Robert Lee: the Van­cou­ver Real Es­tate Busi­ness­man Who Loves to Give Back

CAIFU - - Leader Spotlight - By Mil­lie Lou

Thename Robert H. Lee is vis­i­ble through­out the City of Van­cou­ver. There is the Robert Lee YMCA in down­town, the Robert and Lily Lee Fam­ily Com­mu­nity Health Cen­tre near the cor­ner of Com­mer­cial Drive and Broad­way Av­enue in East Van­cou­ver, and the Robert H. Lee Grad­u­ate School at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia’s Sauder School of Busi­ness. The ubiq­ui­tous Van­cou­ver busi­ness­man was also awarded the Or­der of Bri­tish Columbia in 1990, the Or­der of Canada in 1999 and the Ernst & Young Pa­cific Life­time Achieve­ment Award in 2008. In Novem­ber 2016, I vis­ited Lee at the down­town of­fice of his real es­tate com­pany, Pros­pero In­ter­na­tional Realty Inc. Born and raised in Van­cou­ver to Chi­nese im­mi­grants, Lee took a stroll down mem­ory lane and re­counted his suc­cesses in real es­tate as well as the lessons he learned along the way.

CAIFU: How did you get into the real es­tate in­dus­try?

Lee: My father was in the im­port­ing busi­ness. His side busi­ness was real es­tate. So when I was around 12 or 13, I was work­ing for my father and he dealt with a lot of real es­tate agents. In the late 1950s, when I grad­u­ated from school, I ran one of his com­pa­nies. We be­came the num­ber one bam­boo-blind im­porter in Canada. I was mak­ing money but it wasn’t exciting to me. So I told my Dad, ‘I want to go into the real es­tate busi­ness as a sales­man.’ Not many univer­sity grad­u­ates want to be a sales­man for real es­tate; most of them want to be ex­ec­u­tives for big com­pa­nies. I went into real es­tate in 1959. I have been in the busi­ness for over 50 years.

CAIFU: What is it about real es­tate that in­ter­ested you?

Lee: It’s global! It’s huge! The sky’s the limit of what you can do. Nat­u­rally, I was dream­ing I can sell some of the big build­ings in Van­cou­ver. I strug­gled for two to three years. In the third year, peo­ple in Hong Kong were wor­ried China will take over Hong Kong. Many wealthy Chi­nese peo­ple im­mi­grated to Van­cou­ver and Toronto. At the time, I was the only per­son in com­mer­cial real es­tate who spoke Chi­nese, so I had a mo­nop­oly on all the Chi­nese buy­ers. One of them wanted to buy an apart­ment build­ing. Be­ing new to the game -- only three years -- I sug­gested build­ings with around 20 suites. We drove around the city and he said, ‘I’d like to buy that one.’ It was the big­gest one in the West end, called the Im­pe­rial Tow­ers, with 263 units. I con­cluded that sale and made 10 times my an­nual salary in one deal. When I showed my dad the cheque, he said, ‘I think you’re in the right busi­ness.’ Once I sold that big build­ing, peo­ple phoned me in­stead.

CAIFU: Is that when you started Pros­pero?

Lee: At that time, I was work­ing for this big com­pany, H.A. Roberts, that has ex­clu­siv­ity with the Bri­tish Prop­er­ties so there was no rea­son for me to move. A friend of mine, Peter Wall --

who I pur­chased a build­ing from -- asked me to be a third part­ner in a real es­tate in­vest­ment and de­vel­op­ment com­pany. To­gether we founded the Wall Fi­nan­cial Cor­po­ra­tion. This was in the 1966. Then I wanted to build up my own com­pany for my chil­dren, so I left and I started Pros­pero in 1979. To­day, I am still a share­holder and a di­rec­tor of Wall Fi­nan­cial.

CAIFU: What is your out­look for com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial real es­tate in Van­cou­ver?

Lee: Van­cou­ver is sur­rounded by wa­ter, so growth can only be out to­ward the val­ley. The sin­gle dwelling home val­ues are still go­ing to go up. Over­all, res­i­den­tial home prices are still go­ing to in­crease in the long run. Even though the city im­posed the 15 per­cent for­eigner- buy­ers tax, this means lit­tle to peo­ple from China. Also, the ex­change rate [from ren­minbi to Cana­dian] is at a 25 per­cent dis­count at the mo­ment. I know vol­ume is down quite a bit right now, but the price is pretty sta­ble and I don’t think home prices will come down much more than a few years ago. It went up and came down a bit, but it’s not go­ing to go way down.

