Boston Broker Builds Big Business with Chinese Students, China.

David Bates / September 26, 2017-10:04 am

John Conroy, 42, recalls noticing the change in the local rental market somewhere around 2008, a time when he was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

All of a sudden, says the Connecticut-bred owner of East Coast Realty in Allston, every 15th person that walked into the rental agency was Chinese.

“I said, ‘Okay, there’s something here,’” recalls Conroy.

So, trying to put together what was provoking the uptick in his international clientele, Conroy started talking to the prospective renters and asking where they were from and what they were doing in Boston. Soon, Conroy discovered the driver was Global Pathways, a program being offered at his alma mater, Northeastern University.

A veteran of the Boston rental market, Conroy had started doing rentals in Boston in 1997 while he was still a college student. In March 2001, he purchased the East Coast Realty office at the corner of Harvard and Commonwealth Avenues in the heart of Boston’s most active student rental market

For a number of years, Conroy’s business model for the office located at 1212 Commonwealth Avenue was to be just your typical Allston-Brighton rental shop, just maybe a little nicer. But that was about to change.

A client told Conroy, “The way you treat the Chinese kids, you could really make a good business, but you need some help, and I’m willing to help you.”

So Conroy listened, took the help, and started taking lessons in Chinese at his desk.

In 2009, Conroy made the first of many trips to China, visiting a city 90-miles outside of Shanghai. Explaining the motivation for his 15,000-mile sojourn, he says, “I didn’t want to be a company that Chinese students came into by happenstance. I wanted to be where they were sent.”

On that first trip, Conroy didn’t make much headway knocking on the doors of the educational companies that were giving Chinese kids the wrong expectations for Boston, telling the kids that they could live in an apartment next to BU for $500 a month and not telling the kids that, unlike China where everything is new, most Boston apartments were in hundred-year-old buildings. But his timing and direction couldn’t have been better.

According to reports published by an organization within the Institute of International Education, Massachusetts attracted approximately 6,000 Chinese students in the 2010-2011 school year. But in the 2016-2017 school year, just six years later, Massachusetts had more than tripled—to 19,000—the number of Chinese students attending its educational institutions. These reports estimate that approximately 86% of Massachusetts’ international students study in Boston and that one out of every three international students in Boston is Chinese.

Additionally, in that six-year period, Northeastern also more than tripled the number of international students attending the university, from 3,898 to more than 11,700. The university had only become Massachusetts’ most popular institution for international students, possessing more international students than Harvard and MIT combined, but now ranked as the sixth most popular institution for international students in the US.

What is it about Boston that attracts so many Chinese students? According to Conroy, Boston has everything that Chinese people value: education, higher education, healthcare, science, and the environment. “It’s a beautiful match for Chinese. A beautiful, beautiful match,” he says.

Conroy has been going to China multiple times a year, trying to build relationships and better understand the nuances of Chinese culture and business.

In China, he has given presentations on investing in Boston real estate, including on the 57th floor of the Shanghai Tower, the skyscraper noted in Wikipedia as the tallest building in the world. And in Boston, he has acted as a tour guide for as many as nine Chinese investors at a time.

Still, he says it took until 2014 or 2015 for his team to establish itself as the place for the Chinese kids to go in Boston.

Then, when he noticed he had too many agents sitting at butcher-block desks at his 1212 Com. Ave. office, he rented 2,500 square feet at 1020 Commonwealth Avenue, above T. Anthony’s.

The office at 1020 Commonwealth Ave. has a distinctly Chinese feel. The Chinese on the glass entry door and on the office’s second-floor window is just as prominent as the English, perhaps more prominent. And much of the décor inside the office has a Chinese theme, including a framed picture of one of Conroy’s favorite Chinese sayings: “Always working, always learning.”

Conroy breaks his business into an American Team and a Chinese Team: East Coast Realty and 5U Boston (which, when pronounced in Chinese, Conroy tells me sounds like “settle down happily”). Today, about 40 Chinese agents work at the brokerage, making the Chinese Team bigger than the American Team.

What’s the difference between American and Chinese approaches to doing real estate? “Everything,” says Conroy. “The whole thing—soup to nuts—is different,” he says, pointing out that all the social media is different, how you acquire clients is different, and the way you interact with clients is different.

Perhaps one of the most stereotypical aspects attributed to Boston’s international students is that they are all rich. But Conroy says this is a misperception. “Everyone sees the fancy Chinese kid living in the Ritz with a Ferrari,” he says, “but for every one of those, there’s a hundred, two hundred kids that are just making the market.”

What does the future hold for the market?

“Trump Seems to Genuinely Want a Trade War with China,” reads a recent New York Magazine headline. So if the two countries start to go their separate ways, what happens to Boston, a locale with roughly 15,000 Chinese students? “I think it would be a nightmare. Real estate wise, it would be an absolute nightmare,” says Conroy, whose two teams handled close to 800 move-ins this past September 1.


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