e-applications, but on the first weekend, only 24 units were sold. The number of agents involved in the launch was at least 500,” he says.

 

Projects

While SRI may not want to be the agents involved in the first cut of new launches, the firm relishes securing the sale of balance units in the later phase. Since its inception, the real estate agency has secured a handful of appointments from developers. These include Vue 8 Residence, a 463-unit private condo in Pasir Ris by Capital Development and ZACD Investment. As at end-June, 341 units had been sold at a median price of $959 psf. The developer has appointed SRI to handle the sales of the balance units.

Another project is an 11-storey commercial development called Tai Seng Point at Irving Place, next to the Tai Seng MRT station. The freehold project contains 47 strata units, of which the 22 industrial units are fully sold. Another 17 shop units and seven F&B units are still available for sale. The developer is SingHome.

Yet another development where SRI has been appointed an exclusive agent is One18 Residences in Phnom Penh by ASX-listed property developer Kingsland Global. Thirty per cent of the units in the development have already been sold.

On Stevens Road in Singapore, The Pines, a redevelopment of The Pines Country Club by Singapore-listed property group Oxley Holdings, will see the opening of two hotels by AccorGroup: Ibis and Novotel. Oxley is leasing out its retail and F&B space in the project, and SRI is one of the leasing agents.

Koe sees opportunity to create a property management arm as an extension of SRI’s business. This will include private condo management under the Management Corporation Strata Title (MCST), commercial and industrial buildings. “Currently, property management is still very old school,” he says. “We believe developing technology applications for real estate is something that will really elevate the industry.”

 

This article appeared in The Edge Property pullout, Issue 740 (Aug 8, 2016) of The Edge Singapore.