As CEO and co-founder of PropNex, Ismail Gafoor regularly conducts property seminars. (Photo: PropNex)

Behind every successful man is a unique success story, and Ismail Gafoor, one of the most recognizable names in Singapore property, is no exception. From a small Malay-Muslim property consultancy to the real estate giant it is today, PropNex has come a long way with Gafoor at the helm. PropertyGuru News & Views speaks to the man himself.

By Cheryl Marie Tay

As CEO and co-founder of Singapore’s largest home-grown property consultancy, Ismail Gafoor’s name is easily one of the most recognized within the local real estate industry.

He has been in the business for two decades, authored books, been interviewed on TV, conducted seminars and spoken at major property events, and currently leads a team of over 5,500 real estate salespeople.

Yet he behaves with nary an air about himself, his friendly, unassuming demeanour the first thing one notices about him. The father of three speaks candidly about his experiences in the real estate market, maintaining a positive attitude towards his career, as well as life in general.

Starting small

In 1996, Gafoor started a company called Nooris Consultants (a combination of his wife’s name, Nooraini, and his, Ismail). It became the biggest Malay-Muslim real estate consultancy in Singapore, but he and his business partners realized it was not enough to cater to such a niche section of the market.

As such, in 2000, Nooris Consultants became PropNex, in collaboration with four other partner companies, with the aim of adding “value to our salespeople and customers”.

A risky undertaking

Though Gafoor can be considered a household name in the world of property consultancy, not many know he used to serve in the armed forces as a regular pensionable officer. He says, “I would have gotten a million dollars at the age of 50, but I chose to leave after 13 years (in the armed forces) for no money, so I could embark on the entrepreneurial path.”

He hastens to add: “However, I’m still serving as a full colonel and division chief of staff. There was (just) a stronger desire to go out there and create something for myself, to experience an entrepreneur’s journey.”

And what a journey it has turned out to be. In the 15 years since its inception, the consultancy has grown dramatically. For the last five years, PropNex has commanded over 30 percent of all residential resale transactions in Singapore.

Predicting the future

When asked for his input regarding Singapore’s housing market, he lights up and launches into an enthusiastic assessment of the situation. Clearly, even after 20 years, he still enjoys what he does.

He offers: “As far as public housing is concerned, I think we have almost reached a point of recovery. It had been seeing negative growth until Q4 last year. This is a good sign, because if the public housing market continues to slide, asset depreciation will affect homeowners in the long term.”

He adds that the mass market will see a marginal softening, lesser than the high-end market. At the same time, he advises homeowners to “take stock of their property portfolios”.

“First and foremost, interest rates are going up. There are a few factors to determine: is your property leasehold or freehold, how many years are left on its lease, and what is the penalty period (if any)? You may need to seek professional consulting to help you with this.

“Then you will need to make a few decisions: if you plan to hold on to your property, should you re-price it? If you plan to let go of it, what is the next asset you should invest in for greater future capital appreciation?”

He also says it is a buyer’s market now, but warns that it will not last long. He is, in fact, convinced that the cooling measures need to be tweaked eventually, and when that happens, the ABSD (Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty) will most likely be the first measure to be reviewed.

When that happens, more investors and foreign buyers may be drawn in to the market. Gafoor advises multiple property owners that this is a good time to take stock. “It may then become a seller’s market instead.”

Trials and tribulations

When he reveals the hardship he experienced in starting the company and keeping the business afloat, it is easy to see why he is still so invested in it and so zealous about what he does for a living.

From the very beginning, troubles abounded. “PropNex’s formation started on the wrong foot. Within six months (of starting the company), we wanted to destroy the brand. I was too focused on economies of scale and not on the core values of our then-partners, and we realized our partners, who had a two-year contract with us, were focused on different needs.”

When the two years were over, he received a life-changing phone call. It was a journalist telling him one of his partners had sent out a press release and taken out an advertisement in the Straits Times to announce its severance of ties with PropNex. But Gafoor chose to keep his cool.

“We called the partner in question to find out more but were unsuccessful, then immediately sent a press release to the Straits Times. But my main concern was my staff. We gathered all 2,000-plus in an auditorium and spoke to them. We told them the five partners, who had come together when the economy was bad, were like sampans in stormy weather, so we decided to unite. But one sampan was moving in a different direction. We still wished them all the best, but I promised my people we would bring them to shore.”

With one fewer partner, the company forged ahead. But that was not the end of its problems.

Gafoor says, “In 2004, I was hospitalized for stress-related chest pains. I wanted a full merger among the four remaining partners, all of whom were profitable. But negotiations did not go well, so I called for a three-month break. I told the other partners to think about it, but to be honest, I also needed the time.

Those three months eventually proved instrumental in deciding the future of PropNex.

“I achieved greater clarity during those three months, and I decided that it was either a merger or an amicable split. We held a meeting from 9:30 AM on a Saturday to 4:30 AM on a Sunday and eventually, we merged and moved on as one entity.”

Reaping the rewards

As we all know, PropNex has come a long way. What started as a two-man company in a 300 sq ft office in Apollo Centre has expanded greatly, something that makes Gafoor immensely proud.

“The formation of PropNex in itself was a big achievement. This proved that my business did not have to remain small. Setting up our holding company, P&N, was another achievement. All its seven subsidiaries have done well, from development and management to investment and training; none of them have been in the red, and have contributed positively to P&N’s growth.”

The company celebrated its 15th anniversary last year, and continues to be one of Singapore’s foremost property consultancies.

Ultimate understanding

So what does Gafoor believe is his secret to success?

Off the bat, he replies: “I would say it is really understanding clients’ needs instead of just wanting to make a sale. I think it’s a very simple formula: it’s about loving people. When one makes it a point to be passionate about his job and to have a loving heart, (you will appreciate) everyone.

“Skills are important, but so are team cohesion and mutual respect. When a working environment is harmonious, people go out of their way to contribute.”

He believes that passion for one’s job is important not just for himself and his customers, but his family as well. “My philosophy is this: the day the company fails to add value to people is the day people should leave and go elsewhere, for the sake of their loved ones.”

A man apart

Beyond being passionate — an adjective some may find overused — about his career, Gafoor firmly believes what makes him different from other industry leaders is, as he says bluntly, his ability to obsess.

“Everyone will say he is passionate about his job, but I am obsessed. I think there are different levels of obsession, and it’s hard for people to keep up with me when I put my mind to something.”

Still, he maintains that is not all there is to it. “It can’t be pure obsession; there must be massive action put into what you want to achieve. I believe that is what sets me apart.”

Great expectations

Between 2014 and 2015, PropNex grew by more than 25 percent in terms of revenue and transaction volume. Yet — perhaps unsurprisingly — Gafoor is not content to rest on his laurels.

He says with a distinct air of determination: “Our key focus for 2016 is to grow the business locally by another 20 percent. And we are a very strong brand in Singapore, but I would like to grow the franchise in the region. It could be in Vietnam, Jakarta, or even the Philippines.”

Still, the welfare of his staff remains one of his major priorities: “I don’t want my salespeople to become disillusioned and leave the industry; that would be a huge loss to the company.”




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