Yat-Pang Au profile picture

Yat-Pang Au

CEO & Founder, Veritas Investments

What’s the background to the business? Early on, I worked for my parents at their coin-operated laundry. After college, I became an engineer for a variety of firms. Starting in my 20s I began to invest passively in real estate ― I’d always been interested in the industry. In the mid-’90s I acquired a few condos in the South Bay.

In 2003, I bought my first building in San Francisco, and it was also where I chose to live. I became actively involved in the management of the building, and that gave me a ground-up perspective. By 2007 I was managing six buildings. I had always wanted to start my own business, so in 2007, despite the poor timing, I launched my own real estate firm, financed by my own investments as well as contributions from friends and family who believed in what I was doing and wanted to be a part of it.

We worked really hard to develop a good reputation and strong connections. In 2009 we were presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a large portfolio owned by one of San Francisco’s most prominent real estate families. They had a portfolio of up to 300 buildings but were over-leveraged and had fallen upon hard times. We bought their debt and, overnight, we went from being a small owner-operator of apartments to becoming one of the largest owners in the city.

We love engaging and collaborating with the people of San Francisco. We love to provide housing for the residents of this diverse city with a critical mass of the best and brightest talents. We are now the largest owner and operator of apartments and ground floor retail in San Francisco.

BUSINESS BRIEFING

Business goal for the next 12 months: Our mission is to enhance communities by transforming real estate into desirable places for people to live and work. We focus on providing best-in-class service to our residents, while at the same time providing value for our investors and employees.

We want to be pioneers in the 50-units-and-under asset class. Many investors don’t want to engage with this asset class as its $2M to $7M in equity is relatively small, so we are in a strong position to really make a difference. The smaller buildings are usually located in the best parts of the city and are well below the radar of larger institutions. Also, this asset class provides unprecedented stability for residents, since rent control allows them to lock in rates.

In the next few years we want to expand into cities outside of San Francisco, such as Oakland, the Peninsula, and the South Bay.

Since we’re a vertically integrated business, we do all of our building management and leasing in-house. In the next four years, we want to be the pre-eminent real estate investor in the United States.

Veritas is at an inflection point of growth right now. The first iteration of the business, “Version 1.0,” was highly entrepreneurial, and established the framework of who we are. We established ourselves as an aggregator of small buildings, developed company processes and infrastructure, and, most importantly, invested in people ― residents, investors, employees. We are now much more sophisticated. Version 2.0 will broaden our strategy into the greater Bay Area and beyond. It’s about scaling. It’s a great time to take action; we are a true pioneer in this asset class and no other institutional operators are doing what we do. No other group that I’m aware of has the technology and systems to manage this asset class.

Even in our oldest buildings, we’re providing the newest technology-enabled services, or “softscape amenities,” for our residents. We are in an early partnership with Google Fiber, bringing gigabit internet to some of San Francisco’s historic buildings. We are the largest host for Zipcars in the city, as well as for Scoot Networks’ scooter rentals. We have on-demand shared economy services for housekeeping, dog walking, dry cleaning, and more. Our goal is to simultaneously honor the history of old buildings while we modernize them. In doing so we lift them above and beyond, and are able to really make an impact for our residents and in the community.

Advice you wish you had received: I would say the importance of a communicative and collaborative culture. Housing is a very polarizing asset class and can be very emotive. The importance of transparency should not be overlooked.

Best business decision: To actually make a decision!

On a more serious note, though, I would say that many of my decisions are informed by the principle, “Relationships Matter.” I spend a lot of my time establishing and building relationships that allow for opportunities to surface. For example, when I started speaking with the family that held the first large portfolio we eventually acquired, I had no idea where the conversations were going to go. When their 60-year empire started to crumble, every investor wanted a piece of their assets, but everyone found it challenging to make a deal. I had spent a year building our relationship, which allowed me to understand what was important. I was given an opportunity to acquire first one portfolio, then another, and it grew from there.

Toughest business decision: Any time I have to let anyone go. It takes a lot of audacity to be incredibly transparent with our staff, especially with someone who is not performing, but by being so transparent we can also be more accountable. I always believe in being able to talk with someone openly and honestly about how it’s not working out, and in not pulling punches when making those statements.

In addition, we have external investors, which can affect our ability to make decisions. In the past, we made a tough decision in choosing the wrong partner, which resulted in the loss of a deal we really should have closed on. Sometimes the diverging opinions of investor and operator can be challenging.

Person most admired: Richard Branson. He’s brash, innovative and creative, and doesn’t take no for an answer. He also seems very grounded in authentic relationships.

Like most about job: I love the fact that real estate isn’t just about buildings. Ultimately, it’s about the impact people’s homes have on their lives. Being in real estate allows me to be highly creative and innovative, while still providing returns for our investors.

Like least about job: Our rapid growth has been amazing, but it has also been challenging. We’ve grown so quickly, and yet I always want to operate in accord with my values of collaboration and communication. Whenever I feel we miss the mark on this, it’s tough for me. Six years ago we were 2 people; a year ago we were 80 people; and today, we’re around 170 people. Growth like this means many inevitable culture changes, and I always want to make sure we’re growing in the right direction. We have an all-hands performance-driven meeting every week to ensure we’re all on the same page and that the best ideas are being shared widely, but as we scale, staying in sync requires more foresight, systems, and focus.

Dream job: I love what I’m doing. If I weren’t doing this, I’d be doing something that touches people in a similar way. I like being part of changing people’s perspectives for the better; I like improving the quality of their lives. Since I have an engineering background and innovation is key for me, if I wasn’t in real estate I’d probably be involved in some kind of technology start-up.

BEHIND THE SUIT

Birthplace: I was born in San Jose. I left during my graduate school years, but came back to San Francisco because of my love for the city and its people.

Education: B.S. – Electrical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, M.S. – Information Networking, Carnegie Mellon University, M.B.A. – Harvard Business School.

Favorite book: I have many, but the one that’s coming to mind is Edmond Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano is a multi-faceted, thoughtful person who is equipped in so many areas, but has a blemish. However, he uses that blemish to make himself stronger. I feel I have many blemishes!

Favorite movie: The Shawshank Redemption. Sometimes we’re thrust into a situation that’s not of our choosing, and, rather than give up, we can use our experience to do better and to ultimately inspire.

Outside of work: I love having deep and meaningful conversations with friends ― sometimes infused with liquid tonic!

Community: We do a lot as a company. Our recent Community Day was spent helping the Tenderloin Housing Clinic to repaint a building. I am on the boards of several nonprofits and am actively involved in groups such as BUILD, Coalition for Better Housing, Community Housing Partnership, Self-Help for the Elderly, and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).

Family: I’m married, with three kids ages seven, five, and one. We live in Russian Hill. To be honest, the reason I bought my first building in San Francisco was because I was looking for love. Interestingly enough, my future wife came with that building!