Commercial real estate professionals come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. Some start with the family business as a kid. Others study real estate in college and begin their career in the industry. But a large share of commercial real estate professionals start their careers in other fields, only to transition into real estate at some point in their career.

In this week’s episode of the A.CRE Audio Series, Sam welcomes Accelerator graduate and Masters in Real Estate candidate Joshua Lau. Josh is a career changer, having started his career in civil engineering only to discover a passion for the business side of real estate several years in. Josh also brings an international perspective, having studied and worked in Canada, Singapore, and the United States.

Josh is currently finishing his first year of a two-year Masters Degree in Real Estate from the Baker Program in Real Estate at Cornell University. He holds a Bachelor of Applied Science with Honours, Civil Engineering from the University of Toronto. Between and undergrad and grad, school he worked in Civil Engineering, estimating, and project management at firms in Singapore and Toronto.

This is our third episode in a growing sub-series of interviews with commercial real estate professionals. This Accelerators in Action sub-series tells the stories of CRE professionals at all stages of their career, from students to senior-level professionals. Their experiences will provide you with insights into how to take your real estate career to the next level.

Listen to this Episode – From Civil Engineer to CRE Student with Josh Lau


Resources from this Episode

Episode Transcript – From Civil Engineer to CRE Student with Josh Lau

Sam Carlson (00:00):

Hello, and welcome back to Accelerators In Action. Today, we’re talking with Josh Lau. Now, we had some production issues in the first take of this. This was supposed to be episode number one. But we fixed those now and so we’re going to launch right into that interview. Let’s get started.

Sam Carlson (00:18):

Making your mark in commercial real estate is a journey best traveled with grit, determination, and a mindset to take action. To most, success at the highest level is a fleeting thought and an unrealistic expectation. But to others, opportunity boils down to focus, preparation, and a lifelong commitment to learning and improvement. Join me as I take you into the lives of those unwilling to leave their success to chance and instead take complete control of their futures. These are action-taking, limit-breaking, never-faking Accelerators In Action.

Sam Carlson (00:57):

All right. I am really excited to be here with you today, Josh. Thanks for coming on, first and foremost. You are our first guest. Did you know that?

Josh Lau (01:06):

No. I just found out that and I’m just as excited to be here.

Sam Carlson (01:10):

Well, great. Before we get into this particular episode, this is episode one of this sub-series, and for anybody listening, I kind of want to give you an idea of what this sub-series is all about.

Sam Carlson (01:25):

Accelerators In Action is all about highlighting people in CRE that are doing extraordinary things. Now, extraordinary to one person is all relative. We want to highlight people that are taking proactive action, whether they’re students, whether they’re seasoned pros, whatever the case may be. We want to hear those stories. We want to help folks in our audience understand what types of actions people are taking.

Sam Carlson (01:53):

I think you, Josh, are a great first guest. So, once again, welcome to the audio series here, and thank you again.

Josh Lau (02:03):

Yeah. It’s an honor and pleasure to be here.

Sam Carlson (02:06):

Well, great. Let’s get started at the very beginning. That’s a very good place to start, right? I want to learn a little bit more about you, who you are, and maybe just spend a little bit of time introducing yourself to the audience.

Josh Lau (02:21):

Yeah. Sure thing. Actually, I grew up in a little tiny island nation of Singapore in Southeast Asia. This country is comparable in size to the five boroughs of New York City. When I was growing up, my grandfather was an architect, my uncle was an architect, and so I just kind of grew up inspired with an appreciation for the art of buildings and design.

Josh Lau (02:46):

I joke around, I always tell people that I used to be able to read drawings before I learned how to read books. Somehow, over all those years in school I was not really that good in art, but I was developing these really mad skills at math and physics, so no brainer, I decided to take up civil engineering in college.

Josh Lau (03:08):

But in Singapore, we have this conscript military. So before heading off to college, I had to serve mandatory two years in the Singapore military. I never really did a tour during my time in the army. I had a couple of odd jobs here and there. There was a period of time when I was fixing tanks, and it’s crazy to think that I can’t even change my own car battery [inaudible 00:03:30]

Sam Carlson (03:32):

Oh, my gosh. That’s hilarious.

