Patricia Choi: Queen of the Waterfront
Posted by — August 25, 2005
Patricia Choi: Queen of the WaterfrontBy Norise JastillanaOriginally published in MidWeek
The right place at the right time. That’s where Realtor extraordinaire Patricia Choi says she’s been more than once in her lifetime.
There was her propitious move to Hawaii as a single mother, the Mainland mentor who opened doors for her here, the opportune timing of a job offer, her fortuitous exposure to a field that fascinated her, meeting and then marrying her husband (and future business partner) and, finally, the opportunity to “run her own show.”
While fate and good fortune may, indeed, figure into Choi’s success in the luxury real estate market, they are only part of the story. This mover-and-shaker isn’t one to wait around for destiny to intervene. She makes things happen.
“It takes a lot of help from your friends” she says of success. “It also takes perseverance and hard work. You may be given opportunities but you have to seize them.”
And seize them she has. Choi International achieved $120 million in sales last year and, by July 1, will have already closed $90 million in sales for 2005. For the 10th consecutive year, Choi is No. 1 in residential sales in Honolulu. In 2004 she sold Oahu’s highest priced residential property since 1991 — a $17.5 million oceanfront estate on Kahala Avenue. As principal broker, she carries 30 or more listings at any given time.
“Most of the time I work seven days a week, especially now with the market so active,” she says, estimating her typical workweek at 80-90 hours. “When the market is down you have to work — otherwise you might starve — and when it’s up, you have to work too.”
Though “starvation” seems a stretch these days, there were some lean times long ago.The Alabama native was living and working in Nashville, Tenn., when she first traveled to Hawaii for vacation in the early ’70s. A second trip convinced the divorced mother of one to take a chance on island life.
“I fell in love with Hawaii and its people,” she explains. “People are very friendly here like people in the South.”
In July 1975, the then paralegal left her job as manager of the legal department at Aladdin Industries, packed up her belongings and drove cross country to San Francisco. She shipped her car and boarded a plane to Hawaii accompanied by her son, Richard, then 12.“Back home, they thought I was nuts,” she admits. “But I felt that if you don’t try, you don’t know.”
Her arrival in Honolulu was preceded by a flurry of reference letters from her former Aladdin boss and mentor, attorney Allaire Karzon. One of the first female graduates of Yale Law School, Karzon contacted Yale and Harvard University alumni in Hawaii on behalf of her former employee.
“She was ahead of her time and very supportive of women and their advancement in the business world,” recalls Choi, adding that her former employer even held Choi’s job for a year — just in case things didn’t work out in Hawaii.But they did.
“When I came to Hawaii, there were no paralegals — the field was just beginning here,” says Choi, who considered this yet another good omen. “I knew if there were no paralegals, I’d have a job.”
She interviewed with Torkelson Katz Conahan & Loden her first week in town and was hired by tax attorney Elliot Loden, who became another mentor. Despite her excitement, there was a downside.
“When I came to Hawaii the pay scale was so behind the Mainland, and I was shocked at what they wanted to pay me,” remembers Choi, who first lived in Salt Lake. “I supported myself by working at Liberty House five nights a week from 5 to 9 p.m. Those were hard years.”Eventually, the firm offered Choi overtime — allowing her to quit her part-time job — and the opportunity to train in their real estate division. They also sent her to real estate school, and she earned her license in 1978.
“Along with my paralegal duties, I was introduced to a high-end real estate clientele,” explains Choi, who was now settled in a Kahala townhome. “I still represent a lot of them.”That exposure further fueled her passion for the real estate profession, says Choi, who once aspired to be an attorney.
“I had always wanted to be a lawyer, but when you’re a Realtor, people like you better,” she says with a laugh. “You’re either giving them a key or a check. You’re making people happy.”In 1980, Choi married an attorney at the firm, Cedric Choi, a “local boy” who was a graduate of Punahou School, Stanford University and the University of Santa Clara School of Law. Not long after, the newlywed was ready for another life-altering step. “I told my husband, ‘I don’t want to work here anymore. I want to run my own show.’”
In February 1981, she opened shop on the same floor as her former employer at Grosvenor Center, maintaining close ties with the law firm that continue today. She positioned her business as a “boutique” real estate firm, specializing in luxury real estate and commercial properties. Her niche market became oceanfront properties and large estates of $1 million or more from Diamond Head to Koko Head, later expanding to similar properties in Lanikai, Kailua and the North Shore.
