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January 13, 2010

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Stripping off modern facades and preserving historic buildings

AS so many old buildings are being torn down, it's easy to see the Shanghai glass as half-empty, but American developer Brent Beisher preserves historic buildings and puts them to creative use. Nancy Zhang reports.

In his long, 10-year stay in China, American Brent Beisher has learned to "go with the flow, and bend like water" in China's fast-changing environment.

He has had many roles, from journalist to dotcom businessman, before moving into real estate entrepreneurship.

Today, as founder of Build Shanghai, a company that develops historic downtown properties, Beisher is again in one of the fastest-moving industries in China.

"Very few foreigners are developers, because it's so difficult," says the 34-year-old Atlanta, Georgia, native. "You have to align interests with so many actors such as landlords, governments, tenants and clients. You can't play by the rule book in China, there is no book! But that's why I like it."

Recently Build Shanghai completed a 2,200-square-meter factory conversion at 425 Yanping Road in Jing'an District that now houses offices for several creative companies. Beisher is also consulting in another factory renovation on popular Taikang Road in Luwan District - it's a large 4,000-square-meter site that will be turned into offices and boutiques.

In these cold winter months, Beisher is also dreaming of owning a large piece of land in warm, southern China and building his own houses from scratch.

"I don't even know if that's possible, I don't know if anyone will get my idea. But anyway, I'm moving forward with it!" he says.

Beisher first arrived in China in 1998 to study Chinese. As a fresh graduate, he was open to all the opportunities China had to offer. The free-form entrepreneurial spirit suited him. He soon left the structured boredom of study to write for a small magazine in Beijing about the developing arts and music scene among youth.

After a year he left the harsh weather for Shanghai, where he again took up a post as the foreign editor for a local English-language publication.

In both publications, he says, he tried to "push the envelope" and find new interesting angles on the society changing around him, take the work in a new direction, and get other writers excited about what they were writing.

But in less than a year he left journalism for a short-lived detour into Internet entrepreneurship.

In early 2001, the dotcom bubble was developing worldwide. China was no exception and hot money was pouring into the sector from investors abroad. Beisher remembers his first crazy few days with one travel Website.

"My first job on the first day was to hire 10 new people, buy them computers and make them look busy when investors visited. It was crazy. There was all this money from investors, but little management of where it went."

That time did leave Beisher with one lasting legacy: He met his Shanghainese wife, a formidable businesswoman in her own right.

When the bubble burst, Beisher was left with the entrepreneurial itch.

He remembered back to a business idea that came to him when he first arrived in Shanghai.

As a new expat, Beisher needed an apartment. But like many expats, he wanted somewhere with character, a place integrated into local Chinese community. Though Shanghai was full of beautiful old buildings in lane communities that perfectly met these requirements, it was very difficult to find a suitable rental through agents. Through a friend he was introduced directly to the landlord of a lane house property on Yongjia Road in Xuhui District, cutting out agent's fees.

Realizing there was a niche market that few were filling, he established a real estate agency called Space that found unique and historic properties around Shanghai for foreigners. The agency built up a database of properties, mostly in downtown areas.

To find unique properties at that time, Beisher tried all sorts of creative strategies. He even went out at night to construction sites, talking to workers to get contact information for landlords of the developments.

Space was so successful that Wallpaper magazine listed it as one of the world's "coolest" estate agents in 2005. But that was also the year Beisher decided to leave the company and go back to the United States with his wife and son.

"I get bored easily, I need to move on to new challenges. My father always started companies wherever he went. Plus I'm such a bad employee, I have no choice but to be my own boss," he says.

But in less than two years in the United States, they got bored with the rat race and missed the big changes and opportunities in China. By the end of 2006 they decided to come back.

In Shanghai Beisher jumped back into property entrepreneurship with a business partner, a friend in the packaging business.

He says the hardest part is gaining the trust of landlords to transform properties, and to work with complicated situations with tenants resulting from history, as in the takeover of private buildings that were subdivided for housing.

But the beauty of the buildings makes his jobs easier, as once clients come to look, it often sells itself.

"You can tell how beautiful a building will be by its roof. Creative offices are defined by their ceilings, but many factories in Shanghai have false, low ceilings put in to conserve energy," he says. "But when you strip it back you'll find a beautiful ceiling, which is only visible from the outside. High roofs also enlarge windows, let in more light. Beauty is all about proportions."

Working in historical renovation, Beisher says it's often easy to see the glass as half empty, as so much is being torn down. But compared with other Asian cities, there's plenty left in Shanghai to be thankful for. "Who knows how much should be preserved. There are some very low-quality shacks and factories, and the best solution is to tear them down. But I just wish more consideration goes into what they're replaced with, and what adds to the community - these gated residential complexes are inaccessible, and add nothing to the city." Brent Beisher

Nationality: USA

Age: 34

Profession: Entrepreneur



Favorite place:Anywhere in Jing'an District.

Strangest thing seen in Shanghai:

Too many to name.

Worst experience:

Broken neck.

Perfect weekend:

With the family.

Motto for life:

Live to the point of tears.

How to improveShanghai:Start by stopping the tear-down.

Advice to newcomers:

Roll with the punches and enjoy it.


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