I am building local communities and connecting them to Asia.
Brad is the CEO of Banna Property Group, a third generation family business with a vision to transform its shopping centres into community hubs. Brad is founder of HaymarketHQ, a startup hub with a particular focus on helping startups grow into Asian markets. Previously, he was president of the Haymarket Chamber of Commerce for five years, sat on the City of Sydney Chinese New Year Advisory Committee and was the first president of the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong. He is currently a board director of Northcross Limited and is involved with community and local government committees. In 2016, he established the Banna Foundation, the family group’s philanthropy arm which currently supports a range of charities. Brad is an Asian Pioneers advisor and is currently based in Sydney, Australia.
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AP: Tell us about your family background. Your grandparents seem to have an interesting background migrating from China to Australia.
BC: It was actually my great-grandparents that left China and went to Papua New Guinea (PNG). When my great-grandfather left China for PNG at the age of 14, many of the people in the villages were looking for opportunities outside of China at the time. My grandfather went back to China some years later to find a wife but decided to settle the family in PNG. Subsequently, my father was born in PNG and met my mother there. PNG had a decent size Chinese community by then. My parents then moved to Australia for high school around either the late 50s or early 60s. They went to boarding schools and many of their friends in PNG did so as well. They had a bit of a mixed education where they could speak in English and Cantonese.
AP: What were your family’s economic circumstances growing up in Australia?
BC: The family permanently migrated to Australia in the early to mid-70s just as PNG got independence. PNG was previously under the jurisdiction of Australia, and they were entitled to get Australian citizenship, so they took advantage of that. A number of the PNG-Chinese moved to Australia.
The family was fortunate because of my grandfather. By the time he decided to move to Australia in the mid-70s, he had been a pretty successful businessman. He had accumulated something like a dozen cocoa plantations in PNG, which were all making money. When the family decided to move to Australia, he liquidated those plantations over time and started to invest in property in Australia. Back in those days, if you could afford to buy property, there was a lot of capital gain. And if you picked the right one, then there were some good profits to be made.
My grandfather became known, particularly in the Chinese community as someone with quite a golden touch with all the properties that he bought. He had a bit of a knack for picking the right locations. There were quite a number of assets that he purchased in Sydney’s Chinatown. He could see the potential there, and we still have some properties in Chinatown as a result. My grandfather passed away over 20 years ago. His foresight and what he was able to do to help to set up the family financially was probably something that not many others get to see or experience.
Grandpa was quite an introvert, he didn’t want the limelight, so he kept a pretty low profile but had an amazing reputation. Even these days when I go to Chinatown and meet some of the older people, they will say to me, ‘Your grandfather had this impact on me, he influenced me and so on’. He was known in the community as very generous. So I had this feeling of great expectation of being someone who was taking over the family business. I realized I was never going to replicate his success but what I wanted to do was at least to make some positive impact as he did.
AP: What were your dreams as a child? Were there expectations to work in property or real estate?
BC: Growing up, I never had the ambition to work in the property industry. There wasn’t a family business per se. My grandfather had an investment portfolio but they were all managed externally by local real estate agents. He didn’t do property developments. Most of the time, it was just a buy and hold strategy to receive passive income. There wasn’t even an opportunity for me to consider because I didn’t even know much about it growing up. There wasn’t much of an introduction to the family business and we weren’t given updates. The only thing I was aware of was perhaps an element of wealth, and that’s more from hearing what other people said rather than it being shown. My grandfather wasn’t flashy, and he drove a Ford car. He was very successful at what he did.
Coming back to a pathway for me, I had a pretty middle-class upbringing in terms of going to Catholic schools. I went to an all boys private boarding school for six years called St. Joseph’s College. It’s a well known private school in Hunters Hill. I was the fourth son in my family that went there. Looking back, I was a quiet guy with not a lot of confidence. I wasn’t considered for any leadership roles, and people didn’t have high expectations about me. I think I just flew under the radar a lot when I was in high school. When I finished my High School Certificate (HSC) in Year 12, I still didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to do. My first choice for university was physiotherapy. I like playing sports, and I thought that’s the closest occupation I can think of related to being around sportspeople. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the marks to get into that course.
“I had this feeling of great expectation of being someone who was taking over the family business. I realized I was never going to replicate his success but what I wanted to do was at least make some positive impact as he did.”
AP: How was your university experience? Did you have a fork moment in your life and what was the breakthrough moment? How did you motivate yourself?
BC: I got offered my second choice, which was a degree at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) called Land Economics. I didn’t do well in my first year at all since I wasn’t particularly driven or motivated and was cruising through. It probably wasn’t until I was 20 that something clicked in me. It was leading up to my 21st birthday when I decided to keep a diary, just to write down my thoughts. I began to think about life and what I wanted to achieve in life. Maybe I was a late bloomer, but I never considered it earlier. So I started journaling every night leading up to my 21st birthday. I knew there’d be some symbolic party that I’d organize so that was a big moment for me.