Josh Lau (03:34):

Yeah. So, anyhow, after finishing my time in the Singapore Army, that’s when I moved to Toronto, Canada to start my Civil Engineering Degree at the University of Toronto. Halfway through my degree, I felt kind of underwhelmed. I had this impression that we would be learning a lot of real-life case studies, but everything was just very, very abstract.

Josh Lau (03:58):

We learned a lot of moment diagrams, third-degree polynomials. If I’ve lost you already, that’s just kind of how abstract the field of engineering is.

Josh Lau (04:08):

Fortunately, for me, I got to complete an internship in Singapore at a structural engineering firm. My time there gave me some exposure to some really high-profile projects in Asia. There was this one project in India called Deya. Deya is the Hindi word for cloud, and that’s because sitting between two residential buildings is this four-story sky bridge that’s shaped like a cloud and it’s got the craziest amenities.

Josh Lau (04:37):

It’s got a movie theater, it’s got a golf driving range, a spa. It’s basically a country club that was suspended between a two condo towers. So for me, it was really projects like these that got me inspired, got my juices flowing. But I think the real sobering moment for me when I realized that engineering is not really where I see myself being in anymore is…

Josh Lau (05:05):

So for that Deya project, as an engineer, we never really had a part to play in the design of the amenities. We never got to pick the type of unit mix. We never got to do a market analysis. Instead, we were designing the thickness of steel, the angles they were connected at.

Josh Lau (05:25):

An engineer’s role is obviously very crucial to the safety of the inhabitants of the building, but I somehow always dreamed of doing more. So after graduating, I just knew I couldn’t go back to the field of engineering. I craved something a little more entrepreneurial, sort of more practical, a bit more tangible, let’s call it.

Josh Lau (05:48):

I came across this job opportunity that allowed me to do just that. So I started my career as a cost estimator at a construction company in Toronto that specialized in the glazing work on the facade of buildings on the exterior.

Josh Lau (06:07):

Cost estimating is how construction companies get new contracts for work. So seeing new buildings that get built, the architect would release a set of drawings and specifications, and my job was to extract information from those documents and underwrite how much it would cost our company to do the job and I would submit that price as a bid.

Josh Lau (06:31):

In a way, I think I got my first taste of closing deals this way. In CRE acquisitions you want to be the hightest bidder, but in construction you want to be the lowest bidder. Over time, I got faster and more accurate with my bids and I soon found myself… I was just picking up the phone, calling all the clients that I knew asking them, hey, do you have any more contracts I can bid on?

Josh Lau (06:56):

Eventually, I acquired enough contracts and decided to move into project management to oversee these contracts that I acquired for the company, and I did so for two reasons. Firstly, when I was doing my estimates, I would always come up with some kind of plan for how I would sort of foresee this project playing out, and as kind of a control freak I always wanted to execute on these projects myself.

Josh Lau (07:26):

By maintaining control of my project, I would ultimately be responsible for whether we meet the profit numbers that I underwrote or not. This way I was just holding myself accountable. That way, if another project manager were to take on my contract, my boss wouldn’t be able to come back to me and say that I maybe made a mistake with my estimating or not.

Josh Lau (07:48):

I was with this company for about three years. I made my way from an estimator to project manager to eventually just kind of juggling both roles. Construction is dynamic in a sense that no two projects are ever really the same. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily hit a ceiling, but just like before in engineering, I was just kind of really, really craving more.

Josh Lau (08:16):

My whole career, I was never making these design decisions. I was never really making investing decisions. Whether I’m an engineer or contractor, I was just always executing somebody else’s vision. I wanted to be the one that had the vision.

Josh Lau (08:33):

Because I lived in Toronto and Singapore, I was constantly surrounded by a real estate boom market and I’ve always admired the developers for kind of what they were able to accomplish. Keep in mind, when I was younger, there weren’t a lot of real estate degrees. So it’s not like could have gotten a bachelor in real estate the same way that you can now that I’m seeing on the A.CRE blog.

Josh Lau (09:02):

At that point in my life, with my engineering degree, construction management experience, I kind of felt like I was ready to take that leap of faith. And so that’s where Spencer, Michael, and this A.CRE program comes into the picture.

