With Colliers’ Anti-Money Laundering Officer, Jennifer Li
Colliers is one of the largest real estate services and investment companies in the world. With operations in 63 countries and $81 billion of assets under management, its success is underpinned by a value to ‘do what’s right’.
Jennifer has been with the company for 7 years, starting with commercial property management and then transitioning into AML Compliance. In New Zealand, Jennifer looks after about 80 brokers, and works in collaboration with the 300 other staff in Auckland.
Jen was kind enough to share her experiences and insights as an AML officer, on our recent visit.
What does your day-to-day look like as an AML
My work usually falls into one of five categories:
- Onboarding new clients – doing the KYC as well as making sure we get the customer relationship off to a good start
- Screening existing clients – checking identity documents and ongoing customer due diligence is up-to-date
- Reviewing compliance procedures and changes
- Getting advice about regulation changes or advice for the finance team, including any overseas money coming into the trust account
- Producing reports for the COO and management team
What’s the most satisfying thing about being an AML officer?
The most interesting part of the job is helping clients to have a smooth experience as they go through the KYC onboarding process. Selling property can be a stressful time for clients, and having to go through the paperwork and requirements of AML can be an additional burden that no one wants.
It’s important for me to be there for the vendors; to guide them in what information they need to provide in order to be compliant with the legislation.
I also enjoy training our staff to make sure they’re updated on any news that impacts compliance (e.g. Russian sanctions). It’s really important to make the AML process more interesting so that our agents feel more engaged with the process – so I will include topical examples from the news to make it more real, and ask them what they think of the case.
“It’s really important to make the AML process more interesting so that our agents feel more engaged with the process.”
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
It can be challenging to ensure our colleagues understand the process and stay compliant with legislation, which is why I invest a lot of time into training.
It can also be challenging to be the middle person coordinating between brokers, clients and the AML team. Occasionally there are clients who get offended when being asked for AML information, or shout at us on the phone; so it does require a lot of empathy to guide them through the process.
At Colliers we’re quite thorough in our approach to compliance – we always look into the risk levels and emphasise really knowing our clients, all the while looking out for any red flags. However I do think Colliers does a great job on finding the right balance between compliance and customer experience.
How did you get involved in AML work?
It wasn’t a deliberate career path, but kind of happened as a result of a few right factors coming together at the right time. My university degree was in Property and Financial Reporting, which is a great combination for where I am now.
Prior to working in the compliance team I had spent a few years as a Property Manager at Colliers, then took a break as I went on maternity leave. As I came back to part-time work, the 2019 AML legislation changes meant that real estate agents were now also required to do AML. An opportunity came up in the compliance team – and since I already knew Colliers well, how we work internally and the client base – it was an interesting challenge to then help our customers, but with a compliance hat on.
“It was an interesting challenge to help our customers, but with a compliance hat on.”
I started as an AML Analyst, working and learning on the job from the previous AML Officer and was promoted into this role about one year in. It really helped that I had already worked with many of the wider Colliers’ stakeholders, so there was existing trust and credibility.
What are the top 3 tips you’d give to a new Compliance Officer in a real estate firm?
1. Consider customer context first.
KYC is not just about doing AML. It’s important to take into consideration the context of the client and transaction. For example, at Colliers we have long-term relationships with many of our clients, and so they buy and sell multiple times with us. When carrying out compliance processes, we always start from our existing knowledge about the client – what does this client do, what’s the purpose of this transaction?
“When carrying out compliance processes, we always start from our existing knowledge about the client – what does this client do, what’s the purpose of this transaction?”
The deals can be very high value, and some of our clients are famous and regular transactors. We always consider their context so we can tailor the approach and attitude we take to help them. If we know our clients well, then it’s much easier to spot the suspicious ones – and we don’t have to be so firm in taking a blanket approach to applying the AML legislation.
2. Communicate with brokers
The AML process can cause friction between compliance and brokers. So I try to put myself in my colleague’s positions. It’s really important to show understanding and collaborate with brokers to help clients get the deal done.
If I sense there may be risk associated with a client, I always check in with the broker to see whether they think it’s still worthwhile to do the deal. I explain to them that if there are red flags then the deal could potentially put themselves, Colliers and all of us at risk. They might do a lot of the hard work and not reap the rewards. No one’s going to look good.
It’s all about communicating effectively so that people understand the risks involved, while balancing commercial interests.
3. Continuous training
Training should be done regularly to keep the importance of AML/KYC top of mind, not just when onboarding new people. We do it about twice a year, and more regularly for any new regulations. If our brokers are busy but I don’t see much AML coming through for approval – then something must have been forgotten, so I send out reminders. We need to be proactive about reminding people to do KYC and AML.
“We need to be proactive about reminding people to do KYC and AML. If our brokers are busy but I don’t see much AML coming through for approval, then something must have been forgotten.”
It’s great to see that our brokers are getting more confident when talking to their clients about AML. Sometimes they even call me while with a client to run through any questions they have about the KYC process. That’s one benefit of having worked at Colliers for a while now and built up good internal relationships – we know each other really well.
How has it been working with First AML?
I joined the Colliers’ AML team when we were just implementing First AML across the business. Compared to the other options, First AML is more user friendly and I find it useful to have everything recorded in one place. I can’t even imagine life without First AML now; there would be way more work and we would probably need three full-time staff.
“I can’t even imagine life without First AML now; there would be way more work and we would probably need three full-time staff.”
Finally, there’s a lot more to life than just compliance, so if you could invite anyone famous to dinner, who would it be?
Harry Potter, without hesitation! I grew up reading all the HP books and loved the movie. I still read it now as an adult and an invisible cloak would really help in my work life sometimes.