Around that time, I started playing a lot more touch football. I began to play in a team for UTS. They had a couple of different competitions, one was the State University Games in Wollongong, New South Wales. Then there was the Australian University Games in Darwin. So it was probably one of the first times that I started to set myself a goal to make the Australian University team. I began to train pretty hard in the months leading up to it. My team and I were in three buses full of UTS students that went from Sydney to Darwin, which took three or four nights — an adventure in itself. We played several matches, and I thought I played pretty well.
On the final night, they read out the Australian representatives, a few of my team members got selected, and I didn’t. That was devastating to me. I remember going back to the hotel, feeling very emotional. I was in tears because I didn’t make it to the Australian team, which was a big goal of mine. It was a turning point for me because it was the first time I tasted real failure. It was something that I really wanted to do and achieve, and I didn’t make it. As hard as it was — it was the best thing that happened to me. It changed me from being a complacent person to someone who set a lot of goals for myself. And every time I reached the goal, I made the next goal to improve my personal best. I became obsessed with setting these goals. And while sometimes that can be a little bit dangerous, I needed something to challenge me and to get me out of my comfort zone. So over those next few years, goal-setting helped me to build my confidence because I was achieving my goals.
AP: Tell us about the early days of your career.
BC: When I finished university, I got a job in real estate. My first paid career job was as a commercial property manager straight after I graduated in one of the city-based real estate agencies. I wasn’t so socially driven at that stage, it was more about myself and what I could achieve. What attracted me to a property business was because I understand the problem. The family was into a property business, so maybe there was some influence. Early in my career, I realized that I had this thirst for learning. I started doing a Postgraduate Diploma in Finance and Investments while also working full time. I realized that I was happy to sacrifice my social life in exchange for something that I thought would benefit me later on. Subsequently, over the years, I did another two Masters in Real Estate and Town Planning. After postgraduate studies, I decided to quit my job to travel. I backpacked around Europe for six months. I ended up spending almost two years in Europe and working in London, across different contracts. After that, when I came back, I spent a few years in a different career direction and moved into IT.
This would have been just before 2000. I studied some Microsoft certification, and I did some short courses in coding. I got a job doing some coding and then realized as much as I enjoyed it, and I got a thrill out of coding something and then seeing it work, I was never going to be as good as some of my colleagues whose brains were just wired to code. I decided to get out of IT and move back to the property business, that’s when I decided to do my masters in real estate to get back into the property industry.
Subsequently, I got a job in the corporate world, working for Ernst and Young. They had a real estate advisory team. It was a good experience for me because it gave me a lot of exposure to different property type projects, particularly on a corporate level. As much as I enjoyed the diversity of projects I was getting involved, I didn’t enjoy doing the tedious timesheets every week. When it was annual review time, I realized that unless you play the political game, you weren’t really going to get anywhere. Once again, I realized that my strengths and my skills weren’t suited to the corporate world and that I could probably achieve more in a different kind of environment.
AP: How did you pivot from corporate to the family business?
BC: After a couple of years, one of my former colleagues decided to set up a new development consulting business with a friend of his, and they invited me to join them. I went from working at EY to joining a startup business. We couldn’t afford office space, and we worked out of a storeroom in Bondi Junction. We were three, young, very ambitious guys, and we learned a lot through that process. I remember it took us four months to get our first paycheck. The first thing we did after receiving that paycheck was to go to the surf store. We spent all the money on surfboards and wetsuits instead of our living expenses.
It was nice to get that first paycheck, particularly when it’s your own business. It was a fun time because I didn’t have any other commitments. I was just looking at learning as much as I could and trying to get some regular cash flow in the door. We were also spending some time on setting up a new property fund, which would only purchase sustainable assets. It was the first of its kind, and we wanted to make it big through this fund. Probably after a year of pitching to all the big corporations, a corporate in Melbourne decided to back us and give us a share of this fund, worth millions of dollars.
I had to decide whether to invest the next couple of years on this venture or help out my family. I chose the family. My grandfather has since passed away so there were these assets that were being passively managed and they weren’t managed well.
“When I set up the company, I didn’t really know how to do what I was doing. A lot of it is just learning through experience, making a lot of mistakes and learning through it and continuing to persevere. There were so many mistakes along the way, so many wrong decisions. I think they’re the things that are going to make our decision-making processes better in the future and make us more resilient as a business.”
AP: Tell us about how the Banna Property Group came about and how you came up with the business model.