Josh Lau (09:22):

It’s an interesting story of how that came about. I decided that I wanted to go back to school to pursue a master’s in real estate, and the only specialized program like that in Toronto was at the Schulich School of Business. And so I got on LinkedIn, I reached out to a student there, and we had a coffee chat.

Josh Lau (09:44):

He was honest with me. He said that without any real estate underwriting experience, I just start with an online program. Something like Adventures in CRE. And so that same night I went back and it just so happened at that time, I remember, I think it was January last year that you guys were launching this Accelerator program, and I was essentially part of the pilot batch of students.

Josh Lau (10:10):

So I got in for this ridiculously low price of like $200 or something like that. It was the best investment of my life. I can’t tell you enough how I started from knowing nothing about real estate to now being confident enough to underwrite like an analyst.

Josh Lau (10:31):

I’ll stop here if you want to jump in.

Sam Carlson (10:35):

I think you basically covered about, I don’t know, five, six, seven years in a short amount of time. Just to kind of maybe go back a little bit, you were on the civil engineering track, had a good career, but it just kind of wasn’t doing it for you. You liked what you were working on, just wanted to be in a different part of it?

Josh Lau (10:57):

Right. yeah. I love working with buildings. I love working on projects, especially very high-profile projects, like some of them that I was exposed to in Asia. But the role that I had played within real estate was not the role that I guess I really wanted to be in.

Josh Lau (11:15):

Real estate is just very multidisciplinary. You’ve got the financial guys, you’ve got the legal guys, you’ve got construction engineering, architects. It’s just the field is so wide, but I felt like I just was in the wrong subsection of real estate.

Josh Lau (11:37):

That’s when I just thought that I had to just kind of feel it out, feel aware, I think would be best suited for my skills and interests. Moving into construction was definitely a step up from where I wanted to be, but then again I realized that I’m just executing other people’s visions. I wanted to be that guy [inaudible 00:11:58] that was the guy to make all the decisions.

Sam Carlson (12:03):

I think what’s interesting is nobody… When you start your career, you don’t always know exactly where it’s pointed. I mean, most people don’t. I would think that was the case. That was the case for me.

Sam Carlson (12:16):

When I look at your background, it seemed like you were on a really… As far as career wise, civil engineer, you were in the military, which… There’s a lot of great things to be said for having served, obviously, but even just as a person who’s hiring and recruiting, those types of skills and things are great.

Sam Carlson (12:37):

So you’re doing this career and then you reach out to a friend because you’re thinking you want to make a pivot. Right? You you want to start pivoting into a different side of CRE, which ultimately has led you to enroll in Cornell. Isn’t that correct?

Josh Lau (12:58):

Yeah. Yeah. So I can talk about how I got into Cornell, if you want, but I know-

Sam Carlson (13:05):

Yeah. I’m wondering between… Because you had a career that was going in one direction and, for all intents and purposes, most people would look at that and say, that’s a very successful… you’re on a successful track, but you pivoted. You had a moment of truth. So I kind of want to know what was it that… What happened in that transition period, I guess. What kind of made you make that transition?

Josh Lau (13:31):

Yeah. I think if I had to name one thing that made me realize, that set off that spark, it just… I’ve lived in… Growing up in Singapore in the ’90s and early 2000s, that’s when the country really boomed and it developed.

Josh Lau (13:54):

Overnight, I was seeing these new condos going up, office buildings going up. In Asia they build fast. I was very inspired by how developers were able to make that happen. And so moving to Toronto in 2010, that’s also when Toronto experienced they’re boom.

Josh Lau (14:17):

So I was just constantly in this real estate boom and it was just getting very hard to ignore for someone who has these ambitions of I guess being a developer. I think it really just came down to it became hard to ignore what kind of opportunities developers had. I don’t know if that sort of answers your question, but-

Sam Carlson (14:48):

I think what you were going through was probably just… It’s almost like it’s revealing itself to you the more you do the thing, the more you progress in your career, the more you start to realize that, hey, this thing can be even more. And so that led you to kind of the next steps, right? Like taking it to the next level, even in your education. Because you already had a great start to your career, but now it’s now it’s saying, hey, let’s pivot, let’s change the direction of this journey and just take our foundations to another level.

Sam Carlson (15:24):

You did that by doing the Accelerator, which was great, but also in going to Cornell. So talk to me about the process of getting into Cornell. How was that?

