A real estate juggernaut in the making
Agency 21 International entered the real estatae market in Pakistan five years ago with an idea to introduce a system of transparent and efficient property transactions, powered by digital technology.
The Company has come a long way in a short period and has established a strong footprint with offices in eight cities across Pakistan. Safety & Security Today had a conversation with Sharjeel Ehmer, Director, Agency 21 International to learn about Agency 21 and how it plans to establish itself as a household name in the real estate sector in Pakistan.
Safety & Security Today (S&ST): You had a stellar career in the pharmaceutical industry spanning over 15 years. What made you switch to the real estate industry and how challenging has the switch been?
Sharjeel Ehmer (SE): I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry back in 2000. By the time I switched to this new challenge I believed that I have risen to the very top of the success ladder, as long as pharma industry is considered. The drive I had at the start of my career which helped me grow rapidly in my profession was waning and I felt that it’s time for a new challenge.
As far as joining Agency 21 goes, Mr. Shafiq Akbar has been a childhood friend. My search for a new challenge coincided with his return to Pakistan from the U.K where he had been hugely successful in the real estate sector. We had discussions about business opportunities in Pakistan and decided that his real estate experience will be invaluable and the sector has immense growth potential. This is how Agency 21 was born and my association with it started.
S&ST: How would you differentiate Agency 21 from the traditional real estate brokers that once controlled the market?
SE: Real estate brokers or ‘property dealers’ as they are more commonly known in Pakistan lacked professionalism. This is where Agency 21 comes in, we want to provide services that are at par with the banking and the telecom industry.
I think a few years back any woman would have been reluctant to walk into a real estate office. Agency 21 through its professional services has changed this trend. This perhaps sounds straightforward but behind it is the rigorous training we provide to our staff.
Moreover, we provide our clients the opportunity to invest in our own real estate projects. This is done to ensure that projects are delivered on time to our clients. With third-party projects, it is impossible to commit on-time delivery.
Another trend that we have set in the market is openness and transparency when it comes to a deal. The general practice in Pakistan was to not let the buyer and seller meet, this was done to cover certain malpractices that were common. We ensure that the buyer and seller do meet before the deal is closed to ensure transparency.
Finally, what really sets us apart is that we provide complete end-to-end services to our clients. Properties are vetted in terms of their ownership, documentation and approvals. We also have a team of in-house legal experts who provide legal advice to our clients.
S&ST: Agency 21 recently celebrated the completion of its 5th year in the Pakistani market. Tell us something about this journey and how has Agency 21 changed the landscape of the real estate market in Pakistan?
SE: We had big plans when we launched Agency 21 but what we have achieved in the last five years has exceeded our expectations. Right now we have 23 offices across Pakistan and we aim to hit the magic number of hundred in the next couple of years.
S&ST: Agency 21 has close collaboration with Graana.com, what is the relationship between the two companies?
SE: Graana.com is basically a property portal, it lists all the available properties whether they are available for sale or rent. It generates clients and Agency 21 being the premier partner helps close the deals. However, we are not the only premier partner that works with Graana, it also has other partners. To put it simply Graana.com generates the leads whereas Agency 21 does the rest.
S&ST: Zameen.com is perhaps the only established competitor in the market. Was it a challenge to take on such an established player? How competitive is the real estate market?
SE: I don’t consider Zameen.com as a competitor. This is because Zameen.com is operating as a real estate portal that connects potential buyers with sellers. Agency 21 goes beyond that. We provide a host of real estate related services that include property analysis, document verification and legal advice to name a few. As far as the competition is concerned, the real estate market in Pakistan is huge. There is enough pie for everyone to have a slice.
S&ST: The coronavirus pandemic posed a serious challenge to businesses around the world. How did Agency 21 coped with the pandemic induced lockdowns and economic stagnation?
