It Changed My Life

Ex-bankrupt can laugh all the way to the bank

Mr David Cheang in his marigold yellow Lamborghini Gallardo, outside the showflat of his latest property project. He worked very hard to get where he is today, putting in 20-hour days.
Mr David Cheang in his marigold yellow Lamborghini Gallardo, outside the showflat of his latest property project. He worked very hard to get where he is today, putting in 20-hour days.PHOTO: MIKE LEE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mr David Cheang (in white) with a fellow property agent in 2000. He started off as a part-time agent, juggling national service, working for a part-time degree from UOL-SIM and helping with his parents' business in Tampines.
Mr David Cheang (in white) with a fellow property agent in 2000. He started off as a part-time agent, juggling national service, working for a part-time degree from UOL-SIM and helping with his parents' business in Tampines.PHOTO: DAVID CHEANG

Thanks to hard work, property developer can now afford the finer things in life

David Cheang is decked out in a crisp white shirt and tuxedo, sans bow tie and cummerbund.

Everything about him is shiny - from his disposition to his black patent leather shoes to his metallic silver calling card and the Hublot watch on his wrist. And of course, the marigold yellow Lamborghini convertible parked outside the showroom flat of his condominium development in Balestier Road.

Sheepishly, the 38-year-old puts his penchant for the better things in life down to being "very passionate about detailing".

But he will have you know he worked very hard to be where he is today - the head honcho of DC 13, a property development firm.

Just how hard?

Well, for nearly 10 years up until 2013, he was a bankrupt. He had been a guarantor for loans worth several million dollars taken by his parents whose electrical appliance business went bust in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.

But he has bounced back spectacularly. He cut his professional teeth as a property agent on a bicycle, moved up the ladder to manage other agents and real estate firms, and is now a developer.

"I didn't lose hope. I just strived harder. And I want to tell people they must not lose hope," he says.

The eldest of three children, he grew up poor in a kampung in Hougang. His father was a hardware store assistant and his mother was an accounts clerk.

Raised by his paternal grandparents, he was a problematic child. He did not speak until he was four, and for a long time stuttered and had a lisp. It was not until he was in his teens that he licked this problem, after spending hours in front of the mirror, practising to enunciate clearly and slowly.

Doctors had told his parents he had poor motor coordination. The constant teasing and taunting from relatives and other children dealt a big blow to his confidence and self-esteem.

When he was seven, his parents started an electrical appliance business in Tampines after getting a Housing Board shophouse unit.

Because they worked round the clock, young David - who had just started school at Townsville Primary in Ang Mo Kio - was shunted off to live with relatives.

Starved of parental attention, he became a pretty horrid kid, a nightmarishly picky eater - no chicken, vegetables, fish or milk - who would threaten to harm himself if not given what he wanted.

"I remember shouting and screaming on the floor of my grandmother's kitchen one Chinese New Year and threatening to jump out the window if I didn't get what I wanted," he says, shaking his head.

Hitting the books was not something he liked and he ended up the last in class in Primary Five.

Relegated to the Normal stream at Eastview Secondary, he only started paying a little more attention to his studies when he was in Secondary Three.

"The school made me a prefect when I was in Secondary Four and it felt really good," he says.

Motivated by that validation, he worked even harder and topped his N-level cohort the next year.

He eventually obtained a diploma in quality engineering from Temasek Polytechnic in 1998, and a degree in economics and management from the Singapore Institute of Management and the University of London.

His family, in the meantime, had become a lot better off. Despite a slow start, his parents' electrical appliance shop did well. They moved into a 4,500 sq ft semi-detached house in Pasir Ris, and his father started investing in other businesses and properties.

The good times, however, did not last.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 pulled the rug from under his parents' feet. The situation was made even more dire when his father suffered four strokes over the next few years.

Banks sent letters of demand, suppliers and creditors banged on their door. Because of his father's health, he became a guarantor for his parents' bank loans amounting to several million dollars.

Those were terrible years, Mr Cheang says.

Then serving his national service (NS), he also had to help out in the family business, work part-time as a real estate agent and attend evening classes for his degree.

He joined the Dennis Wee Group as a property agent after NS. The job, he reckoned, would be the most practical, given his family situation, because of the commissions agents get.

"I was driven by the sugar cane theory: the more sugar cane you put into the machine, the more juice you will get. The more hard work you put in, the better the results," he says.

And slog he did, putting in 20-hour days.

Because he also had to deliver goods for his parents, he would often turn up for appointments with his clients in a delivery van.

Otherwise, he would hop onto a bicycle to save on ERP charges and parking fees.

"At times, I only ate bread. I wanted to save money."

The hard work paid off; he earned many accolades, including being named top rookie and top commercial agent during his three years at Dennis Wee.

Whatever he earned was used to help pay off his parents' mounting debts. The family sold their semi-detached house and had to liquidate other properties through mortgagee sales.

In 2005, the court declared his parents and him bankrupt. That same year, he married a finance executive with whom he now has three children, aged between three and nine.

By then, he had moved on to another agency, PropNex, where he continued to do well. As a divisional director, he led an 80-strong team.

His next stop two years later at HSR - where he had 800 agents under him - was an even bigger triumph.

"I was the company's youngest senior vice-president. I was then 31 years old," he says.

About three years later, in 2009, he took on the role of chief executive at RE/MAX Singapore Empire Property Group, the Singapore franchisee of the US real estate agency.

There was another two-year stint with SLP Real Estate Empire, first as its CEO, then as its principal consultant, before he became head honcho of DC 13 in 2013.

Although he enjoyed professional success, life as a bankrupt, he says, was a bummer.

"You can't even own a SIM card in your name, and you can't have an insurance policy," he says, adding that he was discharged a couple of years ago.

He now lives in a rented house in the East Coast. Unlike his parents, he makes it a point to spend quality time with his children.

"I don't want them to be deprived of parental supervision," says Mr Cheang, whose wife is a homemaker now.

Becoming a property developer is a dream he has long harboured. "It is every agent's dream to go from selling property to becoming a property developer."

He and his partner at DC13 are now developing two projects: several semi-detached houses and bungalows in Pasir Ris and an 84-unit condominium, Neem Tree, in Balestier.

There are plans to write three books, one for students, one for those with financial difficulties and another for sales and marketing professionals.

"Nothing is impossible, you just have to work hard," he says.

He harbours no grudges against his parents - who live in an HDB flat in the northern part of the island - for putting him through such a difficult time.

"If they hadn't made me a bankrupt, I wouldn't have a story to tell."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg