CEO Vision: Transforming Singapore’s real estate with proptech

Marcus Chu, Chief Executive Officer, APAC Realty and ERA Asia Pacific. Image courtesy of ERA Asia Pacific.

Leave it to the creative use of technology to jumpstart Singapore’s floundering real estate sector. In response to the slowdown in property viewings and sales caused by the COVID lockdowns in 2020, proptech has facilitated the transition to digital solutions for property transactions.

ERA, one of the largest real estate companies in the country, was faced with such challenges but quickly responded to the situation. Frontier Enterprise sat down with Marcus Chu, CEO of APAC Realty and ERA Asia Pacific, to find out more about how their organisation embraced technology and coped with the disruption.

COVID has had a significant impact on the real estate industry. How did ERA Singapore use technology to adapt to the changing market conditions?

The lockdowns in Singapore challenged and transformed the entire real estate industry. Since face-to-face viewings were no longer allowed, agents were unable to meet clients in person. To help our agents through this time, we embraced digitalisation and introduced a COVID-19 response plan.

This plan involved virtual training programmes to teach agents how to use video streaming tools, create content for virtual home tours, design infographics, and conduct meetings and signings virtually, eliminating the need for in-person interactions. We also had to carry out transactions by having contracts and documents signed digitally during this period.

As restrictions and measures changed, we developed two proprietary mobile apps — SALES+ and RealtyWatch — to provide agents and consumers access to property information. Both apps launched the first of several initiatives with the aim of fully digitalising the real estate industry by 2025.

SALES+ provides our agents with the data and market intelligence needed to perform multiple functions, increasing their efficiency and allowing them to devote more time and energy to serving their clients in a professional manner. Features of the app include:

  • Automated data analysis (e.g., property pricing comparisons).
  • Real-time updates on home sales statuses.
  • Ready-made templates for creating marketing and promotional materials.
  • In-app tools for quick financial calculations.
  • Easy sharing of industry trends, analytics, and reports with clients.

These developments have improved the productivity and skill sets of our agents. In fact, we saw a 45% year-on-year increase in the number of agents who achieved over SG$ 1 million dollars in commission.

RealtyWatch, on the other hand, lets consumers track property transactions in their own neighbourhoods, including real-time information on new launches such as fact sheets, virtual tours, site plans, and the number of units sold. It was created to help consumers with the initial research process, before connecting with an agent to seek professional advice and make an informed decision. The app aided many customers in their initial stages of the home-buying and research process during the pandemic, when physical viewings and meetings were limited.

Throughout the pandemic, embracing digitalisation helped us future-proof ERA. We provided continuous training of these apps to upskill our agents so they are digitally equipped. But we didn’t just rely on technology to drive our digitalisation efforts; we also tapped into the skills and expertise of our younger agents who are well-versed in digital tools and platforms. In fact, one in five of our agents in Singapore are aged 35 and under, and they have played a vital role in embracing and implementing our digital initiatives. As a result, we’ve been able to make significant progress in our digital transformation journey, and we’re excited about what’s to come in the future.

How did the recent emergence of proptech firms influence your approach to using technology?

In recent years, ERA has become increasingly aware of the growing number of firms in the Singapore proptech market, especially since it is expected to grow at a rate of 30.1% CAGR from 2020 to 2025.

The vast umbrella of proptech encompasses both sites for consumers to gather information about the various properties, and the back-end solutions and software to streamline the property management process. Thus, the growth of proptech firms is a clear indication of the industry’s increasing recognition of the benefits of digitalisation.

Our vision is to digitally transform the business to stay agile and competitive, and these solutions complement that goal. However, the most important aspect is providing useful tools for our agents and clients and continuously improving their experience with greater efficiency. Our focus is on leveraging technology to create new opportunities, and that’s where SALES+ and RealtyWatch come in. These solutions help streamline property management processes, reach a wider audience faster, and generate better leads for effective prospecting.

Could you share with us specific examples about how technology helps ERA stand out in the competitive Singapore real estate market?

I think what allows us to stand out in the competitive Singapore real estate market boils down to two key factors: First is our legacy, and second is our agility.

With over four decades of experience in the real estate industry, we are among the most established real estate agencies in Singapore. This long-standing history has enabled us to accumulate valuable knowledge and experience, making us agile and adaptable to changes in the market.

Thanks to our agility, we were able to swiftly launch the RealtyWatch and SALES+ apps during the pandemic. These apps have proven to be instrumental in the success of our agents, as evidenced by the higher sales volumes achieved despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. Moreover, our ability to innovate during this trying time has attracted a growing pool of talent to ERA.

Tell us about the IT infrastructure that supports ERA’s operations and management across its marketplaces in Asia-Pacific.

In the past, a lot of our processes were done manually and the systems operated in silos. But since the pandemic and especially in the last year, we have scaled our tech support and capabilities, both by investing in tech talent and improving our tech stack.

Last year, we appointed a new Chief Technology Officer to lead our tech talent recruitment and drive our tech innovations. To further cultivate our IT infrastructure, we invested SG$3 million in proptech advancements, automated manual processes for improved efficiency, and consolidated our IT infrastructure for scalability and flexibility to better meet the demands of our growing business. This year, we will be investing SG$5.2 million to further develop our proptech capabilities, including doubling the strength of our IT support staff.

We also employed continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) practices across our technology stack to streamline the development, testing, and deployment of our software. CI/CD helped to ensure top-notch coding, catch errors before they become a problem, improve collaboration among the tech team as it grows, and deploy updates quickly and reliably to production.

With a two-pronged approach, we were able to quickly address the changing needs of the real estate market, become more efficient, and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest tech innovations.

How do you think technology will shape the future of the real estate industry?

Moving forward, we will continue integrating various technology advancements and developing more capable solutions to empower our sales force to serve consumers better.

Currently, we can leverage market intelligence to provide real-time information on market trends and transaction prices. This will continue to develop into something even more sophisticated as the use of AI and open-source technologies are increasingly adopted across industries, including real estate.

Young digital natives joining the business can also thrive in this era where digital content is in high demand. They can also challenge themselves to build their own careers online as credible real estate agents. With greater technological sophistication, agents can better understand each customer and form relationships through greater precision in client prospecting.

Nevertheless, human connection is still irreplaceable in spite of all technological advancements. These advancements are meant to aid our agents so they can use technology to add value, while freeing up time to build more meaningful relationships with their clients.

Can you share with us any specific tech-based initiatives or projects that ERA Singapore is currently working on?

To ensure our agents remain competitive, we are investing an additional SG$5.2 million this year in tech advancements and exploring the possibility of incorporating AI into our solutions. We want to stay ahead of the curve and give our agents and customers access to the most up-to-date and comprehensive advice as they navigate their property journeys. By taking on this challenge, we are future-proofing our agents’ careers and equipping them with the right knowledge and tools for success.