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Investing in agents, tech for the future

Calling real estate broking a "people business", the CEO of Huttons Asia explains why it will continue to recruit and hire. However, it would do so with emphasis on training agents and leveraging technology.

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It's no more about pushing a product, but being able to provide advice according to a client's needs and wants. says Mr Goh.

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Goh Kee Nguan (centre, in blue suit and tie), CEO of Huttons Asia, with agents and other staff. In the last couple of years, spending has increased not just on agent incentives and retention packages, but on training and technology development as well, says Mr Goh.

LOCAL property agency Huttons Asia is looking to hire more property agents at a time when more buyers and sellers are opting to do without them according to its chief executive.

"We're definitely recruiting," said chief executive officer Goh Kee Nguan. "I think we recruit both traditional, non-traditional agents, all sorts of agents. I think we're very open, so we definitely want as many agents to join us as possible."

Huttons was the fourth largest in Singapore in terms of sales force, with 3,067 agents at the start of the year, behind PropNex Realty, ERA Realty Network and OrangeTee & Tie.

But, of the four, it was the only one whose agent strength had dipped. At the start of 2018, Huttons had 3,207 agents, based on Council for Estate Agencies data.

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Asked about the impact of those departures, Mr Goh said: "Definitely we value talent but, in the end, every agent is their own businessman, they have to make their own business decision. So, definitely, we are always sad and disappointed that we lose talented people but, in the end, life goes on."

"It's not a one-person show, this business," said Mr Goh, who became chief executive of Huttons in 2013, his third job after he retired from the military in 2008.

In recent years, more sellers and buyers have also opted to make do without property agents, as new technologies and real estate platforms enable them to transact on their own.

Mr Goh said Huttons will still hire, calling real estate broking a "people business", but more emphasis is being put on training agents and leveraging technology to make sure they can continue to add value to clients.

In the last couple of years, spending has increased not just on agent incentives and retention packages, but on training and technology development as well.

"Our last count was actually S$10 million, on all of it," said Mr Goh, although Huttons declined to reveal the extent of increase. And, that number is set to grow, Mr Goh said.

When it comes to technology, Huttons is looking to develop an all-in-one platform - encompassing tools for everything from performance tracking to digital marketing - to help its agents manage and grow their businesses more efficiently.

"Technology has always been a negative and positive thing. For us, it'll definitely disrupt, but we also see that technology can be a good leveraging channel for us to make sure that we equip our agents better," said Mr Goh.

For example, on the front end, agents can use SmartRealtor, a tool that allows them to create their own marketing collateral and manage their personal websites.

On the back end, they have access to Huttons iPortal, which allows them to monitor transaction volumes and submit transactions electronically, among other features.

This year, Huttons has also developed what it calls a "training masterplan" for its agents, involving in-depth insights to the market, and sales and marketing. For instance, Huttons now runs an annual course where participants delve into a specific sub-sector of the property market, like commercial property or landed housing, every month.

It's no more about pushing a product, Mr Goh said, but being able to provide advice according to a client's needs and wants.

Changing landscape aside, property agencies are also facing a more muted economic outlook. Still, Huttons said business is holding up this year.

The market in the first quarter was "very, very slow", said Mr Goh, but it picked up in the second quarter and did even better in the third. Sales of new private homes from July to September clocked in over 1,000 each month. "As long as we continue to have the share of the market, then we're okay," he said.

For FY2018, Huttons recorded a net profit of S$15.9 million, double the S$7.7 million from the previous year, largely thanks to a heating market before the cooling measures were announced late last year. Revenue was S$277.7 million for 2018, up 60.4 per cent from the year ago. Next year will be just as busy as this year, Mr Goh predicted. There are "easily about 30 more new launches" in addition to the current inventory.

"So, I would say there's more than enough to sell. And I think we still see that majority of the clients are Singaporeans," he noted.

"I think in the last collective sales exercise, more than S$20 billion was paid to the owners. So, I think our challenge now is to find these owners, to see what they need and then to match them to the properties."

Huttons also made the top five in this year's Enterprise 50 Awards. For Mr Goh, he hopes the win will show people within the group and on the outside that Huttons is an award-winning company, and one that they can trust. "And definitely to the other agencies, they know that hey, we are friendly but strong competitors to them," he quipped.