When former New Zealand All-Black Jonah Lomu died suddenly in 2015, at age 40, he was roundly considered by many to be one of the all-time greats of the game.
Lomu had earned millions of dollars throughout his rugby union career, but died penniless, with mounting debts, and his family living in a rented house they could no longer afford.
His neighbour, RE/MAX New Zealand CEO Don Ha, was an avid sporting fan, and had noticed other retired players had ended up in similar circumstances. It didn’t make sense to him.
“While they earn a lot of money, they think they’re invincible, but no one had advised them what happens after you retire,” Mr Ha explains.
Together with Lomu’s ex-agent Phil Kingsley Jones, he launched Life After Sport, a mentorship program aimed at educating young rugby players on financial matters.
Key to the program is building wealth through property – either the accruing of investment properties or launching their own real estate businesses.
The goal is to help players set themselves up while they are making good money, rather than allowing them to scramble for financial security after their earnings dry up .
“Then, when they retire, they’re worth $5-10 million,” explains Mr Ha. “They don’t have to go and look for a job, or look for businesses when they’ve already got their investments sorted out.”
Although advice on real estate investment is at the heart of what Mr Ha offers his charges, the program also features advice on tax, family trust structures, other business investments, and even on where to send their kids to school.
But he believes real estate is where these players can build long-term financial freedom.
“Most of our clients we mentor now become franchise owners,” Mr Ha notes.
“They’ve been in our program for years, they know what real estate is all about, and all of a sudden a RE/MAX franchise has become available to them.
“They know what to do. They’re under our coaching program, then they move into our business coaching program, and learn franchising, marketing, become a business owner.
“It’s quite an amazing natural progression.”
Augustine Pulu is a current All-Black. Mr Ha met him two-and-a-half years ago, when he was renting a house for an obscene amount of money.
Mr Ha advised him to buy a family home, and schooled him on the ins and outs of building wealth through property.
“Today, he has a multimillion-dollar portfolio,” Mr Ha explains.
“Whatever he earns in rugby, he earns the same in property and capital gains, yearly. This is in two-and-a-half years.
“Now, these players no longer need to chase a contract overseas for more money,” Mr Ha says, referring to the lucrative paydays that often lure New Zealand players to other countries.
“While they play sports in their own country, they earn money on investment property and selling property. They no longer need to go overseas and leave their family behind. They love it.”
Mr Ha explains how, initially, it takes about five three-hour meetings to deliver the basics.
“I don’t think that any real estate agent would put up with [that many] meetings with a customer before they sell them anything,” he reasons.
“Rugby players are the most powerful player when they are on the field, but when it comes to finance and numbers, they are not the most powerful on the field, because they don’t understand it. So, you need to nurture them and make them understand it, give them examples.
“They do their research, and they get nervous, but once they’ve bought one or two houses, they get used to the idea.”
From there, they often enter the RE/MAX family.
“Life after sports becomes life with RE/MAX, because we have basically become their guardian,” Mr Ha continues.
“We look at their sports contract for them, we advise them on sponsorship and what they should be getting, social media, their Instagram accounts, their Twitter so they can promote themselves – when they retire from rugby, they have a profile, so they can instantly be in business.”
Mr Ha notes that, overall, it is about loyalty, trust and respect.
“They look to you as a position of power and knowledge,” he explains.
“You cannot abuse that trust. You cannot take advantage of that. You’ve got to be transparent in what you’re selling them, to make sure it’s best for them.”
Mr Ha reasons that Life After Sport is a scalable enterprise, if he can build the right team, explaining how he coaches players in UK, Tonga, France, Japan, Australia, and Fiji at the moment.
“Finding the manpower to service all these people is my biggest problem right now,” he laughs. “When you talk to someone in France, there’s a big time difference. But it is scalable.”
When asked about the overall goal of Life After Sport, Mr Ha is altruistic in his response, focused only on those who go through the program.
“To create a legacy, and create financial freedom for their children, and a life after sports,” he says.
“All of these players, if they can’t provide for their kids when they finish this career, if they end up renting a house or getting a normal job, then really, sport has failed them.
“I know that many sports institutions provide advice, but I’m providing the full thing. Real deal, real examples.”
It was a concrete example that led Mr Ha himself to real estate back in 1994, when he was working across two bakeries, doing 72-hour weeks.
A well-dressed man entered his store. He was a real estate agent, who mentioned during small talk that he had sold two houses that day, making $24,000.
“I thought, ‘man, that’s a year’s work for me’,” Mr Ha laughs.
He quickly changed streams, studying for his certificate while working long hours.
“I became an agent in September, 1994, and in my first year, I sold 86 houses. It was amazing,” he says.
“What I was once earning in a year, I was now earning in a month.”