In the first in a series of interviews with the region’s place makers for the Christmas period, Place North West asks Michael Dong, chief executive of developer Investar Property Group, about his lockdown hobbies, approach to life and his hopes, dreams and regrets.
Why did you choose a career in property?
My personal mission is to make a positive impact of scale. Placemaking and technology are top on my list to achieve that. Placemaking delivered and carefully considered as part of the planning and design process for my property developments and regeneration work would naturally help me to achieve this goal and would go a long way to help me create sustainable, inclusive, community-friendly, great places to live and work.
Who was your mentor and what was the best piece of advice they gave you?
Tony Robbins [American author and life coach], who proclaimed: “Resourcefulness is the ultimate resource.”
What building or project do you wish you had delivered?
Ravenscraig [a steelworks redevelopment] in Scotland is a fantastic example of a true brownfield mixed-use regeneration project of scale – a generational opportunity and a gamechanger for the local region and its economy.
What was your lockdown hobby? Did you get ‘Covid-fit’ or gain the ‘Covid stone’?
As the gym closed and most sports became unsafe, hiking seemed to be a good excuse to get outdoors legally to help us keep sane! My colleague Geoff and I bought each other hiking books for routes in Manchester and Chester, and we enjoyed the step count competition. Walking gives the family the space and block of time to talk. Geoff and I also lost weight and remain, so far, Covid-free!
What key lesson have you learned from 2020 and the pandemic?
Every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit. We can’t change what happens to us, but we can turn any negative into a positive. 2020 has been a roller coaster for us to say the least.
This year marks the first year of [Investar’s] five-year phase two growth plan. The ambitious start was quickly followed by the pandemic disruption, which forced us to rethink and adapt, refocus and leverage the new circumstances.
Every change brings new opportunities and, after a constant changing circumstance and hard-working year from everyone in the team, we have now restructured our business, doubled our development team, improved cashflow, and almost met our target of adding another 1,000 residential units to our development pipeline.
Covid has acted as a catalyst and accelerator for whatever was going to happen in our industry – just look at high street retail, for example. It is perfect timing to speed up the much-needed large-scale placemaking schemes we are planning. In answer to that, Investar has started the third-phase growth plan centred around regeneration working alongside the public sector, which has gained significant momentum.
2020 has created a new normal and for those well-placed and positioned to react to new market drivers, conditions and demands will have a significant impact on Placemaking and our new communities of the future.
Spend or save? What’s your most extravagant purchase, and what are you saving up for?
Both in truth: spend (I would rather call it invest) in the right place at the right time so we can save in the long run; save, so that we can invest more. However, my most recent extravagant purchase was a £7,000 watch bought and then left in the drawer, which was quickly replaced by an iWatch that later cost me £1,000 to repair and service! I find watches and technology difficult to resist in equal measure. We are always saving up for the next item destined for the drawer!
Are you a rebel or a conformist?
It depends on the outcome – is it worth it? We will do whatever it takes to make a positive difference even it means being a disruptor to a traditional way. If not, why bother? I would like to say more ‘Yes, darlings’ to my wife!
What keeps you awake at night?
Not much nowadays, as peace of mind comes with age. What wakes me up however, is the excitement for what we do next.
What’s your proudest achievement?
Myself, or even better, myself in five years. You can’t expect other people to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself first.
What’s your biggest regret?
I manned up too late and was not able to give more to my Mom. She passed away too young and we did not have enough quality time together for her to see me grow and achieve all that she wished for me and to love.
What’s your top wish for 2021?
That the vaccine works!
What was the best book you read this year?
Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish
If you hadn’t gone into property, what would you have done?
I was retired in 2013 and took a year out fishing before coming back to do real estate and property development, with a desire and passion to do it properly and make an impact. I might otherwise be carrying on fishing and travelling. Having said that, the ‘not done’ part of me would have meant probably never allowing that to happen!
Of your own projects next year, which are you most excited about?
Royal George Village in Stockport, which recently gained full planning consent.
What trend do you believe will have the most profound impact on the industry in 2021?
Migration from city living to urban fringe. Public sector-backed projects with both local and central government support; levelling-up; the bounce-back agenda; the Towns Fund. All of this plays into placemaking, as you need employment matched with new homes and regional growth as an attraction and reason for placemaking in the first place.