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Thriving Despite COVID: Yongmin Zhu, CEO of STM


Candice Martini

WASHINGTON, United States — All along, the COVID-19 pandemic has defied almost every financial prediction. In March 2020, stores, restaurants and offices emptied out with astonishing quickness. The stock market failed and jobs quickly vanished. What many Americans feared would be a long and devastating economic downturn did not occur. The economy—along with the real estate sector—bounced back in record time resulting now above pre-COVID-19 levels and jobs could recover to past levels by mid 2022.

To many, the property sector may look surprisingly the same as it was before the pandemic. It isn’t. Some markets and sectors may have changed forever. Some buildings and other assets are obsolete, and property managers now have to imagine how they can be repurposed.

What to expect now? The virus will have a major say in that. Employers and businesses delayed return-to-office plans. One certainty: Companies must build flexibility and the capacity to adapt quickly to market changes.

In this context of uncertainty, we take a look at the Real Estate Sector with an exclusive interview of Yongmin Zhu, CEO of Sea to Sky Management (STM). STM is a real estate investment company that invests primarily in commercial properties and residential properties.

Yongmin Zhu, CEO of Sea to Sky Management
Yongmin Zhu, CEO of Sea to Sky Management

Interview of Yongmin Zhu

Why did Sea to Sky Management decide to enter the US real-estate market at a time when the residential market in China was in its “golden decade”?

I saw a business opportunity in the U.S. Honestly, starting and operating a real estate business isn’t easy, but if you’re focused, dedicated, and willing to put in the work, it can pay off. Also, our company has a multicultural background, which can help us to better serve clients who have the same background and provide more positions for those who have talents in this field. On the other hand, real estate is a part of social science. I’m always pursuing facilitating better social development. That’s the reason why I decided to enter the US real estate market.

What are Sea to Sky’s plans for expansion in the US market?

We got a five-year investment plan based on the return of the investment and the market change. By the end of 2022, we plan to invest $15-20 million. We will finish the 3rd round by 2023 and the 4th round by 2024, with $10 million for each year.

Has the pandemic triggered any reimagination of the role of Real Estate Companies in society? How do you assess this moment in time as the world meets the challenges posed by COVID-19?

Actually, the covid-19 pandemic does impact the real estate industry in unprecedented ways. For example, to face the new challenges, we’ve changed the way that our company operates – to use the power of technology to help us do business. Even though we still need to work with clients to help them buy, sell or rent real estate, we’re trying something new for our service. I will say this is a great time for us to seek some improvement because the challenges we face force us to learn something new.

Do you think we are assisting in a real estate boom due to low interest rates, record-high levels of inflation, and fat bonuses?

Those factors are making the real estate boom becoming possible. People are trying to balance their portfolios, so real estate is attractive to them.

Where do you see the commercial real estate markets trending in post-covid?

We’re still not pretty sure about the overall impact of COVID-19 on commercial real estate, but part of rental income from this field is being eroded. In the beginning of 2020, we were very worried about the demand. But it looks like everything is recovering now and we will also adjust the direction of investments to commercial real estate.

These changes will require some effort, but in the post-covid era, the overall performance of the commercial real estate markets will recover.

Buyers are also becoming more attracted to low-tax areas like Texas and Florida. Are you considering other areas in the US?

Currently, I’m focusing on the Washington State market. I totally agree with you that buyers are becoming more attracted to low-tax areas. I keep considering the new opportunities, but it is not that easy, especially adding to the negative impact of the Pandemic.

What do you do to reduce the uncertainty of the investors?

I generally require an accurate overall assessment for my clients. Helping them minimize the risk quotient of a real estate investment to ensure that it will yield predictably good returns.

I will make sure that we are on the same page and that I accurately understand their real need – less risky with lower returns or better returns with more uncertainty. Anyway, I will make sure the investment will benefit my clients from safety, security, and low volatility. We’re helping them to make thousands of decisions for every specific situation rather than make just a few broad-based decisions.

What were some of the factors or influences in your life which made you decide to join the property sector at a point in your career where you spent it more on Technology?

The most important reason is that I saw a huge business opportunity. I always like to have a try no matter what the result will be. Once there is an opportunity, I will do it in an all-out effort. I expect that my enterprise will not only make a great success in business but also generate great value for society.

As we move towards a post-pandemic era, what are some of the more fundamental challenges the property agency sector needs to prepare in order to remain relevant to customers and developers?

As a real estate company, we need to shift to the changing technology landscape to stay relevant. For example, VR and AR are both significant game-changers for the property industry. Using virtual reality technology can help buyers visit their future homes without leaving their current houses. We also need to prepare quality video content to connect with our clients. The main point is that we need to confirm that we are ready to communicate with customers and developers.

How do Sea to Sky Management handle the increasing amount of data?

We are looking for an effective way to handle the increasing amount of data. Compared to before, we are required to determine clearly defined goals now. It means we only collect data that align with our requirements. We also use cloud storage solutions to make sure our data is interlinked. Our objective is to generate seamless data synchronization.

Additionally, we are keeping up with the latest trends. Software and data in all its forms change constantly and almost on a daily basis, so we are keeping open and flexible to new trends and technologies.

What technology solution have you chosen and why?

We recently upgraded to new software – Appfolio, since it offers a lot of benefits for the operation of our business.

How would you describe the switch/migration to AppFolio Software for the Management of your company in terms of productivity and why the clients will benefit from it?

Appfolio is a leading property management software company providing a better service for residents and owners. It primarily focuses on cloud-based property management software, services, and data analytics in the real estate industry. It also increases the capacity of accepting new rental properties. Properties can be easily managed, property listings and online visibility boosted, and communication channels clearly established, thanks to AppFolio.

You are creating a maintenance crew to support all managed rental units with an estimated about $100K in gross revenue. Can you talk a little more about that?

To provide better services, we are creating a team of the maintenance crew to support all managed rental units. The decision is coming from the understanding of the needs of our existing clients. This is an upgrade to our current service. I would like to try my best to seek more possibilities of the service because this is the best way to enhance the trust of our clients and attract more potential customers.

For entrepreneurs seeking to develop a business as successful as yours, what one big piece of advice can you give them when times get a little challenging?

Personally, I can always put myself in others’ positions, predict the result and think about issues in an overall manner. If you feel like there is a challenge, then try to think about it from different positions. You will get something new that will inspire you.

Finally, tell us something about yourself not many people know about. Do you have a mentor, and how important was/is that person to you in terms of your professional Development?

People don’t really know that I like e-sports. I enjoy observing the whole process, learning from failures, then replaying it in a radical or conservative way.

What is your favorite quote?

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” by Napoleon Hill

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