Josh Lau (15:36):

Just to go back to something that you’ve said earlier, like I said, there wasn’t really a formal real estate education when I was-

Sam Carlson (15:46):

Correct.

Josh Lau (15:47):

… trying to pick my bachelor’s, my undergrad.

Josh Lau (15:50):

I think the closest thing that I had was civil engineering. And my dad said the same thing. A lot of developers in Singapore, there isn’t really a formal education. A lot of them, they come from family businesses or they pivot in from some other field.

Josh Lau (16:08):

A lot of them are lawyers. A lot of them, they’ve got some kind of business background and they pivot in. I felt that where I was at that point in my career with having understood buildings from an engineering perspective and actually having that practical experience of building buildings through the contracting part of my life, I felt that I was ready to make that jump.

Josh Lau (16:33):

And so I started with Adventures in CRE, I did the Accelerator, and I just loved it. I love underwriting. I can’t tell you enough.

Josh Lau (16:47):

After that, I [crosstalk 00:16:48]

Sam Carlson (16:48):

Was it close to what you were doing as a cost estimation worker?

Josh Lau (16:53):

Yeah. Yeah. Cost estimating, you also use Excel. You pull information from drawings. So for example, you would calculate square footages off of drawings and then turn that square footage and put a price into it and then put everything together and submit that as a bid.

Josh Lau (17:14):

It’s not really the same as underwriting, but I worked with Excel a lot extensively. Even when I was actually in my undergrad days, I had to use… One of the most brutal projects I ever had was to design structurally a four-story building entirely in Excel. As you can imagine, each column, each beam in a building had to be modeled in Excel and we were using these formulas.

Josh Lau (17:43):

Whatever the longest formula is in A.CRE, I think it’s modeling that bell curve in the construction development out of A.CRE. That longest formula is pretty much like everything that we’ve had to use in modeling the four-story structure in my undergrad. So having that quantitative experience already in Excel I think made it easy enough for me to just power through this Accelerator, A.CRE Accelerator.

Josh Lau (18:22):

I guess after the Accelerator, I started reading the blog a little bit more extensively. I know that you guys have a section dedicated to real estate masters at a couple of different universities.

Sam Carlson (18:36):

Yeah.

Josh Lau (18:36):

I read the one at MIT, NYU, Columbia and Cornell. It was through that, I guess, the review on Cornell that I realized Spencer and Michael went to that school and after reading that review, I remember one line sticking out quite well. Spencer said that if anyone is interested in this program, they should visit it and take a tour of the campus.

Josh Lau (19:00):

I thought to myself, hmm, I’ve never toured an Ivy League campus before and I really wanted to see what it was like. Really, Cornell is only a four-hour drive from Toronto. I remember it was like the coldest day in February that I decided to drive down. I made it a point to get to know as many students as I could, get introduced to the director of the program. After all, they say real estate is a relationship game. Right? As much as it is a numbers thing.

Sam Carlson (19:27):

Yes. Absolutely. Yeah.

Josh Lau (19:29):

I just remember thinking to myself, this is where I want to get my master’s degree in. So I applied. One thing led to another, here I am today. I’m finishing up my first year of a two-year master’s in real estate at Cornell, just kind of following the footsteps of Michael and Spencer.

Sam Carlson (19:46):

That’s wonderful. I want to share a little bit of information with the audience as we were going through different folks that are going to be on Accelerators In Action.

Sam Carlson (19:59):

We talk about action-taking, never-faking, limit-breaking. Those types of people. Some of the things that I wanted to highlight on your behalf, Josh, were you were a person that took the Accelerator before you went to Cornell. Not only that, you were a person that was taking action. So you obviously were doing due diligence, reading all of the different programs, and then you went down to visit the campus at Cornell.

Sam Carlson (20:32):

So we’re talking about actions and plans. When we were talking about different people to be on this sub-series, you came across as a person with a plan. Is that accurate? Is that similar to the way you see yourself and your personality?

Josh Lau (20:55):

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my closest friends, they always tell me that sometimes I have OCD. I’m a little bit obsessive sometimes about my plans. But yeah, it’s totally true. Even as an estimator, if I can go back to that again.