BC: It’s been about ten years since I set up the Banna Group, the name comes from my grandparents Bernard and Anna. When I chose the family, it’s not like anyone asked me to manage it. In fact, I had a lot of resistance, even from my father who probably had more trust in the capability and experience of the previous people managing our assets. Again, it was a real learning experience for me. I initially thought that I could just come in and I’d have my family’s backing, but that was far from the truth. I had to start slow, start small and gradually get their trust, get them on my side and understand my capability. So I think it wasn’t an easy decision to come and force myself into a family business. I finally got the support of my father and my uncles to internalize the management of our properties. I set up the management company called Banna and pretty much started with an employee who stayed with me for ten years.
Throughout, it was pretty much a learning process. When I set up the company, I didn’t really know how to do what I was doing. A lot of it is just learning through experience, making a lot of mistakes and learning through it and continuing to persevere. There were so many mistakes along the way, so many wrong decisions. I think they’re the things that are going to make our decision-making processes better in the future and make us more resilient as a business. And I see the fact that there’s now a culture of learning that applies to the whole team, it just gives me a lot more confidence in terms of what the future holds.
The focus on community came around a few years ago when we started to look at our business and where our competitive advantage could be and also changes in the marketplace. If you look at a lot of shopping centres these days, the managers will talk about being part of a community and wanting to build the community aspect. Back then, it was sort of a cookie-cutter approach to shopping centres, which caused us to think about how we could differentiate. Given the potential disruption from e-commerce and the influences from the changing environment, we realized that we had to look at how we build a business that was more resilient to a lot of these outside factors.
We’re probably the smallest we’ve been so far. We sold our two largest assets in the last few years, but we still hold four shopping centres. We still maintain a couple of buildings in Chinatown, and we still own some pubs and some associated properties. So it’s enough to keep 15 staff pretty busy. We plan to make acquisitions at the right time, so we take a long term view on that. The team grows as we make further acquisitions, but ideally, we don’t want to become a large company with lots of people. I think we can move a lot more quickly than a lot of our competitors because we are smaller and more agile.
I think the nature of every industry these days is that you have to be agile, you have to keep looking ahead, and you have to keep pivoting. The days of sticking to business plans are long gone. Part of my job is to get the team to be more agile. Also, to be able to leverage off everyone’s experiences rather than have a top-level approach to decision making, which might be cumbersome.
AP: What are your thoughts on the future of retail and the direction we’re heading. Any thoughts on concepts like Adrian Cheng’s K11?
BC: I think K11 is innovative because it incorporated both art and a different kind of experience into a retail environment, which in Australia has traditionally been pretty conservative. Rather than having the shopping centres being transactional, we want it to be more experiential. I think we’ll continue to see an evolution in what that experience looks like, and whether it’s in the arts like K11 or co-working spaces within a shopping centre. I think everyone is trying to look for the next thing that might work. It might work for a while, and then there’s usually some replication from other shopping centres. Then the whole reinvention process starts again. This is from the upper end, a large shopping centre perspective.
I like to focus on the smaller end local centres, which are still going to be very much community-oriented. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure that we are engaged and listen to the community, understanding what they want in a local centre. I think the smart players are the ones that can take a strategic, longer-term view and look for something unique and exciting to include in their space. While we may not get the income we’d generally get from a more traditional retailer but it might enhance our tenancy-mix or might attract a different clientele. Therefore, more broadly, as a shopping centre, we might benefit even more, both in the short and long term as a result. Often you look at businesses where profit drives most decision making process but I think the ones that are orientated towards innovation or can think outside the box a little bit certainly benefit. The good thing for customers these days is that shopping centres are now forced to continually improve, evolve and reinvent themselves.
“I think the smart players are the ones that can take a strategic, longer-term view and look for something unique and exciting to include in their space. While we may not get the income we’d generally get from a more traditional retailer. But it might enhance our tenancy-mix or might attract a different clientele. Therefore, more broadly, as a shopping centre, we might benefit even more, both in the short and long term as result.”
AP: Can you tell us more about Haymarket HQ?
BC: In one of the buildings we own in Chinatown, we had a whole floor of about 650 square meters vacant. Rather than lease it out, I thought it was a good opportunity to convince my family to use it for a non-revenue generating purpose. Previously my grandfather had given it to the local Chinese See Yup club to use for $1 a year. So it had a previous attachment as a non-revenue aspect of the business. We went through an exercise to see what it could be used for other than purely a profit-making venture. I started looking around and saw the emergence of these co-working spaces in Sydney. I visited a number of them and realized that something was missing, which was a lack of ethnic diversity in them.
