Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A Long Night's Journey Into Day

I wrote this for Management@Work. I thought I should include it here as this blog wends its way to a merry close. Well, not to a close. But I won't be updating it every day, that's for sure. Anyway, here is the story of David Ong, Reapfield Properties' founder and CEO. See if it inspires you.

David Ong, the founder and president of Reapfield Properties Sdn Bhd, is a soft-spoken man. He considers each word carefully and his conversation is punctuated with references to God. He started Reapfield from scratch and it has since weathered two economic crises to become one of the largest real estate agencies in Malaysia. Ong sees storms as a way to build character. And he is remarkably candid about his own personal storms - the adversities he has endured - which made him what he is.

In 1974, he failed his Form Five examinations, fell in with bad company and started taking drugs. Very quickly, he went from smoking cigarettes and ganja to shooting up heroin. His parents were devastated. His father was the chief store keeper for United Engineers, which at the time was an old-fashioned Scottish engineering company; his mother, a homemaker. They were quiet, simple people who worked hard and tried to do their best for their children. They couldn't believe what was happening. A year later, a welfare officer came a-calling to tell them that their only son needed help.

Ong was admitted, kicking and screaming, into a detox ward at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. "An addict lives a life of lies, deceit and denial. I told them I was not addicted and that I didn't need any of this. But they insisted on keeping me there anyway. By that night I was suffering from one of my worst withdrawals ever. I even considered climbing out of my room, which was on the fourth floor, and running to the nearest pusher. But there was barbed wire on the windows. I guess they were used to dealing with addicts," he says, wryly.

He was sobbing in pain by the time a nurse took pity and called a doctor. The doctor gave him a sedative and from then on, he was continuously medicated. When Ong was released, he was physically over the addiction. But his feet automatically found their way back to the nearest drug pusher.

"It's like a monkey on your back. Even after detox, you cannot leave it alone.

For four years, Ong went through a series of rehab clinics. One was run by a gangster chief who threatened to beat him up if he relapsed. But fear was not a sufficient deterrent. Psychiatrists blamed his environment and advised him to get away from it. He tried.

Eventually, Ong gave up hope. "At one point I told a friend that I lived an addict and I would die an addict."

His mother, however, refused to give up. "That is the beauty of a mother's heart. She kept asking around, calling for help and finally uncovered a proramme in Singapore. The meeting was at the Salvation Army headquarters in Singapore and when I stepped into the room, I saw six men seated around a table. They told me that they each had served time in Changi prison. Some of them had been gangster chiefs. Others had been put in for criminal breach of trust. They shared with me how Christ had transformed their lives. I remember whispering a prayer in my heart, 'God, if you're really real, please show me.' They led me in what is known as the 'Sinner's Prayer'. When I finished, I felt a surge of joy in my heart. It was something out of the ordinary and it went on for hours. Happiness was just bubbling up inside me," he recalls.

Ong had a packet of cigarettes on him. He took it out and handed it to Ramalingam, the ex-gangster chief who had organised the meeting. "I said, 'Here. I don't think I'm going to be needing this anymore'."

Naturally, that was not the end of the story. But finally, jos feet were on a sustainable path. And he didn't relapse. Ong stayed with a church leader in Singapore for a month. When he came home, he enrolled in a Christian rehabilitation programme. He moved into a special house known as Joe's Corner in Section 11, Petaling Jaya, with other recovering addicts. And stayed there for two years.

"I needed to do this. An addict's life is one of great indiscipline and I had been involved with drugs for four years. Here, I had to surrender my rights over my time. I couldn't do whatever I wanted. I had to follow the schedule set by the house. We had chores and assignments. We studied the Bible. It brought about a great change in my character and gave me the discipline I needed to get on in life," he says.

Ong was 24 when he got out, and ready for a fresh start. His first job was as a clerk in a company that supplied building materials where he earned a princely sum of RM250 a month. After three months, he found he could not survive on the salary and started looking around for something else.

"I saw an ad for a car sales rep. Although I had no experience and they did not provide any training, I decided to try it. During that time, I saw an article in a local newspaper that said Communism was no longer the No 1 threat in the country; drugs were. I reasoned that if God could help me overcome the No 1 threat in the country, surely He could help take care of my career," he observes.

Ong was earning five times what he had as a clerk. But he realised he would not be able to go very far in that industry without training. So he went on to try other things. He sold forklifts for a while and later went into partnership to do home renovations.

Then in 1984, when his parents' neighbour moved out, she needed to sell her house and asked his parents if they could help find an agent. "I had two friends in church who were estate agents. When I asked them for help, they said they would get the buyer and I could represent the seller. The house sold for RM155,000 and soon, I was holding a cheque for RM3,100 for doing close to nothing. I thought wow, this seems like a good way to make a living. And that was my introduction to the industry."

Ong never joined a real estate agency. Instead, he felt his way around, picked up what his friends were willing to teach and in 1984, set up Reapfield Sdn Bhd. "The name was just two random words from the Bible. Many parables talk about harvesting and others talk of fields. So we put these two words together and that's how the company came about."

A year later, however, Malaysia was hit by a major recession. "The market was so bad that we could no longer afford the rent. I started working from home and my partner and I went our separate ways."

Ong struggled to make ends meet while the recession ran its painful course. In 1987, things began to pick up. He was invited into a partnership called PTL Realty. "I was with them for about two years. I decided to join them because these guys had more experience in real estate. I had hoped the partnership would last but partnerships are never easy. So in 1989 I came out and reactivated Reapfield."

