Building on team spirit
The resilience demanded by rugby laid the foundations for a successful property career
In one of the world's hottest real estate markets, Rick Santos is one of the game's biggest players. As Hong Kong managing director for CB Richard Ellis, the world's largest 'one-stop-shop' for anything to do with property investment and management, he brokers HK$1 billion deals without blinking an eye.
Unusually, for the son of an American mother and Chinese-Filipino father who grew up in Los Angeles, he is also passionate about rugby.
Having been introduced to the game while studying in London and Oxford, he played through the 1990s for Hong Kong Football Club, alongside his brother Rob, until injuries recently took their inevitable toll. He still coaches youngsters at Valley Rugby Football Club.
Rugby and real estate do not necessarily have anything in common, but both are of equal importance to 42-year-old Mr Santos.
Real estate education and experience may bring him wealth, but rugby taught him more about getting along in life - not to mention getting ahead.
'Without rugby, my perspective on life would be totally different,' he reflected, in a conversation that returned repeatedly to the sport closest to his heart.
'Running a business is like managing a rugby team, pushing players of many different nationalities and backgrounds to work together as a team. You only win at rugby if the entire team co-operates. The same applies to a business.
'A lot can be learned from team spirit, and my leadership in business revolves around teamwork. I manage a lot of talented people. It can be a bit like trying to herd cats, as in a talented rugby team, but they are the top producers when you get them working together.'
As in any sport or business, you can't win all the time. But even when the chips are down, Mr Santos is convinced that rugby has the answer. 'Obviously, you have to overcome setbacks sometimes,' he said. 'But no matter what, the important thing is to pick yourself up and fight another day.'
Not only was rugby an unlikely passion, for a Californian surfer who grew up playing basketball, baseball and football. In his early student days, a career in real estate was also on the horizon. 'I was advised as a kid that if you want to get ahead, do something international,' he said. 'I wanted to study international real estate. But unfortunately there was no such thing.'
Instead, his first degree, at the University of California, Berkeley, was in economics and political science.
Undaunted by his 'international' ambition, however, he pursued his chosen career at the London School of Economics, studying a master's in economics, with an emphasis on real estate finance and urban development.
He fine-tuned the education with a post-master's degree in international relations and management at Oxford University, where he played for the rugby team and toured Hong Kong.
His career in real estate started in London with Jones Lang LaSalle (which also had its own rugby team), where his appetite for big property deals was whetted with involvement in the Canary Wharf docklands redevelopment.
Returning to the US, he worked briefly with California's state pension fund, but in the late 1980s hankered to move to Hong Kong. 'It had this reputation as a free-wheeling, dynamic city at the pulse of Asia,' he said. 'I also knew I could play serious rugby here.'
Landing a job with CBRE, as an assistant manager for office leasing and sales, he learned from the ground floor 'how to get deals done' and rose through the ranks.
When the firm decided to open an office in the Philippines in the mid-1990s, he was chosen to set it up, as president and managing director.
The 1998 financial meltdown was a critical time for Asian real estate and his career. When the future of CBRE's office in Manila became uncertain, he brokered his first personal 'big deal' and led a management buyout to become a part owner.
'They were pretty exciting times,' he said. 'At the time it seemed like a large amount of money, but in hindsight it was a good decision.
'My father always told me that if you own a business, you think longer term about building it. Fortunately, the Philippines has come right again. It is now one of the hottest markets in Asia.'
He remains chairman of the Manila office, but his perseverance also impressed CBRE back in Hong Kong. Inviting him back as managing director, they told him: 'If you can make money in the Philippines you can make money anywhere!'
Beyond driving the overall business forward, his primary role today is brokering multi-million dollar deals for international investor clients in Hong Kong and across the region, from the Philippines, India and Thailand to Indonesia and Vietnam.
His biggest negotiations are worth up to US$250 million; and his clients range from Asia's most prominent family businesses to Fortune 500 corporations, global banks and finance houses.
'Asia is back on the radar screen and there is plenty of capital out there looking to invest,' he said. 'Real estate turns in cycles. It is easy to give up in times of crisis, but you have to stick it out. Persistence and determination builds character.'
It also impresses big businesses, especially Asia's wealthy family dynasties.
'Having worked with a lot of people and families for 20 years, relationships run deep,' he said. 'There is a lot of trust there and now their businesses are expanding rapidly internationally. These days you see investors from North America, Australia, Europe and the Middle East all trying to work with Asian owners.'
Most denizens of Hong Kong's much maligned real estate sector might be surprised by his view that 'money is secondary'. 'I don't subscribe to the fast-buck culture and instant gratification,' he insisted. 'The real key to this business is always thinking further ahead, building investments, reinvesting profits and developing relationships with a network of loyal business partners.
'When people realise you are not 'fly by night', in the end they trust you and you trust them. It results in long-term business.'
In the meantime, though retired from competitive rugby, he still coaches youngsters, including his own sons.
'I take a lot of pride in watching my sons play,' he said. 'The values of teamwork, loyalty, perseverance, commitment and not giving up are no different to the values a lot of parents try to encourage. No different to the values of the adult world. I think it really helps kids a lot as they grow up.'
Tries and conversions
Managing director for CB Richard Ellis brokers HK$1 billion property deals.
Attributes success to teamwork and determination learned from his passion for rugby.
Studied economics at University of California, Berkeley; master's at London School of Economics, and post master's at Oxford.
Started real estate career in London with Jones Lang LaSalle.
Joined CBRE in Hong Kong in late 1980s to be 'at the pulse of Asia'.
Returned to CBRE in Hong Kong as managing director, dealing with Asia's most prominent family businesses, Fortune 500 corporations, global banks and finance houses.
Executive director - agency / professional
HK$80,000 or more
12 to 15 years
Director - agency / professional
HK$40,000 to HK$100,000
Associate director - agency / professional
HK$30,000 to HK$70,000
Six to eight years
Assistant manager / Senior analyst /
HK$15,000 to HK$20,000
Four to five years
Negotiator / Analyst / Valuer
HK$10,000 to HK$15,000
HK$10,000 to HK$15,000 (for related disciplines)
HK$8,000 (for non-related disciplines)