“It was shocking,” Wah says. “We were doing really good work. I was enjoying the job, I was growing in the role, and all of a sudden they pulled the plug. In my head, I was like, ‘What am I going to do next?’”
A stunned Wah weighed his options. His recent work experience and degree in computer engineering and management from McMaster made him highly employable, but the lure of entrepreneurship pulled him in a different direction. Unlike most people who experience so-called life-changing experiences, Wah actually took the opportunity seriously.
“Although I really enjoyed my job, my plan was always to get into entrepreneurship at one point or another,” he says. “I just didn’t think it would be that soon.”
For Wah, the choice to leave tech for real estate was based on something far more powerful than the desire to be his own boss. It was driven by his family’s own investment experience and how it helped save his father’s life.
In 2004, Wah’s father was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. The prognosis was grim, sending the family scrambling to put their accounts in order.
“Those few years were extremely challenging – I’d say the most challenging in our family’s life,” Wah says.
Wah’s mother and father, who arrived from Malaysia decades before with nothing, had built up a sizeable real estate portfolio over the years. When the cancer spread and Wah’s father had no choice but to leave work and focus on his treatment, the income from his properties made his forced retirement possible.
“Real estate was a major reason why my dad survived,” Wah says.
Ten years later, the lessons learned during his father’s illness came screaming back to Wah. He informed his mother and father that the next part of his life would be dedicated to real estate. Incredibly, the neighbours to a parcel of land his parents owned offered to sell them 2.2 vacant acres the very next day. Despite his lack of experience, Wah, who had always had an interest in development, saw the offer as an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
While negotiating with the neighbours, Wah was educating himself on the fly. The wealthy owners were taken with Wah’s enthusiasm and believed in his vision, but it wasn’t until he discovered the mutual benefits of a vendor take back mortgage that he was able to close the deal.
“Back then, I had no clue what a VTB was,” Wah says. “I honestly didn’t know anything. That vendor take-back made it possible. Without it, my family and I didn’t have the capital to get into development.”
At the time, Wah had no illusions of becoming a builder; he was content to develop his first project – 46 townhouses on 3.5 of the 10.5 acres he and his family now owned – and carry it through the approval process, then sell it to a reputable builder within five years in what would essentially be a highly complex flip.
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In 2013, after five years at a promising tech firm in Burlington, Ontario, Charles Wah and his coworkers were suddenly laid off. It was yet another telling of a sadly common story: A hedge fund takes over a company’s board of directors and amputates satellite offices for the benefit of shareholders.