Jane Zheng’s first trip to Myrtle Beach was like that of so many others who find themselves on their initial exploration of the Grand Strand.
The 2004 trip was happenstance, almost a whim you might say, and while here she was captured as others have been by a piece of the area’s beauty that caused her to change the direction of her life.
Zheng was in the process of switching careers from that of a research scientist at a major drug company in New Jersey to being a real estate investor. She came across a promotion for a real estate investment weekend in Myrtle Beach and decided, what the heck.
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She spent a day touring property, returned to her hotel and awakened the next morning to a vista of the sun coming up over the Atlantic Ocean.
“I still remember it,” she said recently, a smile spreading across her face.
Before she left, she owned a lot in Grande Dunes where she built a home before moving here permanently in 2005.
Since then, she has parlayed her connections among the Chinese community in northern New Jersey to being in 2014 the top agent in sales commission for Keller Williams in the Carolinas and No. 5 worldwide.
Her total sales -- commercial and residential -- have topped $40 million during the decade, including golf courses, the former Waccamaw Pottery and more than 100 single-family homes.
It is Zheng, more than anyone, who has caused something of a Chinese investment surge along the Grand Strand in recent years. Since 2011, she has brokered the sale of area golf courses, at least one major retail property and numerous single-family homes to Chinese individuals and investment companies.
“She’s a quietly impressive woman,” said Andy Waldo, operating principal and broker in charge of Keller Williams Myrtle Beach, where Zheng works.
Waldo came to Myrtle Beach just last year from Washington, D.C., so he was familiar with the influx of Chinese investors in this country.
“I knew there were people out there doing it,” he said. “(But) somebody working without an assistant? She’s an amazing woman.”
Born in Beijing, Zheng grew up in Shanghai and graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, about 300 miles inland from Shanghai.
On its website, the school says it is known as the “cradle of scientific elites.”
Zheng was offered a full scholarship for graduate study at the University of Wisconsin, where she moved in 1985. Her doctoral thesis was on a new material for superconductivity.
After Wisconsin, she moved to New Jersey to become a research manager for Schering-Plough Research Institute.
Then she decided to switch direction.
“When Jane tells you she can do something, you can count on it,” said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, a trait that has served her as well in business as it has in the turns of her life.
Rhodes first met Zheng when Keller Williams approached him about going with her to a real estate conference in China, where the company said he’d have a chance to promote Grand Strand tourism as well.
“The respect (the Chinese) have for mayors is unbelievable,” he said.
Zheng told Rhodes she had a surprise for him during the trip, and one evening he found himself a central player in a reception for a friendship signing ceremony with the vice mayor of Xiamen, a city of about 2.5 million people on China’s southeast coast.
The friendship signing ceremony is the first step in cities adopting each other as sister cities, and while Myrtle Beach and Xiamen never took the second step, Rhodes recalls his surprise at being the center of attention in a room of about 100 Chinese.
Since then, Zheng has impressed Rhodes with the quality of the investors that she brings to his office.
“She’s not going to bring a tire kicker,” he said.
He knows that if a prospect is with Zheng, that prospect is ready to buy.
Waldo, Rhodes, Zheng herself and others say that understanding the concerns of the Chinese she has brought to the Grand Strand and being able to communicate in their native language has been key to her success.
The communication is easier, more direct, when talking with someone in his native Mandarin, said Wei Min Wang, the U.S. arm of the Chinese investment company that bought the former Waccamaw Pottery in 2011.
And it’s not just the language, he said. Another native Chinese understands his way of thinking and will know what his concerns are when he’s looking at property in an area he may not be familiar with.
Wang, an engineer by training who lives in New Jersey, said he’s known Zheng for years. But even before that, he said he’d heard of Myrtle Beach from neighbors who vacationed along the Grand Strand every year.
“If you know the concerns, you can approach issues very directly,” he said.
He said Zheng has a great personality, is always upbeat and very friendly, and in business, direct.
Zheng said that 80 percent of her customers are Chinese from the New Jersey area. In addition, she said, “I’ve had a lot of referrals from them.”
So far, she’s sold Grand Strand homes to more than 100 Chinese, and while just four or five of them have moved into their homes so far, she expects that eventually all will become residents of the Palmetto State.
“All of my Chinese clients are investment minded,” she said.
The homebuyers account for 80 percent of her business, while commercial clients such as Wang and the investment group that has purchased a number of Strand golf courses make up the other 20 percent.
For her income, though, the number is reversed, she said. Eighty percent of her revenue comes from commercial, with total sales topping $40 million in just the last four years.
Waldo said he expects Chinese and other international investment to pick up along the Grand Strand.
“As these investors start talking to each other,” he said, “I think you’ll see it expand. Word of mouth is a big thing.”
He said that news of Chinese investments on the Grand Strand have brought inquiries from England, Poland and the Middle East.
“I think China is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
He said Zheng continues building her knowledge of commercial real estate and is teaching other Keller Williams agents what she knows. This year, Waldo said, she’s already on track to surpass her 2014 numbers.
Her future looks bright, he said. “I think the world’s her oyster.”