David Leechiu: Big leap from employee to employer

By Judith Balea, abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Dec 04 2009 02:52 AM | Updated as of Apr 21 2010 07:12 PM

This is part of our series on the country's movers and shakers in business. Profile stories under"My Biggest Mistake and How I Solved It" portray individuals who have reached a certain level of success, not just by mere luck, but through failures or rejections that helped shape them.


MANILA - For David Leechiu, life is as good as it gets.

At 37, he is the country head of a global property investment and consultancy firm that bears his name: Jones Lang La Salle Leechiu. He has a wonderful career where the pay is "hard to match" and which allows him to make up for lost time with his family.

But Leechiu's climb to the top was less than wonderful. It started when he stumbled upon his biggest challenge six years ago.

Jobless

Leechiu is in the business of real estate services. Essentially, that means bridging between the property buyers, tenants and investors, and those who are in the business of building or developing the real estate asset.

Since real estate is a long-term asset and considered a major investment, it thrives on investor confidence.

He saw the writing on the wall when he watched the industry suffer under the country’s unfavorable economic and political conditions. It started in 1998 when the effects of the Asian financial crisis became hard-felt. The hubris days of real estate investments were gone and so was Leechiu’s previous job.

As director and general manager of the Philippine arm of First Pacific Davies Savills (the Asian brand of global property consultancy firm Savills), he saw revenues of the local company start to fall down the cliff.

Blow-by-blow challenges that came right after did not help the company's prospects either. In 2001, former president Joseph Estrada was ousted through a popular revolt. Then the Dos Palmas kidnappings made international headlines that same year. In 2003, the SARS outbreak, El Niño, and Oakwood mutiny posed serious threat to the economy. In between those years were consistent bombings in the southern Philippines.

Any one of those problems was troublesome enough. Together, they led Savills to leave the Philippines for good. The country, after all, was too small a market and too big a risk for the London-listed firm.

It was traumatic. All the expats were leaving the country and houses were being vacated. Commissions shrunk by 60%.

In 2003, FPDSavills finally decided to pull out of the country. “It was hard. We were at the bottom of the economy and we were gonna be jobless," Leechiu recalled.

He said he knew about this in a board meeting just two months before the company was about to close shop.

At that time, he was looking at these options: get laid off, work for the competition, or set up his own business.

Leechiu was only willing to settle for the third one.

Betting everything

Leechiu hails from a Chinese family of entrepreneurs. He looks up to his father, who has been running a family business in the popular "Raon" electronics strip in Quiapo, Manila since he was a kid.

And in terms of the know-how in real estate brokerage, he was definitely not lacking, having been in the industry since his early years out of college.

But he wasn't sure he was ready to make the big leap from employee to employer.

It helped that he was in his bosses' good graces. Savills' chief executive for Asia-Pacific at that time, David Wong, offered to sign a franchise deal with Leechiu so the business he was going to set up could carry Savills' trade name.

The only problem for young executive was finding partners who were willing to infuse capital.

Leechiu said he approached his father-in-law and veteran broker Fernando Camus, who had been wanting to but couldn't work with him because of conflict-of-interest concerns.

"The first one I told this to was my father-in-law, not my own parents, because I didn't want to burden them with the thought that I was going to be jobless. My father-in-law was very willing to help me out," he said.

Leechiu later pooled together Savills' senior managers in a meeting to also deliver the painful news.

"I went up to all the managers in Savills and said look, they're gonna shut down on us. This country is a mess and too small for them. Why don't we put up our own business?"

To his dismay, all except one turned down his offer because they didn't want to risk their money.

So with the courage of Leechiu, his father-in-law, and Angela Padilla (that one Savills manager), Leechiu & Associates, a member of Savills International, was born.

Leechiu invested all his savings into the company even if he wasn't sure it wouldn't suffer the same fate as its predecessor.

Personal struggle

Although Leechiu already had a concrete plan, he couldn't have picked a worse time to tell his wife about the whole thing.

They had a baby on the way, and hefty monthly rental payments to meet.

"I carried the burden for weeks. When we had a plan, that's when I told my wife. She was very scared because we had very little savings and everything's in Leechiu & Associates.’

His fear was that, if the venture went bust, he would have to work for the competition.

Leechiu also shared how hard it was to gather enough guts to approach their landlord and ask him to bring down the rent.

Luckily, the landlord was more than willing.

Early operations

The inevitable day came, and Leechiu & Associates was about to start operations on its own. There, Leechiu realized that planning and execution were two entirely different things.

Leechiu & Associates' operations began like many difficult transitions do—roughly.

Many were hurt in the shift as Leechiu was forced to wield the axe to cut costs.

From a very nice, 400 square-meter office in Philamlife Tower in Makati, he transferred one block away to a humble 70 sqm office at 88 Corporate Center. He had to let go of two-thirds the staff.

"It was hard emotionally because from 50 people, we had to shrink to 16."

During the first few years of operations, the company's earnings were on a roller coaster ride. They would lose money for months, then close one or two deals to put them back into profit. After a year, they would again fall in the red.

Leechiu had to cut salaries. In fact, he said, "For five years, I was just working on commission. I didn't give myself salary so I could protect the others."

Leechiu spent 12 to 15 hours a day in the office.

Even if Leechiu & Associates had a head start by taking over several unclosed deals of Savills here, its credibility was a hard sell. Competition was telling target clients that Savills was closing shop.

"We had to work hard to keep our clients," he recalled.

Important lesson

If there's one thing that becoming his own boss taught Leechiu, it is that in crisis comes opportunity.

"There is always opportunity. You just need to be ready when that comes, and be willing to take the risk." He added, "If there are risks, there are also rewards."

During the difficult years of Leechiu & Associates, he admitted there were times he wanted to give up. "But I didn't because I know the money here is hard to match."

True enough, by 2007, Leechiu & Associates was the second biggest property consultancy firm in the country. Global firm Jones Lang La Salle took interest in Leechiu's business, eventually leading to the merger of the two big names in the industry during the year.

At that time, Leechiu & Associates' revenues were twice those of Jones Lang La Salle's. "I never dreamed of the money we made selling the company to Jones Lang," Leechiu said.

He had luck and people who helped and encouraged him on his way to the top.