Black Diamondz founder Monika Tu makes every second count

Monika Tu has spent the last three decades in Australia. "I am Chinese-Australian, but I am Australian," she says. Photographer: Jarrod Barnes.

From property to education to networks, nothing beats local knowledge if you’re looking to make a go of it in Australia. Black Diamondz founder Monika Tu has built a business on smoothing the way for high-net-worth Chinese investors and immigrants.

By Stephen Corby

It’s hard to describe the zeal and zest that Monika Tu has for working hard, but she does it best herself when she says, straight-faced, that “sleeping is just wasting time”.

Tu, 55, has learned plenty of invaluable lessons over her past 30 years in Australia; three insanely busy decades in which she has slavishly built one of the country’s most successful real-estate businesses, without even intending to do so.

Tu says it was her experiences in her earliest days in the country – as a nervous, new immigrant with little money, limited English, struggling to navigate the cultural intricacies of her adopted country – that have proven to be her most valuable asset.

Black Diamondz is Sydney’s first full-service agency that caters largely – almost exclusively – to high-net-worth Chinese buyers who want to invest in, or migrate to, Australia. It has proven stunningly successful, and is on track to shift more than A$200 million in property this year in that one desirable city alone.

Tu’s Black Diamondz is so much more than your typical agency. In fact, she refers to it as a “concierge service”, and her relationship with clients is one that goes well beyond simply selling them a house.

“I thought about when I arrived in 1988, and how I couldn’t find any help,” she says. “Now, when Chinese people arrive, I know how to offer that service. I know about our education system, I understand the laws and regulations, and I know what you really need when you first land in this country.

“We had a high number of Chinese people coming to Australia, and they needed someone like me to help them. That’s how I became a concierge. We give them the right advice on the Australian lifestyle,” Tu explains.

Black Diamondz: grasping an opportunity

Even more amazingly, Tu’s company was never actually conceived as a real-estate business at all, but a lifestyle service designed to help immigrants settle into their new lives in Australia. In fact, it was a friend who connected her with her first well-heeled Chinese buyer – despite her not actually having have any listings to sell. Tu scanned the property pages until she found a suitable home, then contacted the listed agent offering to split the commission.

“That’s how the businesses started in 2009, as more of a lifestyle agency. At the time, I didn’t know how to get listings, and I didn’t know how to sell, but I found my strength was finding a buyer. That first house I sold was for A$13.5 million, and I thought ‘this is brilliant’ – even half that commission was fantastic.”

In the years since, Black Diamondz has grown from a team of two to a staff of more than 35, many of whom are not agents, but concierge specialists ready to ease the transition to Australia in any way they can. More recently, the business has expanded even further, launching a Chinese recruitment service for recent graduates and a marketing and PR firm for Chinese companies listed on the ASX.

It's the biggest reason to Chinese people want to come to Australia. You can talk about lifestyle, you can talk about investment opportunties, but it's not any of that. It's education."

“A concierge is not just someone who carries your bags, it’s someone who guides you into a lifestyle and helps with business needs, education needs and philanthropic interests,” Tu says.

As a consequence of China’s one-child policy, many Chinese immigrants to Australia have only one child, and are looking to provide them with the best possible opportunities.

“The number-one most important thing is education,” says Tu. “It’s the biggest reason Chinese people want to come to Australia. You can talk about lifestyle, you can talk about investment opportunities, but it’s not any of that. It’s education.

“We know a lot about our schools. Your child might be an academic achiever, so we look at those types of schools. We organise referrals, and we talk to the schools and make sure it’s the right match. We might also find an appropriate public school, while they’re waiting for a place in their school of choice.”

Ups and downs in Chinese investment in property

Black Diamondz is a unique business, and business is good. Tu’s launch was just in time to capture a huge boom in Chinese investment in Australian property – a happy accident, she says – and she’s been riding that wave ever since. But things have started to look a little rocky.

