Sunday, July 15, 2007

In the money

  • :00AM Sunday July 15, 2007By Suzanne McFadden

    When real estate mogul Don Ha achieves a goal, he sets another one, then achieves that. When he wanted to know what it was like to spend $2 million on a horse, thats what he did.
    Don Ha shimmies beneath the imposing square jaw of DH Ruler, wary of the horse's power. It's one of the rare situations where Ha doesn't feel in control.
    "They're big animals, eh?" he says, in his slightly nervous Kiwi-Asian cadence.
    "Just pull his head up, Don. Show him who's boss," says Ha's private racing trainer, Grayson Shirley, a master with a horse. Doesn't DH Ruler (stable name Nigel) know who pays for his food and luxury board here?
    The 3-year-old chestnut gelding has the privilege of living on this 14ha rolling green paradise at Pukekohe which Ha, a millionaire real estate mogul and property developer, bought last year. He has transformed it from a grazing block into a horse haven with 1.5km of stained wood rail fences, gleaming steel farm gates and motel-like stables.
    Ha would like to hang a sign at the gate welcoming visitors to Don Ha's Playground. This is his retreat, where he comes up to three times a week, sometimes with his two young daughters, to escape office pressure.
    The impressive stables are a far cry from the mines of North Vietnam, the gutters of Hong Kong and the refugee centre in Mangere where Ha once lived: the man who hit the headlines earlier this year, casually forking out a record $2 million for the first Zabeel-Sunline colt, lives a genuine rags-to-riches story, and it is barely 39 years long.
    The offices of Don Ha Ray White are not a jot ostentatious, squeezed between the bakeries, fruit and vegetables, and office supplies of back-street Manukau.
    Ha's own office has no view; instead there are photos of family and horses leaning against the wall. Wearing a plain uniform of sky blue shirt and dark blue tie, he pokes at his battered BlackBerry. You could be fooled by the office worker look.
    Real estate awards on the wall reveal the true picture. From the 2006 Ray White national awards: No 1 Auckland office, No 2 national office, No 2 supreme salesman - Don Ha. And the personal honour Ha seems most proud of: No 2 in the Ray White international leadership awards, 2005.
    Success is spelled out in a company memo on his desk. In May this year, the Manukau branch fell just short of breaking the company's record for the month's sales. Ha's agents sold $31.9 million of properties that month and they claimed top growth in the country.
    "Not bad for an area where the average house price is $290,000, eh?" says Ha, his chest inflating with pride. "It's just amazing, overwhelming."
    Even though Ha is the branch manager and franchise owner, it hasn't hampered his sales record: he is still the No 2 Ray White salesperson in the country. He makes no secret of wanting to dislodge the company's leading agent for the last three years, Kingsland's Lesley Hawes.
    "You have to have goals. If you don't have a goal, how can you achieve it?"
    There have always been goals, since the skills of this savvy salesman were cultivated as an 8-year-old, living in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Ha's family was given cans of European food - mutton, corned beef and sardines - to live on, so his mother sent him and the cans into the streets.
    "I would sit in the sun under an umbrella all day, and sell the cans for $2 apiece. On my way home, I bought Asian vegetables that my mother cooked for our dinner." He laughs long and loud. "I guess my Mum was my sales trainer."
    When the Ha family - parents and seven children - came to New Zealand as refugees in 1977, Don continued in trade, picking watercress from the Onehunga spring on his way to school and selling it to shop owners for 99c a bunch.
    "I was selling 100 bunches a week. It was a great business until the council cleaned the spring out. I was devastated," he says.
    Ha's family opened the first in a string of south Auckland bakeries in 1984, but Don was determined he wouldn't work in one. He wanted to succeed on his own, and imported shoes and belts from Asia, then sold shoes for an importer to factory workers. But he was too successful for his own good: "There were quotas - you could only import 50,000 pairs of shoes, and I filled his quota so fast, he put me out of business."
    Ha relented and opened the Saigon Bakery in Mt Roskill in 1991. That, he says, was truly hard work - 72-hour weeks starting before dawn, six days a week.
    The profit was meagre, but Ha poured any into property. Warwick James, a salesman with the Professionals company, sold him one of his first houses - a $40,000 home in Takanini, James recalls.
    "I asked him if he wanted to make some more bread; would he consider joining the real estate industry? He was immediately interested," James says.
    Ha was attracted by the commission - he could make the same money selling a $95,000 house as he could baking 1500 French sticks.
    Ha struck a deal with James - if he coached him to pass the correspondence sales course, Ha promised to become his No 1 salesman. Every Monday, on his only day off from the bakery, Ha would go to James' Papatoetoe office and study.
    "It was on the clear understanding he had to write his own answers," James says. "He would regularly stay till midnight. He understood the principles, but it was a hard proposition getting it down on paper."
    Ha struggled with English. He started school in New Zealand at Std 4 without knowing a word of the language - kids taught the naive Ha to curse like a sailor, and "I'd come home and swear at my mum".
    He repeatedly failed the real estate course. "When you're in a bakery you know how to spell doughnut and lamington," he says. But he stuck with it, "as only Don could", says James, and after three months, passed the exam.
