No one can ever accuse Monte Lee-Wen of taking the easy route in life.
Lee-Wen, founder and chairman of Casoro Capitol and its parent company the PPA Group, a real estate investment firm, grew up in Canada in a lower middle class environment. He says his family was fairly poor for most of his childhood. To boot, he’s mixed race and grew up back in a time where interracial marriage wasn’t as accepted in Canada as it is today.
“I learned to become very bold and assertive. That’s what helped me define myself and define the legacy I’m trying to build.”
This bold and assertive mentality brought him to America at the age of 19. By 2002, at the age of 28, Lee-Wen formed the PPA Group, buying and selling multifamily apartment complexes. The company started in Seattle and moved to Texas when Lee-Wen relocated there. As the Texas real estate market exploded, so too did PPA Group. “We were pretty hot at the time and closing a lot of deals,” he recalls.
Right as the company was heating up and set to close on the biggest transaction of Lee Wen’s career, he got kicked in the face—literally and metaphorically. In a metaphorical sense, the recession hit and made obtaining loans nearly impossible.
In a literal sense, he was doing martial arts and got kicked in the face so badly it broke his nose. At the doctor, they found a lump in the back of his throat and he was rushed into surgery.
“I woke up [from surgery] and I couldn’t talk,” says Lee-Wen. “He had severed the nerve to my right vocal cord. I didn’t think I was ever going to speak again until I found a doctor in San Antonio at the UT Medical Center that works with throat cancer patients. He was able to put in an implant that allowed me to speak again.”
Bold and assertive moves
Being unable to talk forced Lee-Wen to be a better leader and delegate better, Lee-Wen says. By the time he was able to give his first speech post-surgery in 2011, the company was in a better place. It’s taught him to be more careful with his words.
“I can’t speak to the extent that I used to be able to speak before without my voice wearing out by the end of the day. So when I speak, it’s something that needs to be said and I think about what I have to say.”
Over time, PPA Group has grown to create and build out subsidiary companies. For instance, Casoro Capital is an outfit that offers multifamily discretionary funds for outside individuals, family offices, and institutions to invest in. This allows them to buy and learn about the success of PPA Group’s investments, rather than going at it on their own.
Lee-Wen says the key to the company’s growth has been its investment in its people. “Everything from our hiring and recruiting practices to benefits and compensation, culture and training. We invest very heavily in our team and I think our people are a big reason for our success,” he says.
Another factor in the company’s growth goes back to Lee-Wen’s earlier proclamation about being bold and assertive. “We’re willing to make the necessary moves to make strides in the industry. We have a bold vision and audacious goals that we put out there.”
This is important skillset to have in the oft-tumultuous real estate market, where things can trend one way or another depending on how the wind blows. PPA Group must keep its pulse on the markets, Lee-Wen says. “It’s hard to have a crystal ball, but I think if you stay on the pulse of the markets and you really understand finance and economics… you can do a pretty good job of at least looking forward and predicting with some degree of accuracy where the markets will go.”
To this point, Lee-Wen says, bold and assertive moves can sometimes mean managing risk and diversifying a portfolio to potentially lessen any impacts from a down market. These kinds of moves, he notes, keeps the company out ahead of any potential problems.
Lee-Wen’s advice to CEOs and business leaders: “Fail forward.” He says he’s learned more from his failures than his successes and patted himself on the back.
“Learn from every situation. Don’t repeat the same mistake twice. Do an after action review and learn the lessons that need to be distilled out of whatever situation happened. Implement those insights into how you’re going to improve yourself going forward.”
The real estate industry is full of hard knocks, he says, and anyone who takes a stab at it is going to take a few hits. It’s important to dust yourself off, get up, and go at it again in a more intelligent way, Lee-Wen says. “It’s not rocket science. Anyone can do it if they persevere and learn.”