In 1994, she moved her office to Kahala, initially renting a 400-square-foot space in the American Savings Bank Building behind Kahala Mall. Cedric Choi, a Realtor associate as well as an attorney, came on board about the same time, assisting the company on a part-time basis until retiring from his practice in 2000. As managing director, he oversees more than 30 agents and licensed assistants in a space that’s grown to 2,000 square feet in the last 10 years.
“You don’t have to be big but you have to be knowledgeable and good at what you do,” insists Choi, whose success stems from a savvy understanding of her target market and the service her clients expect. Her clientele includes the “rich and famous,” who expect a high level of personal attention and absolute discretion — and they get both.
“As a paralegal all those years, there was reward from an intellectual standpoint, and it was fascinating to meet people,” she explains. “In real estate, the experience becomes more personal. You come to know a lot about the client, and you’re trusted to guard that.”
To say she has a corner on the Kahala luxury home market is an understatement. In the last decade, she’s sold and resold—sometimes up to five times—dozens of Kahala properties to the tune of a staggering $175 million-plus.
Oceanfront property continues to be in high demand and short supply, says Choi. The agency currently has just three active listings—a beachfront Diamond Head estate for $7.2 million and two Kailua beachfront lots for $9 million and $10 million apiece.
“People who come to Hawaii want to buy oceanfront. They either want to be on the water, see it or be able to walk to it,” she says, adding that many recent Mainland buyers are coming from the Western U.S.—from Texas to California—along with a handful of clients from the East Coast.
“Mainland buyers want to be in the sought-after neighborhoods like Kahala, Diamond Head, Lanikai and Kailua, or the North Shore.”
Business has been better than brisk. Properties around the $1 million mark “sell right away,” says Choi, while homes in the $2.5 to $4 million range are also moving quickly.
“Turnaround depends on price and location,” she explains. “Once you move over $4 million it tends to take a while. More expensive properties need more market time. I’ve sold some $10 to $12 million properties in three weeks and some in three years.”
As Kahala prices spiral up, the market moves east, she says, “I’ve sold everything I have along Kalanianaole.”
Hawaii Loa Ridge is still strong for view and because it’s a gated community, particularly popular with Mainland buyers.
The agency also caters to international clientele from Canada, Australia, Europe, South America and Asia.
Choi is predicting a strong market through the first quarter of 2006 and possibly into next summer, depending on interest rates and conditions on the Mainland. Many of these are cash buyers.
“It takes about a year to feel the effect,” she says of Mainland economic activity.Choi considers education and experience critical to her success in the profession. “I’m always training myself, and the designations I’ve earned are the result of study and transactions,” she explains.
She is a Certified Commercial Investment Member, Certified International Property Specialist, and Certified Luxury Home Marketing Specialist. She is also a member of the Board of Regents, an exclusive network of the world’s most elite luxury real estate brokers. Choi International is an affiliate of LuxuryRealEstate.com, comprised of 500 of the world’s top brokers.
Over the years, Choi has donated her time and talent to numerous regional, national and international real estate organizations. She was the first recipient of the Aloha ‘Aina Realtor’s Choice Award in 1998. The National Association of Realtors presented her with an award in 2000 as the Outstanding International Reciprocal Director. In 1999, Choi was appointed by then Gov. Ben Cayetano to a four-year term on the Hawaii State Real Estate Commission.
All those hours devoted to work leave little time for play in Hawaii, so travel is a primary escape and pleasure for the pair. They recently returned from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore. Last year’s itinerary took them to the Mediterranean, including Greece, Venice and Rome. It was Scotland and Ireland the year before, and China the year before that. They also travel to Japan frequently.
“We like Asia,” she adds. “We have a lot of clients from there.”Confidence in their staff’s capability and today’s electronic communication allow them to travel a bit more these days.
“It’s gotten to a point in the last few years where we have a great staff that we can leave in charge. I take a laptop and I have an international phone. I’m in the middle of the ocean taking calls.”
Also on the travel agenda are twice yearly trips to Alabama to visit her son, Richard, and three grandchildren. Her son and family also return to Hawaii regularly.
The Chois live in a Kahala condominium situated between Waialae County Club, where Cedric serves on the board of directors, and the Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “No kids, no animals. It’s an easy lifestyle,” Patricia says of condo living.
The couple strives to maintain a good, healthy lifestyle, says Patricia, who takes Pilates and yoga classes. “I’m very focused, so I try to exercise and find balance and to give back to the community.”
“Giving back” includes charitable work for such institutions as the YMCA and the Washington Place Foundation. “I have a great life,” Choi asserts. “Hawaii has been so great to me. And I have a wonderful husband — we’ll be married 25 years in December. He’s made my business blossom.”Cedric shares the same heartfelt admiration. “It’s nice to see her have her career and be so successful. It makes her happy.”