Agent of philanthropy

WHEN luxury bungalow agent K H Tan first laid eyes on his dream car — the Aston Martin DBS Volante — he had achieved $80.55 million in sales that year, an all-time-high in his career. It was 2010, when the Good Class Bungalow (GCB) market saw a record-breaking $3 billion worth of deals. And at $930,000, the Aston Martin DBS Volante's price is equivalent to that of a compact three-bedroom suburban condominium today.

"I really liked the car because it is quite 'stylo', very 'high-class'," says the Singaporean founder and managing director of Newsman Realty. "I convinced my wife that this was the car that I really wanted, and if I could afford it, why not?"

Upon further reflection, Tan figured he would spend at most 30 minutes each day driving the Aston Martin around town if he were to buy it. On the other hand, he concluded that the money would go a long way in helping the needy if he were to donate it.

Hence the money meant for the Aston Martin ended up in a very different place. He donated $1 million to fund the National University of Singapore's "NUS Greater Good Series", which features talks on philanthropy by leading minds from around the world. How did his desire to own a dream car change to such a generous deed?

Since the start of 2012, Tan has devoted about 80% of his time to philanthropic work, but he still managed to close 17 bungalow deals worth $510 million last year. This included the sale of the biggest ticket item on Sentosa Cove, a bungalow sitting on a 15,931 sq ft plot that changed hands for $39 million ($2,448 psf) in February last year; the land parcel at Ridout Road that was sold for $60.6 million ($1,490 psf), the most expensive GCB property in terms of absolute price in 2012; and the sale of a new GCB at Leedon Park for $33 million or $2,110 psf, which is the highest price psf achieved to date.

"To me, it's not important who did the biggest deals," says Tan. "When I close a deal, where does the money go?" Over the last two years (2011 and 2012), Tan donated 100% of his company's profits to the KK Hospital Health Endowment Fund to support medical research.

A man of action, Tan says: "I don't like to wait. When I want to do something, I want to do it immediately." And when it comes to closing deals: "I move very fast, which is important," he adds. It helps that many of his clients have either bought or sold bungalows through him over the past decade, and have come to trust his advice. He believes it is because he makes it a point to understand their needs. "I show them the right property instead of wasting their time viewing 30 to 40 places," says Tan. "Basically, I show them the potential of a house, and let them visualise how they can turn it into a home of their own."

Getting the rich to give

Tan counts among his clients tycoons in Singapore and Asia, including the chairmen and CEOs of listed and private companies, as well as bankers. "These are the ultra-high-net worth individuals, and I hope to encourage them and corporate entities across Asia Pacific to do their part for philanthropy," he says.

Owing to his impressive list of clients and contacts, Tan was appointed the first ambassador for the Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS) last year. His role is to inspire more high-net-worth individuals to do philanthropic work. Tan had set up a fund with CFS with an initial sum of $1 million to support his various causes — mainly in education, healthcare and providing services for the poor or neglected. Part of the fund will also act as seed capital to jump-start fund-raising activities for charities and organisations he works with. On top of the $1 million last year, he has pledged to donate at least half of his company's net profits over the next three years (from 2013 to 2015) to the fund, which will be administered by CFS.

Tan is as result-oriented in his philanthropic activities as he is in business. His goal is to inspire at least 10% of the super-rich and major corporations in Singapore to donate a percentage of their companies' net profits to charity and to engage in philanthropic work within the next three years.

Last year, Tan set up more than 80 scholarships and bursaries in tertiary institutions such as NUS, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University. He also established scholarships in the Yellow Ribbon Fund (which helps rehabilitate ex-offenders and prisoners as well as provides support for their families) and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Tan also recently donated $150,000 to the KK Hospital Health Endowment Fund's outreach programme, and pledged to donate 17% of his company's net profit over the next two years to the fund.

For the last four years, Tan has also been active in the Public Free Clinic Society (PFCS) and has funded home visits to senior citizens living on their own or who have been abandoned. These senior citizens are provided with free Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) consultation. Tan is trying to encourage more medical practitioners, especially specialists such as ophthalmologists, cardiologists and psychiatrists to join the home visit programme.

Last year, Tan was appointed by NUS president Professor Tan Chorh Chuan to become a member of the President's Advancement Advisory Council and special advisor to the NUS School of Design and Environment.

A balanced life

Real estate is in his blood, reckons Tan. His father, who passed away when Tan was growing up, was an architect. Tan has come a long way since his first job as a quality control supervisor in Sanyo Singapore in the 1980s. He credits his success partly to his favourite book, Think and Grow Rich by Napolean Hill, which he confesses that he has read "more than 30 times".

Over the last few years, Tan has donated 25% of his assets to his philanthropic work. "My target is to donate 50% of my assets to charity by the age of 55," says Tan, a father of two (a nine-year-old daughter, and 12-year-old son), who will be celebrating his 50th birthday this year.

Tan says the secret of his success is a balanced life. Last year, he took up lessons in Chinese painting and learnt to play the guitar on his own. He wakes up at 4.15am and spends up to 1½ hours on his morning exercises and walk. Another 45 minutes is dedicated to Chinese painting, where he makes it a point to complete one piece of artwork every day. Another 30 minutes is spent playing the guitar with his family, and another half an hour on reading. Tan is usually in the office by 9am if he doesn't have a morning meeting. "I know how to lead a balanced life, and I still have time to enjoy my coffee," he says. "I don't put too much time in my work. And even in my charity work, I wear many hats but I can balance them all because I focus on what I want to do, and I make sure I do it."

In the last two years, he has contributed funds equivalent to several Aston Martins towards his various causes. "I think the money I donated is more meaningful," he says.

This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore weekly edition of Feb 4-10, 2013.

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