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Spirit of Enterprise – Biz Interview:

Mohamed Ismail Gafoore, CEO, P&N Holdings and PropNex Realty

2004 Spirit of Enterprise Honouree

At the helm of Singapore’s largest real estate network is Mohamed Ismail Gafoore. As CEO of PropNex Realty, Ismail brings with him a rare fighting spirit that built for him a successful career in the army as a regular officer.

His passion to be an outstanding entrepreneur prompted him to start PropNex and with a very high risk appetite and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, he has grown the company from humble beginnings to what it is today: a property giant with over 3,000 associates under him.

In 2003, Ismail diversified his business by forming P& N Holdings Pte Ltd and other subsidiaries that complemented the existing real estate business. Among the new business units include financial advisory firm SingCapital and SingBuilders, a boutique residential developer.

1. Why exactly did you leave your comfortable career as a regular officer of the Singapore Armed Forces to become an entrepreneur? Why then did you want to venture into real estate?

Being a civil servant is not wrong but there is a lot of scope that you have to follow and your growth is chartered based on career path. On the other hand, I felt entrepreneurship allows you total freedom to exploit your creativity, your passion and your ability…and you succeed in that sense.

I was a pensionable officer in the armed forces for 13 years. When I walked out at age 32, I lost 13 years of gratuity which should have come to over S$100,000 if I had chosen to stay for three more years under a scheme known as volunteer early release.

But I always believe that success is all about making decisions. Life is about making decisions. I made the decision that I wanted to leave the army with no negative emotion but rather looking towards a very positive outlook that one day, I could add a greater value in my life and the people around me.

I ventured into real estate simply because I made my first million from that industry. I owned my first property at the age of 22…and then saving enough money to upgrade from a 3-room HDB flat to a landed property all within the next 6-7 years. And that started the paradigm shift. The knowledge that I acquired as an individual person from my various property investments gave me greater confidence to go out there and start a real estate business and help others in the process owning their property.

2. What are the values that you stand by when you conduct your business?

First and foremost, I believe that discipline and a positive attitude are important for anybody to build any business. Building a business is not all about having an idea and be excited about it….it is more on translating that idea and creating a system that adds greater value to people.

Any business is all about adding value. If you are able to add value, be it a service or a product, people will like you. This is where the existence of any business depends on: executing your value proposition.

From the perspective of what values I stand by, the way we conduct our business here is that we are guided by our four pillars: First, to conduct our business with high level of integrity and ethics; second, continuous self improvement; third, autonomy and entrepreneurship; and fourth, respect and concern.

Every policy that I make, even in my personal life, none of the decisions goes against our four pillars. These pillars are my personal values that I brought in to my business and every single day I bring it to a wider set of people with greater intensity.

3. You rallied other partners to come under the PropNex banner after one partner unexpectedly pulled out. How did you manage through those times of difficulties?

I started the business as Nooris Consultants Pte Ltd when I walked out in the army in 1996. We became the biggest Malay Muslim real estate company in Singapore. But we felt that it was not good enough because the Malay market is a very small market and that was when we went to create and rejuvenate ourselves by changing the company name as PropNex.

It is all about economies of scale and it comes with numbers. So in 1999, we merged with Prulink Realty Pte Ltd of Joseph Lee and Alan Lim. While Nooris had a stronghold in the niche Malay Muslim market, Prulink had its market share in the mainstream English-speaking community. And together we formed First Class Consultants Pte Ltd.

Eventually some other partners joined. But later on we realised that our values were not aligned with their values so we decided to part ways with other partners such that in the end it was back to the three of us, Alan, Joseph and me.  In July 2000, First Class Consultants became PropNex.

Yes, there were challenges….more of non-alignment of values and not being able to embrace and see a similar vision. Challenges will always be there but as always, we just focus our energies on the positive outcome and that allows us to keep on growing.

4. You have had multiple awards and recognitions for your entrepreneurship and unfaltering spirit in business. Aside from these, what has motivated you to become what you have today?

I always believe that awards and rewards are by-products of anyone working passionately with the belief of adding value to him and his people.

But beyond that, what motivates me is the same as my purpose in life… to continue to contribute towards the greater improvement of the people around me. And that excites me every single day to come to work and see what’s next, what’s new.

5. What has been the single best decision you’ve made in your business to this point?

The best business decision I made was when I ventured into PropNex from Nooris. We were the biggest Malay real estate then and I could have remained as that. But the decision was to conquer a larger business pie and working with similar minded people, and having the pie 10 times the size of what we used to have.

Of course it is much better because you are able to touch lives of more people, and it’s more effective.

6. PropNex is one of Singapore’s major real estate companies and is venturing into other countries in the region. Tell us more about your plans going forward.

By the end of this year, our representative office in Shanghai, which we established four years ago, will now go full time. We also have a company incorporated in Malaysia. And using the concept and brand we have built here in Singapore, it is our desire to go regional. It will be more like a franchise concept which we are planning to roll-out towards the end of this year.

The Middle East market is also within our target area.

7. Is going public included in your plans?

Yes, we would like to go public when the time is right and we are ready. I see going public has its advantages and disadvantages. However, taking into consideration our long term growth and to motivate my key personnel with stakes in the company for the next generation, IPO will be the way to go.

8. What’s your take on all the recent changes in the real estate industry?

I have been clamouring for greater regulation in my capacity as president of Institute of Estate Agents here in Singapore. I support greater regulation because we are talking of Singapore property being highly priced and we need professionals to be able to guide through.

Regulations for the greater benefit of the industry are always welcome. However, it is hard to say that property prices will go down. I think the government’s intention has always been for a more sustainable property prices and not create a bubble. The rulings we have seen in the past year were all about eradicating speculative purchases that tend to push up the price.

9. What do you wish to see more for the industry?

I wish to see greater transparency, greater professionalism, and more quality real estate agents who are able to live up to customer’s expectations. At the moment, we are still far from it.

I wish to see people giving the due recognition to real estate agents of being able to add positive value and not just a middleman who’s just trying to connect and collect money at someone’s expense.

10. What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

It is not just a brilliant idea that will give you results or create a big business. And your idea today may not be relevant in tomorrow’s market.

But if you have the belief and the passion that you can add greater value to the people, then go on. You must remember however that in order to continue to provide such value overtime, you should always embrace technology and at the same time, in order to stay relevant, you must create systems to support your value creation processes.