Com­mer­cial-wise, there are very low yields here com­pared to the rest of North Amer­ica. The yield is about two to three per­cent for res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties and four to six per­cent for com­mer­cial prop­er­ties. There will still be buy­ers though be­cause the land is valu­able. So, over­all, com­mer­cial is still good here.

CAIFU: What is your man­age­ment phi­los­o­phy for build­ing a com­pany?

Lee: I started UBC Prop­er­ties Trust in 1988. It was a strug­gle be­cause UBC did not want to cut trees down. I was 52 years old when I vol­un­teered on the board of gov­er­nors. I was the only real es­tate ex­pert there. It took me more than two years to con­vince the board to form a UBC Prop­er­ties Trust to de­velop the univer­sity land. Fi­nally, the board granted me a small site of 28 acres as a pi­lot project that even­tu­ally cre­ated $81 mil­lion.

I leased the land for 99 years in­stead of free­hold. When Hamp­ton Place came on the mar­ket, none of the lo­cal de­vel­op­ers put in a bid be­cause they wanted to buy free­hold. So I fig­ured out who is used to lease­hold: peo­ple from Hong Kong and Lon­don. I phoned my good friend Ge­orge Tso, a Hong Kong con­struc­tion com­pany. I told him I wanted $8 mil­lion to build some con­dos on the cam­pus. They came over and started build­ing. Half­way through con­struc­tion, ev­ery­thing was sold. That was a defin­ing mo­ment to me be­cause in 99 years, UBC will re­ceive an­other huge cheque.

I picked six direc­tors who were all ex­perts in the real es­tate busi­ness: tax, ap­praisals, res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment. We raised $ 1.3 bil­lion to date. We only de­vel­oped two-thirds of the site so we should reach over $2 bil­lion. If the mar­ket keeps on go­ing up, we’re go­ing to make $3 bil­lion. An in­ter­est rate of three or four per­cent at $3 bil­lion is a lot of dis­cre­tionary money for the univer­sity pres­i­dent.

My man­age­ment phi­los­o­phy for build­ing a com­pany is to pick the right peo­ple; pick the best in the busi­ness and know the right peo­ple from net­work­ing and main­tain­ing re­la­tion­ships.

CAIFU: Why is it im­por­tant for you to give back to the com­mu­nity?

Lee: I am fol­low­ing in my Dad’s foot­steps. He was very ac­tive in Chi­na­town with the YWCA, Chi­nese pub­lic school, the Mer­chant’s As­so­ci­a­tion and the Lions Club. Grow­ing up and see­ing what my Dad did, I thought I should do the same. When I was 50 years old, I was quite com­fort­able fi­nan­cially. That is why I joined the board at UBC. I was hop­ing maybe af­ter three years I will go back to busi­ness, but I’ve been there for 30 years. I think the UBC Prop­er­ties Trust, with the amount of money that we were go­ing to raise from real es­tate, will help the fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Van­cou­ver tremen­dously.

A lot of peo­ple are suc­cess­ful busi­ness­men, but a lot of peo­ple don’t give time and money to the com­mu­nity. Earn­ing money is not hard if you know how to do it. But to give it away is dif­fi­cult. Also, a lot of peo­ple give money, but when you have an idea you have to carry it through. If you just give the money and let some­one else carry out the vi­sion, it never works. I spent 30 years at UBC. I re­tired as Chair­man only two years ago.

CAIFU: What are your cur­rent phil­an­thropic projects?

Lee: I want to fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion and health. That is why I was in­volved with the gen­eral hos­pi­tal and built the Robert and Lily Lee com­mu­nity health cen­tre. My daugh­ter has been plan­ning to build a 40,000- square- foot health cen­tre, like the ex­ist­ing one, in the east end of Van­cou­ver. Af­ter three years of ne­go­ti­a­tion, it looks like it will be built. The Van­cou­ver mayor made the an­nounce­ment ear­lier this year.

CAIFU: What is your best ad­vice for some­one who wants to start a real es­tate com­pany?

Lee: Never be afraid of any­thing. There is noth­ing wrong with think­ing big, pro­vided you have a strat­egy. Also, fol­low suc­cess­ful peo­ple. In the be­gin­ning, when I sold real es­tate to a wealthy per­son, I asked if I can par­tic­i­pate and put 10 per­cent down. Most of them said yes. In the early stages, I hung on their coat­tails un­til I could be on my own. And that’s re­la­tion­ship, be­cause they would not in­vite you in if they didn’t like you.

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