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Jason Zhu: Changing Familiar Landscapes in Real Estate

March 20, 2017
Jason Zhu, the Chairman and CEO of Gemdale USA, standing in his office by the window
Jason Zhu, the chairman of Gemdale USA

Jason Zhu is the chairman of Gemdale USA, one of the biggest real estate investment and development companies from China. The company develops commercial, multifamily rental and for-sale residential projects that are either stand-alone or for mixed-use with retail. The company is actively building real estate in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston and San Francisco. Since assuming his role, Zhu has set strategic direction for projects and has allocated capital while maintaining close ties with Chinese investors.

You’ve built a long career in real estate. How did you first get into the real estate business?

I’ve actually loved real estate from a very young age. My parents are professors at an architecture university, and they took me to many places to see beautiful buildings and also taught me how to paint. I’m a fan of sketching, watercolor and oil painting. I believe that if you want to build beautiful buildings, you need to build up a sense of the arts at a young age.

Once I graduated from university, I started my own design company. Most of the projects I worked on were for real estate developers. I’ve always been interested in taking an intangible idea to become a physical creation. That’s why after graduating with an MBA from Indiana, I decided to join Gemdale and have been pretty happy with what I’ve been doing ever since.

How did you merge your passion with your career?

I’ve been at Gemdale for almost 13 years, and I got lucky, having a background in both architecture and design. In addition, I learned about finance at graduate school. Real estate is about money, so I read up on finance. It’s also about the building, so I studied design. And most importantly, real estate is about the people. As a result, I’ve always made it a priority to enrich my personal life experiences and networks. These factors all merged, and it’s been really good for me to work in real estate since I get the whole picture.

You recently partnered with La Terra Developments to build apartments and shopping complexes in Hollywood. Does Gemdale have any other projects that are similar to this coming to California?

We’re happy with La Terra. They’re not big developers, but I think that they are very responsible and hold a high standard of professionalism. Real estate development has many details and every project is complicated. It’s easy to focus on one aspect and forget the others. Only teams with a strong sense of leadership and attention to detail can carry out successful projects and I think that La Terra, and of course Gemdale, are a great match. We look forward to continuing our partnership with them.

In terms of projects, we have three major ones coming up in Hollywood, Koreatown and in South Covina.

2016 was a great year for the U.S. housing market since the financial crisis. Do you think that it’s a good time to invest in U.S. property right now?

Yes, I strongly believe so. Not only because the real estate market is strong, but I also think that the economic foundation is good. The U.S. is the only country right now that has no imminent financial trouble. Europe is still in a financial crisis and other regions in the world have rocky political climates. Even China, which is one of the biggest economic engines, faces the challenge of upgrading industries, especially in manufacturing.

Given the more stable U.S. economic status, we can expect people to continue spending. When consumers spend, the first thing they look to improve is their living situation. Houses, apartments and condos will continue to be good investment options for the long-term, and companies will continue to seek out office spaces as hiring and urban populations grow. We’re looking at a positive future, and Gemdale is focused on long-term growth on both residential and office spaces.

What are some of the biggest housing investment trends that you’re seeing throughout the U.S.?

There are three observations. The biggest trend is the way millennials are choosing to live, communicate and work. Their style is very different from generations before, and, most importantly, they want to stay in the city. I think that the future will be about connectivity and convergence. Millennials want to walk to work, to stores, to bars—all of the urban amenities—while having their friends nearby. This trend will inevitably reshape the city and urban areas by becoming more accessible and affordable for people.

The second trend is higher rates of people renting versus buying. Many millennials today are apprehensive about buying a house because of how they saw their own parents struggle during the 2008 financial crisis. They’re now less willing to buy property and pay mortgage for the next 20 or 30 years. They would much rather have the freedom of mobility and live in smaller spaces while enjoying an urban quality of life. Apartments are becoming more like hotels, with amenities like pools and gyms. Home ownership is on the decline, and more people are looking into stay-in condominium units and apartments. This also means that there’s more money to be spent and more economic stimulation.

Finally, I think that residential housing will have a more robust growth over commercial real estate. The reason is that, first all, population in USA is getting aged, and more senior people prefer living in properties with rich amenities. Moreover, like I mentioned, millennials’ living habits have changed and when this generation becomes more mature, they will seek to purchase more spaces like multi-family rentals, condominiums and apartment units. The influx of immigrants coming into the U.S. will most likely remain robust, despite uncertainty. Population and demand for more housing units will continue to grow. While new type of office spaces will also grow as a consequence, the need for a traditional retail or office spaces is actually shrinking.