– Story by Lauren Kramer Photographs by Lia Crowe
Over her four decades working in the world of Vancouver real estate, Grace Kwok, co-founder of Anson Realty, has made her mark. She pioneered the concept of condominium pre-sales in the Lower Mainland in the 1980s, working with developers to sell thousands of units to owners and investors before the new buildings had even broken ground.
And it was her initiative that led developers to create full sales centres with model suites so potential buyers could walk through a replica of the home they were considering purchasing—another marketing strategy that significantly drove sales.
Modest to the core, Grace is convinced her success in real estate has everything to do with timing, circumstance and luck.
In 1968, when she left Hong Kong for Vancouver, Grace was still a teenager looking to graduate from a Vancouver Island boarding school. After graduating, she enrolled at Simon Fraser University, achieving a degree in economic commerce before embarking on her career. Initially, she worked in banking, then married Stephen Kwok and started a family. When her first child was born, she left banking to open a clothing boutique in Kerrisdale, and while the store broke even, she realized as her young family grew, she needed more flexibility with her time.
Stephen was a commercial realtor and Grace decided to follow suit, mistakenly assuming this career would free up more of her time and give her greater independence.
“I thought I could look after the kids and still work—but it didn’t turn out that way,” she says, laughing, as she looks back on her 41 years in the industry. By 1980 she had her realtor’s license and both she and her husband were working in commercial real estate.
But the market was tough in Vancouver in 1981, with interest rates as high as 20 per cent.
“There was no business happening and it was very difficult for us to make a living with three children,” she recalls. “We decided it might be better with one of us in residential real estate.”
Grace made the switch, a decision that would change the trajectory of her career to a soaring success. (And today, all three of her children are in real-estate-related fields—following in their parents’ passion.)
The first single-detached home Grace sold in the city was priced under $100,000.
“Back then, the difference between a great location and an average location was only about $8,000,” she says. It wasn’t just realtors who were finding the times challenging—developers, too, were struggling.
In 1983, Grace met developer Andre Molnar. She still had strong connections in Hong Kong and knew that the exhibitions of foreign properties occurring there were attracting international investors. She suggested she do an exhibition on his behalf in Hong Kong, and in no time at all, was on a plane back to Asia. That visit significantly accelerated sales of Molnar’s development, which sold out by the time construction was completed.
Molnar was ecstatic. At the time, the trend was to build first and sell upon completion. Grace’s initiative to do pre-sales meant he could move onto his next project faster, with the full support of his financial institutions. The business relationship between the two continued and as the media published stories dubbing her the “First Lady of Presale,” other developers took notice. The presale of condominiums in the Vancouver market was a game changer for the industry.
Over the next 10 years Grace did marketing with over a dozen developers as she travelled abroad to promote their upcoming projects. Some 30 per cent of the 3,000 units she sold were purchased by international buyers.
“It’s not like I’m smarter than anyone else—it was really just because of circumstances that I stumbled upon this,” she says.
In 1995, Grace was working with Michael De Cotiis of Pinnacle International on the pre-sale of The Pinnacle, a 312-unit building in Yaletown that, at the time, was the tallest building in Vancouver. She suggested they build a unit that actually duplicated a suite, and while it meant a larger investment for the developer, the strategy gave buyers the confidence they needed to commit to purchasing. Pinnacle built two on-site display suites.
“That building sold really well,” Grace recalls. The relationship with Pinnacle International continued to grow and flourish, and to this day, Grace remains deeply involved in consulting for the company’s new developments in Toronto and for its sales in Vancouver.
Amid Grace’s very busy work schedule in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, she managed to devote some of her time serving as a member of the board and director at Simon Fraser University. In 2001, she was appointed as a member of the board of directors at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, representing British Columbia and Yukon until 2005. And she has also served as a board member for both the Hong Kong-Canada Business Association and S.U.C.C.E.S.S Foundation. In 2000, the Lions Club honoured Grace with the Medal of Merit as the outstanding citizen for 2000. In 2006, she was recognized as one of Vancouver Sun’s 100 Most Influential.
Today, Anson Realty has a staff of 30 working out of a spacious, 6,000-square-foot building on Cambie Street. With Pinnacle International as her main client, Grace says, she continues to find her work interesting and has no thoughts of retirement.
She is currently involved in the consulting work for a 95-story building in Toronto called Sky Tower at Pinnacle One Yonge, which will be the tallest building in Canada. Over 50 per cent of its units have pre-sold, with construction just beginning. Grace and her team are actively marketing the move-in-ready suites in the Torino at Capstan Village in Richmond, while preparing for the marketing of new Pinnacle projects in downtown Vancouver and Burnaby.
The days of running to international locales to do pre-sales exhibits are behind her now, but Grace says there are still many opportunities in real estate for those with drive and initiative.
“Sometimes success was purely incidental, driven by circumstances and the need to find new ways of doing things,” she says. “But I’m sure there are a lot more new ways out there that I haven’t thought about.”
The crux of her work is personal, face-to-face connections with other people and, as she looks around her at a society deeply focused on smart phones, her hope is that the personal connection doesn’t get lost.
“In some ways people don’t know how to communicate anymore. Yes, texting is faster, but truly, the best way to connect—next to conference calls and now Zoom—is face-to-face.”