In the 2015-2016 financial year, Chinese investors spent A$32 billion on Australian property, making them the country’s biggest single group of foreign investors. Tougher local regulations on the flow of cash leaving China saw that growth slow in 2017 and 2018. At the same time, Australian authorities began to clamp down on foreign investment in an effort to curb the stratospheric rise in property prices in major cities. The NSW Government, for example, doubled the stamp duty surcharge for foreign buyers to 8 per cent.

If Tu is worried about an impact on her business, she’s not letting on. Given that property prices in Shanghai and Beijing are prohibitive, Sydney and other Australian cities still represent a savvy choice for Chinese investors.

“We had a property boom and it has since slowed a little, but in my market there aren’t any problems,” she says. “The new regulations increase stamp duty and restrict borrowing, but that doesn’t mean my market slows down.

“That’s our opportunity – who doesn’t want to sell to Chinese investors then? I see no reason I won’t increase sales.

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“[Chinese investment] will never come to an end. The Chinese will never stop buying property – it would be like Australians stopping eating Vegemite.”

Tu says her intimate knowledge of both Australian and Chinese cultures puts her in the box seat when it comes to marketing Australian properties to Chinese buyers.

The feng shui of a room is one obvious point, but Tu says it can be as simple as the right set of photographs, or even using a phrase or two in a property’s description that can make all the difference. Where you advertise is critical, too. Black Diamondz properties are often listed on the highly popular Chinese social media platform WeChat, to maximise coverage and reach.

“We’re a bridge, not just from East to West, but from West to East. If you have a home and you want to sell it, Chinese customers are happy to pay [a fair] price, and we’re a premium agent,” Tu says.

“If Western vendors want to sell their property, they do need to have it styled in a certain way. You don’t want people saying the feng shui isn’t right. You need to do the right things and take the right images, and even use the right words in the description to capture Asian buyers.”

Local markets

Property prices in Sydney and other Australian capitals have risen to a point where many first-home buyers feel locked out of the housing market. Some commentators have suggested that foreign investment in local property artificially inflates the market. (In fact, foreign investors own only 2.5 to 4 per cent of Australia’s housing stock, according to ANZ, and China ranks fifth as a foreign investor in Australia.)

With a business built, in part, on helping Chinese investors and migrants find the perfect home, Tu says that most local vendors can see the value that Chinese buyers bring to the suburbs in which they choose to invest.

“I am Australian-Chinese, but I am Australian,” she says. “If you look at areas where house prices have gone up – the stamp duty being paid, the foreign investment that gives us the money we need to build roads and schools – it’s all positive. If you tell [the local Australian community] the benefits of having foreign investment, I think [they understand] it’s a plus.”

Work and play

Tu lives by the motto: “make every second count, and every minute earn”, and so predictably, life away from the office is often just as filled with work as her time in it. With her 19-year-old daughter attending Bond University, Tu dedicates every spare moment to her business.

Even her visit to church each week is frequently another opportunity to impress her clients, who she often brings along to introduce to others in the Chinese-Australian community.

“I go to church on Sunday, that’s probably my ‘downtime’ – even though I try to drag some people with me. Oh, and I love shopping. When I walk into a store I just switch off.

“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I can’t even remember the last drink I had. When I get home, I just sleep, then get up and get going again,” the self-confessed workaholic admits. 

“I’ve come here with a purpose. I don’t really have downtime. I think sleeping is wasting time. There’s so much I can do, and I’m 55, so I don’t have much time left.

“I honestly feel blessed. I’m so fortunate to have this opportunity. I just don’t want to waste my time. I need to utilise every minute I have to create something amazing.”

The next big thing in property

What are Tu’s tips for the next Sydney suburbs that will attract smart investors? Predictably, those with the best schools rank well, as do suburbs near the water.

“Hunters Hill is becoming really, really popular. It’s close to the city, there’s waterfront, and good private schools in the area,” she says. “Cremorne Point is popular too, [because] it’s so close to the city and there are beautiful views.

“[Our buyers] used to really love big blocks, but now they like smaller, more manageable blocks.”

Read next: Investing in property one brick at a time with fractional investments


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June 2018
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