    Ha sold his bakery, at half its valuation, to sell houses in James' office in 1994. His mother cried the day he sold the bakery: "My parents had a strong work ethic, but they didn't support risk."
    He soon discovered it wasn't easy going to work in a suit. "There was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment around. I had walked into an office with a lot of Europeans, and I was really shy. I didn't ask anyone for assistance," he says.
    "In my first month I sold a house, and no one said anything to me, so I thought 'maybe I'm not good enough'. The next month, I sold three. Still no one said anything. But I decided to just keep going."
    By the end of his first year, he had sold 86 houses - $10.6 million of sales - and won Rookie of the Year for the Professionals. He paid back his promise. "That's when I knew I was good," Ha says.
    James describes Ha as someone who could walk the talk. "His energy and enthusiasm influenced everyone he was associated with. He wasn't afraid to work seven days a week, and he was often showing people houses late at night," James says.
    "He would never put off till tomorrow what he could do today, and he'd follow that religiously. Providing that faster service was a major factor in his success."
    It wasn't enough for Ha, who wanted to double his success the next year.
    "And believe it or not, I did it, and I've done it every year since," he says.
    There is something overwhelming about Don Ha - he seems constantly in awe of his prosperity. He peppers words like amazing, incredible and unbelievable throughout our conversations about his success - as if he can't fathom it's happened to him.
    After 10 years with the Professionals, Ha was headhunted by rivals Ray White to open his own franchise in Manukau. He had outgrown where he was, but he was a stickler for loyalty.
    "That was a very hard decision to make - loyalty is very important in my life. At the end of the day, I asked myself: 'What is best for you, your family and your future?' Then it was clear, it was the best thing for me to do, and it was the best thing that happened to me in my career."
    The branch office wasn't ready when Ha was, so he and his four staff worked out of McCafes for a few months. "One day we had five different customers at five different tables. I told my staff to remember these times; these will be our best memories."
    Ha's success is not limited to selling houses - he buys and builds them as well. And working in real estate has helped him achieve other goals - he develops subdivisions and owns a construction company. Then there is his growing interest in horse racing, and a sideline in mentoring, motivational speaking and writing books.
    He won't divulge how many properties he owns, except to say: "I buy more houses than shoes. It's actually harder to buy shoes than houses and I'm a mad shoe person."
    He rents out the houses; some are in rent-to-buy agreements. He only buys houses in south Auckland, because that's what he knows and lives.
    "Sometimes I'll be at one of my developments, and there will be four of us in the car, and collectively well own 140 houses," Ha says.
    He has encouraged all of his family - all still live in Auckland - to invest in property, and he does the same with the more than 70 people who work with him in the office (he refuses to say they work for him, and "boss" is like one of those swear words he learnt at school).
    Seven years ago, Levani Lum-On was slaving over a hot stove, working as a chef with one of Ha's brothers-in-law.
    "When I met Don he told me to buy 10 houses. I bought two, and six months later, the market in that area went through the roof. He told me I had missed out on a million dollars just like that," Lum-On says.
    "From then on, I listened to him 100 per cent. I was buying that much property off him, and sending so many friends and family to Don, he told me I should be selling to them. So I went to work with him. I now make in a month what I used to in a year."
    Lum-On, one of the top salesmen at the Manukau office, dreamt of owning 30 houses - he says he's exceeded that in only four years. He owns five racehorses, as well as shares in the Zabeel-Sunline colt, which Ha offered to some of his employees.
    Lum-On calls Ha "a good mate", who's happy to tag along to the pub with his work colleagues even though he doesn't drink.
    "I've learned so much from him. He's very competitive and obviously likes a challenge, but he loves making it fun. A lot of people have a couple of million in the bank and they're miserable. When we all go out, we spend heaps of cash and have a great time. I think that motivates you to make more."
    Lum-On is but one of Ha's proteges. To Ha, sharing his knowledge on becoming rich is just as important as being wealthy. He sees every client as a potential millionaire even if they're buying their first home. It's how he started in this business, but it's also part of his way of giving back to the community which adopted him and his family.
    He encourages and coaches people who never thought they'd be able to scratch together a deposit, putting them on saving regimes or rent-to-buy schemes.
    "Sometimes I move families into garages for three months to get them to save. No one else wants to know them. They are so grateful. It's quite emotional when you meet a client you helped to buy their first house, and now it's worth five times more.
    "They're now buying their third or fourth house for their families. I'm selling to the next generation."
    Ha credits his parents for his work ethic and honesty. He knows little about where he came from or what his parents did before they fled their war-ravaged homeland of North Vietnam.
    "It's sad I don't remember much about where I came from. I know my father was a miner. Having seven kids, he wouldn't eat during the day; he brought his food allowance home to feed us.
    "I have great respect for him, especially now I have my own kids."
    The Ha family - Don is the second youngest of five boys and two girls - spent a year in Hong Kong waiting to be relocated in the refugee programme. The quotas for every country were filled except New Zealand.
