Ambition drives property professionals abroad

Copyright: David Lawson - Property Week December 1997

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Every year around this time, the property industry falls victim to  a sudden outbreak  of itchy feet. 'There is nothing quite like a bleak winter morning for stimulating interest in foreign travel,' says one cynical recruitment specialist.  But ambitious young professionals are beginning to realise that an overseas posting could be more important than just a  hunt for the sun. European integration, a tide of Far-East money and the growing interest by US investors have woken many to the fact that the future may lie beyond the confines of Little England.

  All the leading players have set up or are looking at international networks. Before long, climbing the greasy pole could  require some kind of foreign experience. But what are the opportunities - and the potential pitfalls?   Firstly, jobs are not exactly pouring in. 'We don't have that many on our books,' admits Chris Cheetham, a manager at recruitment specialist Hays Montrose. 'In fact, there are probably more people trying to get home than move abroad at the moment, because Asia is wilting and the UK is moving up.'  It is probably more fruitful  to  have a berth in one of the big names. Barry Nealon, who spent 17 years in the US for Jones Lang Wootton before returning to London, is helping build  a new  program to switch more  between offices in Europe, Asia and North America.

  'We are an international industry with international clients and it is important for people to learn about different business  cultures at the source,' he says.  But a top name is not essential. Just over two years ago Stewart Clarke ripped up roots in provincial agency to find work in Singapore. 'I had no job waiting and only a few personal contacts,' he says. It took a month to find a place with DTZ Leung (later renamed Edmund Tie) yet he was soon marketing a huge industrial project in Shanghai and ended up managing the office leasing team.  Now back in London, the 30-year-old has  a fat contacts book of  Asian investors to call on as he helps develop Knight Frank's central London retail business. These personal contacts with wealthy investors are proving strong selling points for those returning in droves from Asia

  So is the experience of working at such high levels. The speed of advancement in these outposts is legendary. Simon Baker was only 23 when he abandoned  his ISVA training and landed in Hong Kong. A Chesterton  senior partner promised streets  paved with gold - and was not far wrong.   'I did my first major deal after six months and was an associate director in 18 months,' says Baker. 'At that time, London associates were in  their  40s.'

  It is a common message among returning expats: go abroad and you leap onto a faster track. Baker moved around Asia, setting up a Bangkok office in 1990 for Chesterton before being head-hunted by Richard Ellis International to form an an Indonesian base. Five months ago he was poached by Hamptons to join a new international division in London. He still does not have letters after his name.

 That is another main lesson of foreign experience. For years, the great and good have preached that chartered surveyors are revered around the world as independent and skilful specialists. 'In Asia, they are likely to think ARICS is your Christian name,' says Baker.

  Edward Mackaness met many unqualified professionals in Hong Kong as an Army officer and Bahrain with DTZ. 'The technicalities of property disappear once you leave the UK,' he says. 'You are judged on who you are, and you are only as good as your last deal.'

  But qualifications can be  crucial as a ticket  home,  says Mackaness, who now provides corporate occupier advice for DTZ across Europe. Accelerated experience may  appeals to potential UK employers, but gaining enough to cancel out lack of qualifications can take many years.

  By then the downside of a foreign posting becomes obvious. 'You must be careful not to get cut off,' says Peter Hill, who moved from City agency to Hong Kong with DTZ and is now back in London, using his contacts  as a  director of residential.

 'I met people who had been out there for eight years or more and cannot get a job back home because they no longer know the market and have no contacts.'

  One common piece of advice among expats is to subscribe to British newspapers and property magazines to keep up with events. Another is the fairly narrow window for international postings. A minimum of  two years is needed to understand the  market and culture. But you can't afford to settle in after that.

 Nealon sets an age range of 28 to 35 for JLW transfers. Before that they have too little experience and after 35 they are usually too valuable to their departments or have family ties. Personality is also crucial.

 'We pick people for resilience,' he says. 'You must have the kind of outgoing personality to mix with all kinds of new people and the strength to handle inevitable periods of loneliness.'

 Once abroad, the crunch comes in less than three years, he says. 'After that, you are in danger of  being forgotten back home' says Nealon. That is not necessarily a bad thing. He went to the US for three years and stayed for 17 years.

 'Many people get the taste for travel and never come back,' he says. One of his tasks is to persuade partners that they may lose their high-fliers to other countries but JLW still keeps their skills no matter where they are. 'And we all share in the profits.'

  So where should potential travellers be looking for the best berths? Eastern Europe has the attractions which Asia once boasted: a new market understaffed by professionals. Nealon says big centres like New York, Chicago and Sydney also offer the opportunities of market size. But he picks out South America as having the potential for accelerated experience.

SIMON BAKER   A director of Hamptons International at only 33, he attributes 10 years in South-east Asia to accelerated advancement.  Advice to potential travellers:  Go for it, but be prepared to work long and hard to make contacts. Then use those to sell yourself on return. He would not now recommend Asia but points to  up-and-coming areas like Prague, which will go through similar growth.

PETER HILL: Recently returned from three years in  Hong Kong.. Believes there are still opportunities in South East Asia, particularly because the working language and legal system are the same as here. Family ties are not necessarily a problem: he took a small child and his wife had another out there. But he but points out that travellers should match moves with markets. 'The UK was on its knees and Asia was rampant when I went out. Now it is moving the other way.'

EDWARD MACKANESS:  Now 33, he saw a posting to Bahrain as a stepping stone back to the UK after four years away from DTZ in the Army. 'Anyone even half thinking about it should make a move. It is a wonderful way to open horizons and running an office helped me move into my current management role.' But watch out for success and age creeping on. 'I came across a lot of people who could not afford to come home because they were doing so well or got past the age when they would get jobs in the UK.'

RONAN CHAMPION:  An 18-month stint in Paris taught this QS with Northcroft Management Services that dumping cultural baggage and remaining in touch are the most important factors in moving abroad.  'Language is not the problem many anticipate, as English is common in construction,' he says. But he found that many professionals were unprepared for differences in business practice - despite the plethora of guide books available in the UK.  'Making a presentation, for instance, is totally different in France. You cannot outline all the alternatives in a draft contract and wait for the acceptable bits to be picked. The client will be embarrassed and lose face if just one part is unacceptable. 'You learn to agree it all in advance with the number two man, so the boss can rubber stamp it at the board meeting.'  This lesson  is no use when you want to  get back home, however. 'A QS can move around because the work is task-based. But I met many GP surveyors who were stranded because they had lost touch with the UK market,' he says.

STEWART CLARKE:  A jump into the unknown with no job and only a handful of contacts paid off handsomely. A  planned nine-month break turned into two years of intense activity including marketing in China and managing an office in Singapore.   Back home with Knight Frank, the contacts could prove a boon in building up the London retail department for this 30-year-old. But he would not advise everyone to take a leap in the dark. 'Look at details like methods of payment and tax rates,' he says. 'And remember to keep in touch with the home market.'  Taking a family abroad is common, but he points out that this can be a strain when working five days a week and being on call to escort clients and UK visitors on weekends.