When Vancouver-based Macdonald Realty dispatched Dan Scarrow, the agency’s vice-president of corporate strategy, to China last March to investigate the feasibility of launching a branch office in Shanghai, the assignment was initially only going to be for four months.
A year later, Scarrow, a second-generation Chinese Canadian who is fluent in Mandarin, is still there. The Vancouver Sun reached Scarrow in Shanghai by phone last week to discuss his progress, objectives and challenges in building a bridge for residential and commercial real estate investment between China and British Columbia as the new managing director of Macdonald Realty’s Canadian Real Estate Investment Centre in Shanghai.
Q When you first were dispatched to Shanghai at this time last year, it was for a four-month assignment to investigate opening up a Macdonald Realty branch in China. Why are you still there?
A We actually have ended up opening up an office here. We have a representative office over here in Shanghai now doing project marketing and commercial and residential prospecting for our Vancouver and British Columbia offices. We’ve branded it as the Canadian Real Estate Investment Centre, so it’s offering a one-stop shop for Chinese investors looking toward anything to do with Canadian real estate, specifically B.C.
Q Why did Macdonald Realty want a presence in China?
A It was sort of two-fold. The first one is that Chinese investors are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our market — both on the residential side and the commercial side. And after our investigation over here we found that there are no other Canadian [real estate] companies over here in China that actively do this, so we would be the first one.
Q What’s been the biggest adjustment living in China for you personally?
A Shanghai is a pretty easy city for an expat to get used to. I think that the rest of China would be a much more difficult adjustment, but Shanghai itself is a pretty cosmopolitan city with a pretty global outlook and a pretty robust expat community. So it’s not as difficult. The challenge, I guess, that everyone talks about is the pollution aspect. They talk about it here the same way Vancouverites talk about the rain.
Q What’s your mandate in terms of building links between commercial real estate in B.C. and the Chinese market?
A Our main mandate is to promote B.C. commercial properties over here in China. I think we all acknowledge that China has been growing. It has created the fastest-growing wealthy and middle class in human history, so tapping into that market I think is going to be increasingly important for Canada and Canadian companies over the next decades.
Q What’s the most common question you hear from Chinese clients interested in investing in British Columbia’s commercial real estate?
A The most common question actually isn’t about real estate. It’s with what is happening in immigration. The biggest question is what is Canada’s current immigration policy and what will it be moving forward, just because there have been so many changes to Canada’s immigration policy in the last few years, and I think everyone is a little bit confused as to what it will be moving forward.
Q Any unwelcome surprises or challenges doing real estate business in China?
A Not really. It’s been interesting in the last year because there were the big changes to the immigration program — the investor immigrant program in the middle of last year and continuing until today. And also with the collapse of oil prices and the subsequent drop in the Canadian dollar. That’s been another thing we’ve had to deal with, but more in a positive sense from our investors’ point of view because now Canada’s real estate market is seen as even cheaper than it was prior to that change.
Q In a blog post last year you wrote that wealthy clients in China are more interested in placing their children and a portion of their wealth outside of China than they are in immigrating themselves. Why do you think that’s the case, if it still is the case?
A It still is the case. If you’re a wealthy Chinese individual it’s likely because you have a large business still in China. China does not recognize dual citizenship and it’s just more difficult for you to actively operate your business without Chinese citizenship. So a lot of people, they’re not willing to give up their business so they’re not willing to give up their Chinese passport either.
Q Which areas of Vancouver’s commercial real estate market are your Chinese clients eager to get involved in?
A For a lot of our clients it’s hotels. But it’s an education process as well, letting them know which asset classes are involved or available in B.C. Hotel investment is more of an active business, so while we have a lot of hotel operator clients who are interested in buying hotels, if they don’t have that kind of experience we like to talk to them about some of the other opportunities that might be available. Some of the hotter ones would be street-front retail with redevelopment potential. That goes very quickly for us. We probably have 15 very serious-type buyers that would snap up products like that immediately, but we can’t find enough product for them. It’s a lot of investment-type product that has income right now but has development potential in five to 10 years.
Q What’s the next step for your operations in China?
A Right now we’re working with a couple of developers to promote their projects over here [in China] and so we’re doing project marketing and then also working with our residential agents to make sure the listings that we have are exposed to the widest possible audience. And finally — obviously — exposure of the commercial real estate realm. I think that’s really the big push right now. A lot of investors have already bought a home for themselves in Vancouver and they’re looking for ways to diversify their investment portfolio in Canada, and really the promotion of the commercial real estate, and the education of those buyers, is our next step.