ERA: From ‘mega agency’ to full-fledged real estate services provider

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/ EdgeProp Singapore
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February 4, 2022 8:30 AM SGT
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Once a gaudy orange and yellow, ERA APAC Centre’s facade is now a sleek white. Solar panels have just been installed on the rooftop to power some of the building’s energy needs. Refurbishments are underway at the four-storey rectangular block that houses the headquarters of one of Singapore’s biggest real estate agencies, ERA Singapore and its Singapore-listed parent company APAC Realty.
The building had begun life as Toa Payoh Cinema in 1972 and was then turned into Toa Payoh Entertainment Centre in the late 1990s. The cinema had shuttered in late 2010 and a year later, Hersing Corp purchased the building, which was renamed Hersing Centre and later ERA Centre. In 2018, APAC Realty purchased it for $72.8 million and renamed it ERA APAC Centre.
ERA APAC Centre - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Renovations are underway at ERA APAC Centre – once upon a time Toa Payoh Cinema - with new solar panels installed, and a Green Mark certification in the offing (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Late last year, after its restaurant tenant exited from its first level space, ERA converted it into a new office space for its agents’ use. The unit next door that had previously been occupied by a beauty salon is now a training room. Hence, ERA has chosen adaptive reuse of its building rather than redeveloping it. Its efforts have been recognised, with the building to be conferred a Green Mark certification by the Building and Construction Authority. “We’re in the real estate business and we believe in adding value to our own asset,” says Marcus Chu, CEO of ERA Singapore and APAC Realty.
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The lobby area on the first level of APAC Centre was renovated last year. It now has a co-working space, a lounge area, booths for video conference calls, a soundproof podcast room and a photo booth. “These are value-added services for our agents,” explains Chu.
ERA APAC CENTRE PODCAST BOOTH - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
The soundproof podcast booth available for agents’ use (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Turning 40

ERA is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, having been in Singapore since 1982. It’s a momentous year for Chu too. He became CEO of ERA Singapore and APAC Realty last July. He joined ERA as a sales associate in 1996, vaulted to senior vice-president in 2005 and skyrocketed to the COO position in 2013 before landing on the CEO seat last July.
Chu is not content with just being a “mega agency”, which in his definition, is an agency with a sales force of at least 5,000. ERA has long passed that benchmark and now has 8,299 agents as at Jan 28, based on the Council for Estate Agencies public register. Across Asia Pacific, APAC Realty has more than 20,300 agents in 10 countries. “This has surpassed our vision in 2021,” says Chu.
He wants to increase ERA’s sales force in Singapore to over 10,000 and more than 25,000 across the region by 2024. APAC Realty has established a presence in 10 countries. While the ERA companies in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are subsidiaries, those in Cambodia, China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan operate as franchisees.
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ERA APAC CENTRE - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Co-working space includes soundproof booths for video conferencing on the first level (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
ERA’s market share of the private housing resale market in Singapore stood at 45% last year, estimates Chu. The firm brokered 43% of the resale transactions in the HDB segment last year. Its market share of new home sales was one-third (33%).
Over the next three years from 2022 to 2024, ERA aims to grow its presence in the resale market for both HDB and private homes to 50%. The target he wants to achieve for new home sales is 40%. ERA wants to grow its share in the private leasing market to 30% from 23% last year. (Find HDB flats for rent or sale with our Singapore HDB directory)
Before Covid, Singapore contributed to 80% of APAC Realty’s revenue and profit, with the other markets in the region making up 20%. Last year, Singapore contributed to more than 95% of APAC Realty’s revenue and profit. “Covid had affected the overseas markets quite severely, while Singapore has adapted well to digitalisation,” observes Chu.
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ERA APAC CENTRE CO WORKING SPACE - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Vending machines at the pantry area of the co-working space (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Although the regional markets’ contribution was less than 5% last year, Chu believes these markets “hold great promise and untapped potential”. He believes that the overall revenue contribution should be enhanced with further overseas expansion once vaccinated travel lanes are expanded. “We have franchise rights for 17 countries, so we will expand beyond the 10 existing countries,” he says.

Entering capital markets and investment sales business

Chu’s ambition is to turn ERA into “a full-fledged, professional real estate services provider”. As such, he recently launched ERA’s new capital markets and investment sales business, headed by Steven Tan, its new managing director. Tan was formerly executive director of capital markets and investment sales at Colliers International.
Tan didn’t come alone. He brought three other colleagues, namely Donald Goh, Tay Liam Hiap and Desmond Lim. Collectively, they have about 100 years’ worth of experience and have transacted over $4.7 billion worth of deals.
STEVEN TAN - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Tan: It’s a good time for us to set up this capital markets department now (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
“In the past, collective sales were done by our agents, but we never had a dedicated team that focused on it,” says Chu. “We have decided to take a professional approach, and have our own corporate team.”
Besides collective sales, the capital markets team will handle other “big ticket” deals, ranging from the sale of a row of shophouses to hotels, industrial buildings or office blocks. This allows ERA to expand beyond its core market of homeowners, investors and developers. It will now be able to tap institutional investors including REITs, private equity firms, real estate funds, family offices and ultra-high net worth investors.
Following the recent property cooling measures on Dec 16, more investors have switched their attention to industrial and commercial properties as these assets are not subject to additional buyer’s stamp duty (ABSD). “It’s a good time for us to set up this capital markets department,” says Tan. (Find Singapore commercial properties with our commercial directory)
INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS NEAR INTERNATIONAL ROAD - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Besides collective sales, the capital markets team will handle other “big ticket” deals, ranging from the sale of a row of shophouses to hotels, industrial buildings or office blocks (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Beyond collective sales