Josh Lau (21:13):

Estimating, I found it to be very entrepreneurial for this reason in particular. The amount of revenue that you bring in for the company depends on how many bids that you submit, how many of these that you underwrite. So I got to a point where I was thinking I need to do more. I need to bring in more contracts for the company.

Josh Lau (21:42):

Before, my boss would just allocate these beds for me to work on and after a time I built up a network of clients and I started picking up the phone and calling them and saying, hey, do you have anything else for me to bid on? I was going through these online portals looking for bids to work on.

Josh Lau (22:04):

I’m not the kind of person that likes to sit and leave my fate up to the unknown. As much as I can, I like to take control of my fate. That’s one way to look at it.

Sam Carlson (22:21):

Well, what do they say? Lucky is when opportunity and action kind of intersect. Right?

Josh Lau (22:28):

Yeah.

Sam Carlson (22:29):

I think-

Josh Lau (22:29):

There’s a lot of luck, you know?

Sam Carlson (22:31):

Yeah. I mean, you can… I’ve been lucky all my life and it just so happens that I, like you, like to have a plan and I like to execute a plan. I think that’s a huge part of anybody’s journey if you’re going to have success.

Sam Carlson (22:47):

Honestly, the reason we wanted to do this sub-series was to highlight people doing it and what they’re doing, even if it seems small. I don’t know to you if it seemed like a small thing to take the Accelerator prior to starting your program at Cornell. I don’t know if that… Did that feel like a small thing or did that feel like just another day for you?

Josh Lau (23:16):

I really have to thank my friend at Schulich who… That was the university that I was interested in applying to at first, and he was actually the one that told me that there’s this really good resource online that you can check out. I can’t thank him enough for we’re introducing me to A.CRE.

Josh Lau (23:38):

It has helped me tremendously. Everything that I know about real estate started with this Adventures in CRE.

Sam Carlson (23:47):

Wow. That’s amazing.

Josh Lau (23:50):

Having gone through a year, almost a year now, at Cornell, I can tell you that the modeling classes, the finance classes, they’re all… It’s not something new to me. I’ve kind of learned it all before. It helped that Spencer and Michael, they go through the same program, and I’m sure they’ve incorporated everything they learned that Cornell into the Accelerator. But yeah. If I can talk about this competition, I guess, that I did this year-

Sam Carlson (24:24):

Oh, yeah. Well, yeah. Let’s talk about that for a minute. So you’ve gone into Cornell. I want to maybe switch towards the future. But before we do that, let’s talk about this competition that you were in. Describe to me what it was and then kind of what happened. What’s the story?

Josh Lau (24:45):

Actually, this is the second competition that I did. The first competition was the ULI Hines competition, but that one we never really stood much of a chance. There were like 160 teams competing, so the probability of us winning was like less than 2% or something.

Josh Lau (25:02):

The second competition that I took part in was at this very school, Schulich in Toronto. They have this annual real estate competition called The Developers’ Den. I knew that my local knowledge of the Toronto market had to count for something. So we you signed up.

Josh Lau (25:20):

The aim of this competition this year was to come up with a redevelopment proposal for a distressed suburban mall in this Jane and Finch neighborhood in Toronto. This neighborhood has a reputation for being kind of a sketchy area, but keep in mind this is by Canadian standards when I say sketchy. But still, this mall was underperforming, the typical story of retail in the last couple of years. But the mall’s location was 10 minutes away from the university, which made it perfect for our mixed-use student housing proposal.

Josh Lau (25:56):

Now, Toronto’s rental market is that 1% vacancy. This is, if I’m not wrong, one of the hottest rental markets in North America. That means that students generally don’t have a decent option when it comes to renting. For my team, I was pretty lucky. I was in a team of four. I was lucky to be in a very well-balanced team. Two of them were architects and they did all the designing for the proposal, including the unit mix, the tenant retail mix. The other teammate and I, we worked on the market research [inaudible 00:26:31].

Josh Lau (26:33):

This is where I think the ACRE has paid off for me, because I was now able to underwrite a development deal. This process was actually… This is something that I think takes it one step beyond what I learned at ACRE. For underwriting this development deal, it was a very iterative process where we had to make minor changes to the design and minor changes to the [inaudible 00:27:02] just to get to the returns where we needed it to be.

