Juwai chairman Georg Chmiel interviewed Ironfish CEO Joseph Chou on investing in property.
"Today, we talk to one of the most interesting, influential, and invisible individuals in the real estate industry."
"If this is the first time you are hearing the name Joseph Chou, that is just how he likes it. As CEO and Founder of Ironfish, Chou leads one of the quietest but most powerful companies in the property sector. He is determined it will one day be worth $1 billion. Chou’s memoir, From Bicycles to Bentleys, is popular with Australian investors and a bestseller in Beijing."
"Chou is a native of China and a former diplomat who immigrated to Australia in 1991. Within 18 months of arriving, he and his wife Suzanne had already turned their $4,000 of savings into a $175,000 house and a new BMW."
He was justly proud but, he says, “I felt tired. I was literally working seven days and most evenings.”
Around this time, Chou reunited with a former colleague who had not spent his earnings on a new car and home, but instead had invested in property.
“He had turned cash flow into assets. I, on the other hand, bought the BMW and a home first.”
Chou told me this is when he realised the only way he would be able to enjoy his prosperity was by creating assets that produced wealth for him — even when he himself was not working.
In the subsequent year, Joseph worked quickly to build up a substantial portfolio of his own. He then decided to get into the property business himself and eventually founded Ironfish. The company aims to help Australians build a portfolio of four to ten investment properties over a long period of time and to hold them until they double in value.
“That’s our Australian business,” he said. “Our core value is helping Australian families build a property portfolio to complement superannuation.”
Tip's for Investors
When I asked him what he thinks of rent-vestors who buy their first investment property before their own home, he applauded them.
“That can be a good idea,” he said. “It is cheaper to rent and also own an investment property than just buying a first home.”
Chou says Ironfish has many young professional customers in this category. “They are investing in a few properties first while their career is on the way up. Then, when they have more money and know where they want to settle, they buy their home.”
In fact, it seems Chou’s recommendation for first-home buyers is to take your time.
“Don’t buy just to take advantage of government incentives,” he says. “If you get a mortgage prematurely it will affect your career, your ability to move around, or the opportunity to start a business.”
Once you have invested, Chou believes you should hold onto your investment property as long as possible.
“Our idea is to never sell unless you absolutely have to,” he says. “Property is the goose that lays golden eggs. There is no point in killing it.”
Struggle To Triumph
Chou was born and raised in Nakou, about 50 kilometres from Beijing. By age 16, Chou had nearly died three times.
In one close call, he was saved at the last moment from being run over by a train. Then, he nearly drowned in the deep end of a swimming pool. Finally, a long metal stake impaled him in the eye.
“There was blood everywhere, and it felt like a bullet had lodged in my brain,” he writes. Luckily, he suffered no permanent damage.
Chou explains that, in China, if you survive three tragic accidents you are said to have good fortune for the rest of your life.
“Looking back, surviving set me up to tackle life head-on. I thought, ‘There must be a purpose for my life if I have survived this far.’”
Australia’s natural beauty and its freedoms were the qualities that persuaded Chou and wife to start new lives here.
“Living freely in Australia, we could make choices on how we would spend our time and live our lives. I wanted to go into business in Australia, attain wealth and achieve my goal of living a free life.”
Apartment Vs. House
One funny story Chou tells about his adjustment to living in Australia involves his first grass lawn. Having grown up in an apartment in China, he had no idea how to mow the grass in the garden of his first house, in Denistone. A neighbour showed him how to use the mower, but Chou found himself generating plumes of dust because the mower blade was set too low. He was so flummoxed that he gave away the mower and hired a gardener.
Perhaps this experience is one reason he believes houses should be part of your investment portfolio but not all of it. He encourages investors to balance among houses, townhouses, and apartments as each has its advantages.
I asked Chou what features create value over time. He said he looks for a convenient location, high quality design, and amenities that make people want to live there. He likes apartment buildings that have an owner occupier feel and he likes apartment buildings that appeal to both owner occupiers and investors.
“Also, we have what we call the PIE formula,” he said. “The area has to have a population that’s increasing, infrastructure investments, and employment growth.
Chou is a strong believer in property as a route to wealth. (You may want to note one quarter of the richest 200 individuals in Australia made their money in property.
“The key message is that Australian property is unique compared to other countries. There is a $7.5 trillion asset base. Only 5 per cent is traded every year, so it’s been very stable.”
Chou says investors have many good picks today. For a run-down of his current investment strategy, read his summary here.
Getting into Development
Development is something relatively new for Ironfish. In Melbourne, Ironfish jointly developed Whitehorse Towers and the project was priced below the competition.
“We had to sit down with our development partner to negotiate with them on behalf of the buyers,” he said. “The reduction in pricing reduced the project’s profitability by millions of dollars.”
This is something unique about Ironfish. I don’t know of any other property company that makes leaving money on the table for buyers a cornerstone of their philosophy. Chou sees his company’s mission as helping Australian families build wealth through property.
Although he is too discreet to say so, Chou is very successful.
He came to Australia with only $4000, and his first car (a 15-year old Mitsubishi Sigma) ate up 95 per cent of that total. Chou now has a large personal property portfolio, leads a successful company, and helps thousands of Australians build their own investment portfolios so they can achieve their own financial success.
“To me, it was Australia that made this possible,” he says. “We are so lucky to live in this country. It is a nation that gives everyone a go, and I want to help all Australians to have the same good fortune as me.”
GEORG CHMIEL, the chairman of Juwai, a Chinese website for buyers of overseas property, was speaking to Joseph Chou in his regular column giving insight into the leading minds of Australian property experts.
He has spoken with LJ Hooker agent Bill Malouf about the ins and out of the Sydney market, REINSW president Leanne Pilkington about women in real estate, developer Larry Kestelman about developing your first property, and Harcourts boss Mike Green on real estate investment secrets.