SE: There are two approaches that were adopted by organizations when the pandemic hit. The widely adopted approach was the survival approach that resulted in lay-offs and salary cuts. The harder approach was to retain employees and look for opportunities to grow. Luckily as the pandemic hit and businesses slowed down a lot of people were looking for investment opportunities.
The real estate sector was the only sector that provided such opportunities and that really benefitted us. Secondly, the massive lay-offs meant that the market was full of unemployed talent. We grabbed this opportunity as well and instead of laying off employees we initiated a hiring campaign to attract the best talent. Since the pandemic hit we have made over 150 hirings. This strategy proved successful for us and that is why we managed to almost double our monthly revenue during the coronavirus pandemic.
S&ST: Having established yourself as a prominent player in the real estate sector, if you were to mention a few major challenges that need to be addressed by the government, what would they be?
SE: The core challenge that existed when we entered the market five years back still persists. The real estate market in Pakistan remains largely undocumented and operates in the informal economy. This poses a serious risk to the interest of all stakeholders including buyers, sellers, real estate developers and real estate agents. The presence of a robust regulatory framework is an urgent need and will hopefully realize the true potential of the real estate sector and further boost economic growth.
Pakistanis remitted a whopping $29.4 billion during 2020-21. A major chunk of this inflow finds its way to the real estate sector. The problem lies in the fact that this investment often gets stuck in the real estate sector.
The reason is the lack of official property verification portals and regulations which means the hard-earned money of expatriates goes into projects that aren’t delivered on time. Then comes the issue of investment in dubious real estate that eventually lands in courts. Such litigation goes on for decades in some cases. To encourage further investment in the sector, the government should set up official real estate verification portals where real estate can be verified online. The Islamabad district administration has recently launched a Property Verification Center. More such initiatives are needed to further boost investment.
S&ST: The per capita housing requirement in Pakistan is one of the highest in the world; lack of affordable housing is another major issue that the government has tried to address. Is there any long-term solution to both these problems and is the provision of low-cost housing a realistic dream?
SE: The aim to provide low-cost housing is commendable. However, realistically speaking it seems unattainable. In recent months cement and steel prices have gone through the roof, both are key components of any housing unit. The price of land be it developed or non-developed has also risen significantly. With these harsh realities in mind, I don’t feel that right now the provision of low-cost housing is possible.
S&ST: Do you think real estate should be taught as a subject at the college or university level?
SE: Yes. This is something we are already pushing for. Our parent company Imarat Group of Companies in collaboration with National University of Sciences & Technology’s (NUST) Professional Development Centre (PDC) has launched Pakistan’s first-ever certification in Real Estate Science. The certification will equip participants with solid knowledge of the real estate sector and develop the skills needed to succeed in the field. Similarly, the University of Central Punjab in collaboration with Graana.com has launched BS Real Estate Management Programme. The program will help nurture young leaders in the real estate industry.
S&ST: Real estate sector and real estate companies are predominantly male-dominated. Do you think more women should join the real estate industry?
SE: Women should get equal opportunities to work. Agency 21 is a gender-inclusive workplace and we have women working in roles that are traditionally male-dominated. Personally speaking, I believe that women excel in creative and management roles and that is the reason we have a lot of women working in such roles at Agency 21. As far as roles that have direct public dealing are concerned, due to societal norms, women are usually wary of working in them.
But this is something Agency 21 has also changed because of the inclusive environment that exists at our offices.
S&ST: What are your future plans for Agency 21?
SE: We are pioneers of a host of real estate-related services in Pakistan and aim to build on them. In the near future, there are a number of services that we are launching which you will see in the coming months. One such service that will soon be available is rental management. Rental management services are widely available in many countries but it will be the first time that such a service is introduced in Pakistan.
As far as growth targets are concerned, we want to build on our already impressive growth trajectory. What is even more important to us is to continuously strive to provide quality services that people trust. Perhaps not tangible but our goal is to make Agency 21 a household name in the real estate sector in Pakistan. It is a challenging target, but we are ready to take on this challenge.