Ecosystem warrior talks about the power of fintech in enhancing customer experience

In his role as managing director of PropertyGuru Finance, Paul Wee is marrying experience at Asia’s top banks with an interest in technology to help buyers navigate the process of purchasing real estate

Paul Wee’s career has been an unpredictable ride: the Singaporean financier progressed from stockbroking and insurance to mortgage broking and consultancy. Now, since the launch of PropertyGuru Finance in March, Wee has had to contend with professional and personal uncertainty: first, as Singapore dealt with the challenges of the 2020 global pandemic, and then as he faced an unexpected spell in the hospital for high fever.

While most in his convalescing state would likely hold off on an interview, it is testament to Wee’s professionalism that he still mustered the energy to explain the intricacies of his new role as managing director of PropertyGuru Finance.

A peek of Wee’s CV will reveal that, since the 1990s, dealing with sudden change has been a constant in his life and career. When two close friends unexpectedly passed away in 1998, Wee moved from a demanding role in stockbroking to more client-facing positions in wealth management and mortgage sales with two major foreign banks – HSBC and ANZ. Later years would see him branch out to equities research and accountancy.

Change once again figured significantly in 2014 when Wee became an independent mortgage broker. He found a refreshing difference in closer, more fulfilling interactions with his clients—many of whom had become friends. As a property dealer with a reputation for candour and honesty, free from the shackles of major financial institutions, Wee relished the greater flexibility afforded by the role, which allowed him more time with his two children.

Along the way Wee’s interest in technology grew, and his experience as CFO for two online companies placed him in an ideal position to join PropertyGuru as its fintech division diversified. We caught up with him to chart his career movements, his vision for PropertyGuru Finance, and his thoughts on how Singapore’s coronavirus troubles will impact consumer confidence and the housing market.

Wee and his colleagues at PropertyGuru are at the forefront of Singapore’s push to achieve full digitisation of property transactions. PatrickFoto/Shutterstock

You joined PropertyGuru in August 2019, but prior to that you had worked in banking, mortgage broking, and consultancy. What informed your career path and eventual move into fintech? 

Steve Melhuish, one of the original founders of PropertyGuru, reached out to me around the middle of 2019 to have coffee. I first met Steve when PropertyGuru started and was happy to reconnect. Things took off from there and I met with Bjorn Sprengers, who is Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Fintech. I was excited to hear of the new direction PropertyGuru was planning to take, and excited to embark on this new journey.

In addition to being a trusted name with property seekers in the online property marketplace, PropertyGuru impressed with their vision about how they were planning to work in strong collaboration with their agent-partners. Today, this vision has come to fruition. PropertyGuru Finance helps agent-partners with their clients by acting as personal home-loan assistants, thus enabling agents to better focus on what they do best: marketing properties.

Is PropertyGuru Finance a departure for you, career-wise?

I see my move into fintech at PropertyGuru as a natural progression as it marries my experience in banking and interest in technology. After my time in banking, I wet my toes in the startup space, becoming CFO of two companies—an online startup that focused on gamifying charity, and later with Triip.com. The latter is more than an online travel company—it focuses on removing friction within the travel industry for various parties including accommodation providers, airlines, tour guides, and, ultimately, travellers.

When I came onboard PropertyGuru, it was particularly exciting. First, to be working in the leading property marketplace with a 75% market share in Singapore, and second, to hear of the vision that PropertyGuru has – to continue to be a trusted platform to help property seekers “find, finance and own” their properties.

PropertyGuru Finance aims to cater to clients’ differing needs. Rather than providing a “one-size-fits-all” solution, our intention is to cater to how clients want to be helped

Traditionally in the home-buying ecosystem, multiple players are involved, from the consumer and agent to lawyers carrying out conveyancing, banks, and regulators. To what extent can the PropertyGuru Finance platform enable customers to complete their home-purchase transaction and how much of this complicated process be done online? 

This is a multi-layered question, so let me try and break it down.

Firstly, digitising the home-buying process in Singapore requires the involvement of all stakeholders involved with the real-estate industry. The Singapore government formed a Digitalised Property Transactions Workgroup (DPTWG) to work on this. Certainly, the Singapore government is known for being strongly result-focused, and I am confident that full digitisation of property transactions is simply a matter of time.

In terms of home financing, PropertyGuru Finance works with regulators and financial institutions for a straight-through end-to-end home-finance approval process, which aims to provide instant home-loan offers from multiple financial institutions. This requires quite a bit of heavy lifting, and we aim to roll this out within the next two to three years.

Being a digital platform, how easy is it for you and your advisers to deliver personalised service?

PropertyGuru Finance aims to cater to clients’ differing needs. Rather than providing a “one-size-fits-all” solution, our intention is to cater to how clients want to be helped.

We currently offer bespoke advisory services where we hold our clients’ hands through the whole home-financing process. We encourage our clients to reach out to us as they begin seeking for their ideal home. As mentioned above, our anticipated straight-through solution will better serve those who prefer the self-service.

What gives PropertyGuru Finance the edge over similar platforms? 

We always ask ourselves if we are addressing clients’ pain points. For many people, when they are asked what the best home loan is, they generally think of loans with the lowest rates. While these do help clients save interest on their loans, there are other important considerations when structuring or selecting a loan.

We are careful to ensure that we look at the clients in totality: their life goals and plans. And it is this approach that clients have expressed appreciation for.

With current low interest rates and widespread financial uncertainty as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, how has this impacted your business?

Regardless of the economic environment or financial uncertainty, homeowners always have to review and contend with their home finances. To that end, we have been very active in engaging with prospective and existing homeowners.

NicoElNino/Shutterstock

Are you finding that now, more than ever, customers are searching for more affordable properties as a reaction to job insecurity, worries over loans or saving for the future? 

The Singapore property market is so diverse that it is able to cater to the varying needs of property seekers, and the need to have a roof over one’s head continues to drive people. I have met many property seekers who view this period as a great opportunity to acquire the property of their dreams.

In terms of affordability, the financing regime in Singapore is structured so that home purchases are within the purchasers’ financial capabilities. We see that in how the ratios of Total Debt Servicing Ratio (for all properties) and Mortgage Servicing Ratio (for HDB Properties) all ensure financial prudence.

Do you anticipate a flurry of activity in Singapore’s housing market once the current lockdown period is over—both in terms of selling and buying—as citizens seek to minimise their spending?

There are always buying opportunities regardless of the economic situation. It is similarly so during this time. Certainly, there will be those who will be affected by economic uncertainty.

In fact, despite the Circuit Breaker—Singapore’s public lockdown—we do not have to wait until the end of the period to see transactions. Anecdotally, agents have been conducting calls via video-conferencing software. This is a good indication that there will be healthy pent-up demand.

What would be your vision for the PropertyGuru Finance platform in the coming months and years?

The launch of PropertyGuru Finance in March this year has been well received by our clients and agent-partners. I expect more will begin interacting with PropertyGuru Finance and will experience the benefit of our independent, holistic approach to home finance. We are also working on other exciting technologies which we will share in due course.

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 161 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine

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