I would go to all these startup competitions that were occurring in the universities, which had a strong representation of founders with Asian backgrounds, but for some reason, the founders weren’t working out of these coworking spaces. There was an opportunity to create something to better suit a market that wasn’t being met at the time. Secondly, I started to understand better some of the Asia capabilities that we had in Sydney that weren’t utilized. Especially its expats that have returned to Australia after having long stints over in Asia. I felt they didn’t have opportunities to share what they’ve learned in Asia to others. They may have a deep understanding or have deep relationships and networks that Australian businesses could benefit from. So I saw the opportunity to set up this startup hub in Chinatown to hopefully meet these two needs.
It is all a bit of an experiment, I didn’t know how it would go since I had no background in tech startups. I spent the first nine months meeting heaps of people in the startup industry. It took some time to set up, but now, I don’t have to be involved in the running of it. I also get to see the benefits of what it does and how it has gone. I think it has made a really great impact in those areas identified.
AP: What advice would you give to Australian businesses wanting to expand to Asia?
BC: The short answer I would say is go to Haymarket HQ. Another thing is when Australian startups were talking about going global, they always looked to the US as the first point of call. For them, going international meant entering the US, so there was a lack of recognition of the opportunities in Asia. Asia is broad with so many different regions and so many different countries. Even in China, there are so many different provinces and cities. I think what was certainly lacking was a lack of recognition or identification of the kind of business opportunities that were in Asia. There is a fast-growing middle class happening in different parts of Asia, and for many Australian businesses, the products or the technology could be better utilized and have more of an impact in Asia rather than the US. The thing I’d say to Australian startup founders is, really try to understand the different markets that you can enter. Don’t assume that your first overseas market is the US. Your product might be better suited in one of the Asian markets.
“I would go to all these startup competitions that were occurring in the universities, which had a strong representation of founders with Asian backgrounds, but for some reason, the founders weren’t working out of these coworking spaces. There was an opportunity to create something to better suit a market that wasn’t being met at the time.”
AP: Are you interested in getting into politics? What are your thoughts on some of the recent efforts encouraging more Asian representation and diversity in Australian politics and corporate leadership?
BC: I can’t say that politics is out of the equation but, I don’t think that’s for me. I don’t think I have the right temperament to be effective in politics. I think it would frustrate me too much, but at the same time, I think I can give back to the community in another way. I think the greatest impact you could have on a high-potential person of diverse background is to engage them in one on one coaching sessions. I think that’s where you make a really big difference to someone and really help them, but you’re probably limited in how many people you can impact on that.
One thing I’ve enjoyed doing at Haymarket HQ is running the inspiration series. I’ve been fortunate to interview people like Dr Charlie To, Eddie Woo, Tim Fung, Jason Yat Sen Li and other influential people. The reason for that is probably the same reason why Asian Pioneers was created — to help develop stories and more insights from these kinds of (Asian) role models and to encourage more role models in the future. I think I’m young enough to have a number of years left being in this family business, but I’ve also started to think about what else can I do — whether it’s in addition to what I’m currently doing, or even in the many years ahead. I’m doing a coaching course to enhance my coaching abilities. I sit on a couple of boards at the moment, which I enjoy doing. But with a young family, I think for me at the moment is to start thinking ahead and laying some of the groundwork for what could eventuate down the track.
AP: What are your favourite book?
BC: From a business perspective, Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I’ve learned a lot about running my own business from that book. I’ve been listening to some Tony Robbins podcasts over the last few months. One of my goals this year was to try and spend more time listening to podcasts, particularly when I’m driving.
AP: What advice can you give to young Asian Pioneers?
BC: For Asian Australians kids at a young age, I always say this to the parents: don’t focus only on the academic side. Too often, I see it as a substantial commitment to getting good grades, to attend selective schools and doing well in the High School Certificate (HSC). However, all these at the expense of developing other skills that are also important to their career. As a consequence, you see all these people that do well in their HSC and graduate from university to become accountants and lawyers but they don’t progress much further once they get into corporates. They don’t get the leadership roles, and they scratch their heads and think, why not? They’re working as hard as anybody, but they don’t realize that you need more than just academic ability to succeed. They need to develop a lot of those soft skills around networking, negotiation, and developing relationships at work and all that kind of stuff were often missed in their younger years. I think it is essential to develop those skills in the younger years.
The second piece of advice is to find a mentor, someone that can help you, fast-track your career and for you not to make the same mistakes that others have made. They act as a good sounding board, and I think if you’ve got good parents that you can speak to then that’s great. I think the benefit of having external mentors is that you can learn from many people.
The third point is much more personal, the thing that helped me the most was that I started goal setting. Before that, I was just cruising through, getting by and didn’t have a lot of direction. And I think it wasn’t until I started setting goals and from there, set challenging goals. So I began to learn how to stretch myself to get out of my comfort zone. Through those experiences, I’ve been able to not only achieve more than I would have achieved but also gain confidence that I needed in my life. So these are my three pieces of advice.
AP: Thanks for your time and support Brad.