Josh Lau (27:07):

From talking to people in the field, I get the sense that this is how it is in real life. You’re never really going to underwrite a deal perfectly the first time. You’ve got to go back to your architects, your design team, and try to figure out where you can change things to be able to hit that IRR that you need. Which I thought that was a very, very nice experience.

Josh Lau (27:31):

Even though this competition was… you had to get creative in this competition, we kept our portfolio very conservative, very realistic. I thought our proposal was bulletproof, but I wanted to make sure that it was something that you could invest in today having total confidence.

Josh Lau (27:48):

I was so sure we were going to snatch first place, but we placed third, which is still good. I’m not complaining about that. I’ve been trying to reach out to some of these judges to get more feedback on our proposal. But this kind of happened at the early part of March, just before I guess the world around us just started to shut down.

Sam Carlson (28:10):

Yeah. It’s a little bit of a crazy time.

Sam Carlson (28:12):

So that’s amazing. Congratulations. Winning third place is still… you’re placing. That’s fantastic. I love the followup. The fortune is in the followup and so is progress and knowledge. So the fact that you’re actually following up with the judges, kudos to you for again taking action.

Josh Lau (28:32):

Yeah.

Sam Carlson (28:34):

I kind of want to wrap this up and head in the conclusion direction. Where do you see… What is your ambition for the future and where are you going say after Cornell? What do you want to do after graduation?

Josh Lau (28:54):

That’s a tough one to answer given where we are today. But I think that just keeping with the scene of, making a plan and sticking to the plan.

Josh Lau (29:06):

I definitely want to be working at a shop where they look at very opportunistic investments. So whether it’s like a development deal, like what I worked on for the competition, or whether it’s working for a private equity shop that they work on a lot of value-add opportunistic deals. That’s kind of where I see myself going towards.

Josh Lau (29:33):

I’m never satisfied with… If you were to ask me if I wanted to just look yet three cap office buildings all day long, I’d find that kind of boring after a while. I need each project to be dynamic. I need each deal to be different from the last. I need that kind of mental exercise every day just to keep going. So yeah. I think that’s sort of my long-term plan after everything, the dust settles. That’s sort of where I want to be.

Sam Carlson (30:06):

Yeah. I know a lot of people are up in the air with maybe plans. I think opportunity is going to be extremely abundant coming into the next several months and years post this little pandemic that we’ve been dealing with. I have no doubt that your ability to take in information and craft and execute a plan will come into play there.

Sam Carlson (30:31):

Any parting words of, in fact, advice? As far as advice for the audience, what would be your key piece of advice for anybody listening, especially students. A lot of the people in your particular situation.

Josh Lau (30:45):

I always kind of lived by just being humble, being respectful, and being curious. When I was in the field of construction, I was speaking to these old school cats all the time. These guys are like 50, 60. The one thing that they always tell me is that they’re learning something new every day.

Josh Lau (31:06):

These people wouldn’t have gotten to where they were if they were overconfident. I just generally try to shape myself and just be in the position of constant learning. I think that’s the best way to go about it. Just be humble, be respectful. That’s the best way to be likable. People just generally open their hearts to you when you’re more of a likable person.

Sam Carlson (31:33):

Wonderful. That’s good advice.

Josh Lau (31:35):

That’s just how I’ve looked at it.

Sam Carlson (31:37):

That’s good advice. Well, Josh, thank you so much for being on the podcast here. And for anybody listening, I think his lessons and his experience, the way he makes a plan and follows a plan and the humility and just always being willing to learn is a huge part of success. So thanks again, Josh, for being on.

Sam Carlson (31:59):

And thanks for listening everybody. We really appreciate it. And we’ll see you on the next episode.

Josh Lau (32:04):

Thanks.

Sam Carlson (32:04):

Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerators in Action. For show notes and additional resources, head over to www.adventuresincre.com/audioseries.

Sam Carlson (32:15):

Would you like to learn real estate financial modeling in a matter of weeks and do it with zero guesswork? If so, the ACRE Accelerator is for you. The Accelerator is a step-by-step case-based program designed to teach you exactly what you need to know, and in the order you need to know it. So you can gain both the knowledge and experience to take your career to the next level. To see if the accelerator is right for you, go to www.adventuresincre.com/accelerator.