Some people believe in stock markets, some people believe in wealth management, but Stephen Wong – founder, chairman and broker at Living Realty in Toronto – believes in real estate.
He didn’t know much about Toronto’s stock market or other forms of investing when his family landed as immigrants in Canada – but he knew about real estate.
“Real estate is something that you can touch. It’s brick and mortar that you can actually see and have pride of ownership,” Wong says. “That’s why people from Hong Kong, where I came from, believe in it because it’s so simple. Land is land, no matter where you come from.”
After his parents settled in St. Catharines, Ont. in 1969, Wong went to the U.S. and graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in economics and business administration in 1974. In his first job, he worked for a fast food restaurant chain in Southern Ontario, as its regional manager. At 22, Wong had a new wife and limited means to support his new family. He turned to his faith in real estate and got licensed in 1975.
Within the first year of selling residential properties, Wong became a top-selling agent because “you didn’t have to sell a lot back then. If you sold a house for $150,000, you were worshipped,” he says.
After managing the real estate functions for several trust companies – none of which exist anymore – Wong recognized that there weren’t a lot of agents serving the immigrant population, a niche market in Toronto that was growing fast. “When you’re new to the country, you’re lost. You need guidance to help you find a home for your family near to their communities, transportation and work,” he says. In 1980, Wong laid the foundations of his brokerage, Living Realty, specializing in the immigrant market.
Wong started his company when pagers ruled and Toronto was still a fledgling city with a real estate market that was relatively small on the global scale. “We didn’t have cell phones. We had lots of coins to return calls from payphones at every street corner,” Wong says.
At that time, the Toronto Real Estate Board would provide agents with computer print outs of new listings, which agents combed through every day in their offices. Paperwork was plentiful and information flow was slow, but “it was not as stressful as it is today. Now, people expect you to know everything and respond to texts five minutes ago,” says Wong.
From the get-go, Wong’s unwavering “service philosophy” has helped him grow Living Realty exponentially through the thick and thin of Toronto’s ever-changing real estate market. “It’s not how much you charge people or how much money you make. It’s how much service you provide. People, automatically, will want you, if you provide them what they need,” he says.
Within two years of starting his company, Wong expanded from a 600-sq.-ft. office and 17 agents on Finch Avenue to a 3,500-sq.-ft. space at Woodbine and Steeles. Five years later, he opened a branch office in Spadina’s Chinatown. Three years after, he took a bold step and established a branch in Mississauga.
“It takes three to five years of gestation for a branch to become fully financially self-sustainable,” says Wong. Ten years in, Living Realty took over 14,000 sq. ft. in an adjacent commercial building at Woodbine and Steeles.
Living Realty’s agents, several of whom are top performing and have been with the company since inception, believe in Wong’s philosophy that “if you promise someone something, deliver or do your best. Even though the results may not always be the best, clients know when you are working hard for them. They appreciate the effort and the service. That’s what counts. That’s what gets you referrals.”
During the company’s growth spurt, foreign real estate investors who had turned their sights to Toronto were buying properties but had no one to manage those properties. This prompted Wong to break with the traditional practice of expanding his brokerage vertically. Instead of relying solely on the residential resale market, he decided to spread Living Realty horizontally by starting Living Properties, a property management company. Toronto’s Pacific Mall is one of the most notable properties they’ve managed. At one point, Living Properties oversaw the management of more than 10 million square feet worth of commercial real estate.
Soon Wong diversified his portfolio further by co-founding the International Home Marketing Group, a company that offers new home builders and developers “bespoke” and “full-service sales management and marketing services.” As controlling partner, under this banner, Wong and his team have sold thousands of condos in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Over the years, the company has racked up sales of notable high- and low-rise condos by Liberty Development, Conservatory Group, Menkes, Garden Homes, Livante Developments, Fernbrook Homes, Cityzen Development Group and Madison Group, to name just a few.
Currently Living Realty, Living Properties and International Home Marketing Group are housed in Wong’s sprawling 16,500-sq.-ft. Markham office. This means that while over 50,000 agents across the GTA are beating the pavement in a tough resale market, Wong’s agents rely on each other and his company’s diverse portfolio for lead generation.
“If one of my resale agents has a client who wants to buy a new house, or wants to invest commercially, all they have to do is dial the extension of one of their Living colleagues to find out what’s available. It’s all under one roof.”
The company has also diversified the demographics of its clients. “I cannot change the fact that when I started the company, I focussed on the Chinese community. I’m Chinese. But we’ve spent a lot of resources in the last few years to push our name into the mainstream market,” Wong says. Indeed, one bumps into their bus signs, billboard ads and other company signage all over the city, attracting agents from various other immigrant communities.
For now, with over 650 agents, Wong is content with the growth trajectory he has set in motion. For him, quality trumps quantity. “It gets to a point where you cannot keep growing numbers because then you have agents who charge low fees and give no service. What do I need an agent like that for? I’m providing services that add value to the success of my agents. That’s why they grow and stay with me,” says Wong.