He found a fully furnished office in Damansara Jaya on the third floor of a building, which was going for the modest sum of RM500 a month. "I stood in front of this very nice office and there was nobody there, just me and my wife, Serene, and we would have to start from scratch all over again."

He began to develop a team and by 1990, he received his first big break in the industry. "I was invited to a presentation by a US real estate company based in Singapore which wanted to bring its franchise into Malaysia."

The franchise in Singapore was headed by Harry Chua who, through collaboration with the US company, had built ERA Singapore into the leading property company on the island state. Ong was intrigued by what he saw. "The power of association is very important. Basically, it's who you mingle with. I was invited to their annual dinners, shown around their systems, exposed to their training. And after that, I was introduced to people from the US."

He began to learn that there was much more to the real estate business than he thought. "At the time, this was not a profession that people either respected or looked up to. They used to joke that if you wanted to look for an estate agency, it was either a basement ofice or in someone's home."

Reapfield made the most of this association and between 1990 and 1997, it grew from one office to three offices. Then came the Asian financial crisis and things got crazy. "The Ministry of Finance put a freeze on loans above RM250,000 and interest rates shot up to 14.5%. We were carrying a portfolio of properties and this really affected our business."

Every month, Ong had to figure out how he was going to meet payroll. "I prayed for a miracle, some big deal that would take us through, but there was a voice telling me to just take it one day at a time. There were some big deals I was looking at and although I came close, they always seemed to slip through my fingers at the last minute. My wife, who has always handled the finances, told me that money would come in and then go out just as fast to pay our bills."

It would have been easy to give up. But he was now captain of a ship and there were many people depending on him. "I focused on my work and refused to become disturbed emotionally. And when I look at Reapfield's financial records today, I see that we grew at an average of 20% year-on-year from 2000 to 2010. That was the miracle. We think miracles are supposed to be immediate - 'give it to me and give it to me now.' But this kind of stretching is better.

"What I like to remind my people is that smooth seas don't make skillful sailors. Adversity builds character. Without it, we would be feeble and weak," Ong points out.

Today, Reapfield has 14 offices in Malaysia, most of them within the Klang Valley.It has over 900 sales negotiators and has won the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents awards for the past three years.

Ong's past has shaped not just him but his company's philosophy. "We believe in integrity, honesty and trust. Our mission statement for many years has been to honour God. With a mission statement like that, there are some thigns you don't need to ask me if we'll do. If it's a grey or dark area, I will say no. It's not negotiable. We are here for the long haul and we try to walk our talk."

This means that there are sometimes painful encounters if any of the staff is detected in doing something they should not be. "I have people who have stayed with me for over 10 years. But I also have people who leave quickly because their values are different. They were caught because of customer complaints and then I tell them,'This is wrong and if you want to continue doing this, we have to part ways. I do not want to have to make a police report, which will be messy'."

Because character is such an important part of his organisation, the company runs a "Character First" programme for its staff, where they delve into a different positive character trait every month. "There are 49 traits, and first, the staff watch a video by Tom Hill, the founder of the movement, talking about that particular trait. Then, we have something called character recognition where we pick a member of our staff and tell them why we recognise them for that particular quality."

Through the years, Ong has had many mentors - when he was in rehab and after, when he was in business. Perhaps one of the most significant is an American businessman, Dwight Hill. "In 1994, someone called me and asked if I would like to meet this American guy based in Singapore. My friend said, 'Don't worry, he doesn't want your money, he just wants to invest in men' lives'.

"So I met this man who was 20 years older than me and we struck up a relationship, meeting once a month for about four years. He was a rather unusual man and would ask things like whether I had ever thought of slowing down, and whether after 10 years of marriage I was still dating my wife, and what about my three daughters? He said if their names were not in my organiser, they were not important to me."

This was a revelation to Ong. Before, he thought life was about working harder, but now he was learning that less is more and that the richest people are not the ones with the most money but the best relationships.

"At first, I felt very strange taking my daughters out for one-on-one time. But I realised that it meant a lot to them. They thought, 'Daddy is so busy but wow, he has time to sit with me in a restaurant and give me his full attention'. Today, my daughters are grown up but we are still fairly close."

His eldest daughter Christine, an accounts executive at the digital media company Integricity, agrees: "At first, we had to get used to it. We hadn't done this before and we had been a little afraid of Dad. In this more relaxed atmosphere, I found it easier to just talk to him and tell him things. The conversations were not father-daughter, but friend-to-friend."

Having gained so much from mentorship, Ong tries to pay it forward. He mentors young men in the same way Hill mentored him. "I try to be authentic and tell them the good, the bad and the ugly. People appreciate honesty. We live in a world that's too shallow and there's a cry in people's hearts for real connection. They have real issues. Do you? Nobody dares to talk about it."

One of the young men Ong mentors is Jeff Ong (no relation), the CEO of Reapfield Technologies Sdn Bhd. Jeff talks about how David coached him when he was 22 and encouraged him to move out of his comfort zone and take a chance.

"I was 22 and deeply unhappy in my job. I like messing about with technology and David encouraged me to leave my job and start a technology company with him. Although he is a property, rather than technology guy, he does his best to impart his business experience."

In addition, Ong spends time with people in Christian drug rehab centres. "I do some one-on-one mentoring with leaders of these rehabs. Oftentimes, the leaders of these NGOs do not have a sparring partner.

"They need someone who will put up a mirror to their lives and show them their flaws. Can imagine living a life without mirrors? And yet many times we journey without human mirrors, someone who will say, 'Hey can I tell you this so you will become a better person?'"

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