    "We had no choice but to come here, Ha says. I think now, regardless of where I ended up, the person I am was always determined to make it. How far I would have gone living somewhere else, I don't know.
    "But we have been more than happy here. It has been a great opportunity for us."
    Ha admits feeling alienated throughout his school years in Auckland - Ferguson Intermediate and Hillary College - trying to grasp the language, wearing trousers instead of shorts because he was too shy. Although he was a fast learner, English became more difficult at secondary school.
    "I passed School C - I did OK at maths, because I didn't need English to read numbers, but my accounting was terrible. I just passed, and so I paid my $8 for a recount, and it came back failed. Since then I learned if you pass, just keep your mouth shut," he giggles in his high-pitched trill.
    Ha gained confidence and a passion for winning through martial arts - he is a black belt and teacher of Kung Fu, and regularly travelled to China to compete.
    Ha thinks his achievements have been rounded out by becoming a parent. He adores his daughters, aged 6 and 3, and calls them his next progression of success. He didn't expect to feel this way.
    "When our first daughter was born, I thought having kids would make you lose money. But it's the opposite. I don't sleep-in anymore - I get up early and read the paper and see opportunities. I ring agents at 6.30am and get in and buy the houses first," Ha laughs.
    "I promised to take them to the beach on a Saturday, so we headed to Cockle Bay; I saw an auction and I bought the house. By having kids, I've made more money.
    "But truly, they are wonderful. I think if you're successful on your own, you don't know the true meaning of it. You have no one to come home to, no rewards to share."
    Already his eldest daughter is showing a predilection for business, advising her father not to buy a potential subdivision in Tauranga.
    "She rang me on my way down in the car, and said, 'Dad, you are making a mistake. There's so much land in Auckland'. I agreed, so I cancelled the contract. I don't think [my children] will be selling houses one day, but I think they will end up running some of my companies."
    Unlike the man who toiled 12-hour days to make a start for himself, Ha now works four days a week, and never the weekends. He's happy fishing off his boat, playing golf or travelling with his wife, Mohini.
    The couple met when she was a tour desk operator at a hotel, and a smitten Don left a note on her desk asking her out. It took her a while to say yes. "But I'm a salesman, I was determined", he laughs.
    "Behind every successful man is a woman, and that's true. She's been an incredible support." A woman so understanding, she never baulked as her husband bid $2 million on a colt that had never seen a racetrack.
    On a subdivision site in south Auckland, Don Ha was talking to a huddle of developers when his phone rang, and he quickly walked off to take the call behind a stand of trees. For three minutes, he hid there, crying.
    "It was my first pet-death experience", Ha recalls of the moment a couple of months ago when one of his best horses had to be put down after breaking his leg in a gallop.
    "I went home and cried for an hour. It hurt. I never thought I would be like that. I never thought I would be so close to an animal."
    This love affair was kindled when Ha was a baker, and a Rarotongan customer gave him a tip on a horse.
    "I put $2 on, and it won $6. See how small I started? Shit, now I go buy a horse for $2 million."
    As his fortune built through property, Ha decided to invest in livestock. "I bought two horses - one I named after my wife, and the other Ten Million, because I was going to get there. The Ten Million horse never got to the track. He was hopeless."
    Last year, he decided to get serious and hired his own horse trainer, the genial Grayson Shirley, who suggested Ha needed a home for his clutch of six horses. They found the perfect piece of land in Pukekohe.
    When the National Yearling Sales at Karaka rolled around in January, Ha already owned 30 horses. But there was another historic buy he was determined to make - the first son born of champions Zabeel and Sunline.
    "The night before, I thought, you know this horse is the first of its kind, it will make history that will never be repeated. If he's good, he will never be that cheap again, either. So I'm washing the dishes at 11pm - I do the dishes every night - and I think, this is a punishment, I need a reward. So I do the dishes to justify buying that horse."
    As the colt was led around the ring, and the bidding passed the $1.5 million reserve, master horseman Sir Patrick Hogan, who prepared the horse for seven months, was reduced to tears. Ha barely blinked an eye as his final bid hit a record $2 million, and then he broke into one of his full-face smiles.
    "I always wanted to know how it felt to spend so much money on a horse. I did, and it feels great. Until the bill comes in."
    Ha was applauded for making a promise to keep the colt, later named Sun Ruler, in New Zealand. It is now being trained by its original owners Trevor and Stephen McKee at Ardmore.
    This new passion has since led to more records - $400,000 for a Zabeel-Myself weanling colt and $825,000 for broodmare Honor Lap at the Bloomsbury Stud sale in May.
    And yet he readily admits he doesn't know much about what he's buying. In fact, he says, if you swapped Sun Ruler, known round the stables as Jonah, for another horse, Ha wouldn't be able to tell.
    "I put my total trust in horse people. But they've all been good people", he says. Shirley is one of those people, and the trust is reciprocal.
    "Don is awesome. He's 10 years younger than me, but I didn't click - I used to look up to him as an elder. He's a good man, a family man, and he's willing to give the best to his horses," Shirley says.
    "He also gives people opportunities - young jockeys and old battlers like myself."
    Horses or houses, Don Ha is giving back.

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