Newspaper delivery boy to real estate leader


From delivering newspapers as a boy to becoming the CEO of Singapore's largest real estate company, it has been an eventful 49 years for Mr Ismail Gafoor.

The Singapore-born Indian had no choice but to help his father, a Tamil from Kudavasal, near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, who came to Singapore penniless in 1945 at the age of 17 and ventured into various small businesses, including distributing newspapers.

It meant, from the age of seven, getting up at 4.30 every morning, delivering newspapers to around 300 households, going to school, returning home in the evening and doing his homework and then helping in his father's neighbourhood shop in Lengkok Bahru.

The cycle would repeat almost 365 days a year until he turned 18 and was enlisted into National Service.

"My father really abused us," Mr Ismail told tabla! jokingly.

"It was free labour. We didn't have any alternative."

His father, Mr Abdul Gafoor, had hopes that his third son would return after NS to run the shop and the newspaper distribution business.

But Mr Ismail had other ideas.

Though his father had instilled discipline and work ethos in him, which helped him emerge as the top recruit during National Service, he did not want to be in the newspaper distribution business which delivered meagre returns.

At the age of 18 an incident sowed the seeds of what he wanted to do in the future.

His army buddy Nataraja revealed that his uncle had sold a property along Cavenagh Road and made a profit of about $250,000.

Mr Ismail immediately calculated that he would earn only four cents from delivering one newspaper.

On the other hand, if he were to sell four properties, he would make $1 million within a short time.

"Then and there I decided that I wanted to own properties," said Mr Ismail. "I began to believe that owning a property is the best way to be successful."

He, however, did not tell his father about his plan nor inform him that he had decided to sign up as an army regular.

"The army gave me relief from the daily grind under my father," said Mr Ismail with a smile.

"I had to get up only at 5.30am and lights were off at 10pm."

But what motivated him more was that he did well in the army and it was recognised.

He was selected for Officer Cadet School as a top recruit despite having only an O-level certificate.

Mr Ismail, who used to return home during weekends, eventually told his father that he would be with the army for another six years at least.

His father was disappointed but did not stand in his way.

Mr Ismail made steady progress in the army, rising to the rank of captain. It was in the army too that he met his wife Nooraini.

She too felt that the way to be successful was to invest in property.

When they got married, their first home was a three-room resale flat.

But two years later, Mr Ismail was looking to buy their second home at Normanton Park, where flats were reserved for regular Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers.

He liked a particular condo, but the owner priced it at $100,000.

Mr Ismail and his wife together could muster only $90,000 which included their savings.

He, however, persuaded the owners to sell the condo to him at a $10,000 discount.

Army life was comfortable, but Mr Ismail was not sure if he would progress further in his career with only an O-level certificate.

The army gave him a choice to retire with a pension of $1 million if he signed on full-time. He also had to complete his A levels.

Mr Ismail scraped through his examinations as a private candidate. But again he had doubts about his prospects in the army.

In 1995, at the age of 32, he finally decided to quit.

His $1 million pension would be gone and he did not know what he would do next.

But he made a bold decision to venture out on his own.

Three days later he landed in Singapore General Hospital with chest pains.

"It was actually only chest tightness, probably caused by stress," he said.

"I was not prepared about my second career. I was sent home after two days. I am fit otherwise."

Mr Ismail briefly dabbled in insurance before starting a real estate business with his wife on Jan 1, 1996. Called Nooris Consultants, the name coined from his and his wife's names, it soon made a mark.

But Mr Ismail realised that he was only king of the Malay-Muslim property market with about 250 agents and about $10 million in annual revenue.

To compete and develop further, he calculated that he had to merge with big players who dealt with other communities.

He formed a partnership with the founders of Prulink Realty in 1999 called First Class Consultants.

Subsequently, along with three other companies, he formed Propnex on July 15, 2000.

But the conglomeration collapsed within six months due to differences among the partners.

As after two pulled out, Mr Ismail decided that he had to merge with his remaining two partners or go solo.

In 2004, after further negotiations, he bought the other two companies and became the sole proprietor of Propnex.

"That was the second time I got chest pains," said Mr Ismail. "All the negotiations caused heavy stress. But again I was given the all clear.

"Actually I'm quite fit and it was a temporary problem."

Over the past 14 years, it has been boom time for him. From 1,000 agents, the company currently has more than 8,400 agents, the biggest in Singapore, and it has branched out to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Propnex also has a market capitalisation of around $200 million.

ERA Realty Network is next with about 7,000 agents.

"My father (now aged 93) is incredibly happy with my success," said Mr Ismail, who is 56.

"But what is more important is that all my people grew together with us, strongly guided by the passion and the core values."

He had wanted to sell four houses and make $1 million. Now his company makes up to 70,000 transactions a year.

"My philosophy is not to worship money or be blinded by it," he said. If you do either, it can ruin your core values.

"Success is not measured by money. It is measured by how happy you are."


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