A real estate veteran with almost 30 years’ experience, Tan has brokered more than $1.8 billion of investment properties. Recent deals he brokered included the sale of a freehold industrial building at 190 Macpherson Road for $88 million in 2020. His other notable deals included the collective sale of an apartment and commercial block on Phoenix Road for $42.6 million to Qingjian Realty in 2019, which will be redeveloped into the 105-unit The Arden. Tan also brokered the sale of a food factory at 200 Pandan Loop for $56.8 million last year.
Even though the ABSD for developers buying residential sites has been increased to 35% from Dec 16, “the collective sale market isn’t totally dead”, says Tan. “Developers are still interested in the small sites in the $100 million to $200 million range. They still need land as the unsold stock is at an all-time low. Larger collective sale sites above $500 million, however, could be a challenge.”
He expects developer interest in collective sale sites in the Rest of Central Region (RCR) and Outside Central Region (OCR) to remain. “Developers need to reassess their risks given higher ABSD and construction costs before they put in a bid for a site,” he adds.
Team members of ERA - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
The new capital markets and investment sales department at ERA include (left to right) Donald Goh, Steven Tan, Tay Liam Hiap and Desmond Lim (Credit: ERA)
Collective sales in the Core Central Region (CCR) may not take off as home buyers in this high-end segment tend to be foreigners or property investors with multiple properties already, both of whom have been slapped with higher ABSD, he cautions.
Joining Tan at ERA is Tay, the new managing director of investment sales. He is said to have brokered $1.5 billion worth of deals, including the collective sales of City Tower, Flamingo Valley, Fairways Condominium and Pacific Plaza. Tay is also a licensed valuer.
Goh, the new director of capital markets and investment sales, is said to have a wide-ranging experience from commercial and industrial properties to residential developments including Good Class Bungalows. Lim, the newly appointed director of capital markets and investment sales, workplace & culture, will be handling commercial and industrial leasing, which is complementary to capital markets, according to Tan.
Team members of ERA Auction Sales Department - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
ERA's auction and sales department (left to right): Yvonne Lau, Alison Lee, Carol Quek and Irene Song (Credit: ERA)
Prior to capital markets and investment sales, ERA had also entered the auction market in 2016 and imported a team from Colliers International. Since then, the auction department’s business has increased from $12.94 million in 2016 to $70.79 million in 2020.
During the pandemic, virtual property auctions were conducted by streaming on Facebook Live. Its first virtual property auction featured a landed property that received multiple bids and was sold at its guide price of $3.4 million. With the combination of property cooling measures, rising interest rates and expiry of relief measures for borrowers, ERA’s Chu foresees more mortgagee sales to surface at auctions this year.

‘New generation of home buyers’

More than growing headcount, Chu wants to increase the per capita performance of his agents. “It’s about investing more in training and development to build the competencies of our agents so they can provide a positive transaction experience for their clients,” he says.
ERA APAC CENTRE AGENT PHOTO BOOTH - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Photo booth for agents on the first level of ERA APAC Centre (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Chu is well aware of the shift in market dynamics. “A new generation of home buyers has entered the market: those born in the 1990s, and who are buying their first property,” he observes.
ERA has therefore been rolling out initiatives to empower its agents to cater to this new generation of buyers. He is introducing “social media hacks”, content creators who have gained a big following on Instagram or TikTok, to teach his agents how to leverage these social media platforms and tools. “We have to move with the changing times,” says Chu. “It’s important to track how consumers interact in social media and digital platforms.”
Last August, the company rolled out RealtyWatch, an app for consumers offering both property and financial tools, that will allow them to access property market information, the latest mortgage rates and new project launches on the market. “We want to connect ERA agents with consumers,” says Chu. “Agents can host their existing and prospective clients on the platform, which acts as a digital customer relations management system.”
MARCUS CHU - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Chu: The ability to provide full-fledged services is very important to us. In the past, collective sales were done by our agents, but we never had a dedicated team that focused on it. We have decided to take a professional approach, and have our own corporate team (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
In an era where consumers already have access to market information online, Chu believes that ERA can differentiate itself through its digital tools, such as iERA, which offers analytical tools and insights, so agents can offer home buyers options based on their budget and preferred locations. Another app, Robo Advisor, empowers even new agents to generate different investment options that meet their clients’ needs.
A New Launch app for agents will include information on available units for sale, a daily update on the number of transactions and the commission rate. The app also allows for project comparisons as well as past transactions dating back to the year 2000. He intends to roll out another app for landed property, which includes URA planning decisions and plot dimensions.
He believes that the expansion of ERA’s suite of apps and tools will go towards building the firm into a real estate firm with “full-fledged services”.
Check out the latest listings near The Arden

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