Mr Koh Boon Hwee exercises his keen sense for investment as the Chairman of Credence Partners Pte Ltd, which guides the development of SMEs in South East Asia. He is also one of Singapore’s most accomplished business leaders, with an impressive career portfolio serving as Chairman (both past and present) of some of Singapore’s foremost corporations, like Singtel, Singapore Airlines, DBS Bank, Far East Orchard Limited and Yeo Hiap Seng Limited.
Mr Koh is no stranger to speaking at OSU-organised events, as he did so in Hong Kong in 2015 and in Shanghai last year. Prior to speaking at the Singapore Speakers Series in London on 30 November 2018, we once again tapped on his years of experience to hear how his overseas experience shaped him, and the advice he has for budding professionals planning to venture into private equity and investments.
Mr Koh, it's great to have you back again as our speaker, this time for the Singapore Speaker Series! In the early phase of your career, you took on a housing development project in Hong Kong. Looking back, how did your overseas experience shape you, both professionally and personally?
My role back then was to write the computer programmes for a successful MNC, which managed the housing development after it was built. Most of the units were rented out and financed, and the manager had to bill for rentals, calculate mortgage payments and other incidentals like utilities and TV.
At that time, living and working in Hong Kong was a real eye opener for me. We were housed in The Peninsula [Hong Kong, a 5-star hotel] for the duration of the project, and that was the first time I saw how "the other half lived", along with the scale of projects undertaken by large companies. I was awed by the fact that tens of thousands of people would be using the software I wrote.
What are some qualities you deem important for those considering going into private equity and investments?
The ability to learn quickly about a new business to evaluate its prospects; the ability to size up the character and personality of the people you’ll be working with, and the ability to project ahead about how growth and operations can be optimised in a realistic way, in order to achieve an investment return.
What aspects of the future are you most optimistic about, be it Singapore in general, our economic landscape, or even your current industry? What are some of the opportunities Singaporeans who are keen to return home can look forward to?
I am very optimistic about the role of technology as an enabler to a better quality of life, both in terms of work and in terms of leisure. There is a lot of debate about how Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and robotics will destroy jobs and we will have massive unemployment; I don't buy that.
In the US, agriculture used to employ 40% of the workforce – today it is 3%. The jobs lost were replaced by industrial work. Sure, there is a transition, and it may last longer and be more painful than the previous transition, but the transition will happen. The jobs created will centre on the interface between machine and people, so there will be great demand in jobs in healthcare and caregiving, nursing, personal services, education, as well as jobs centered on technology itself. Already, we have severe shortages of data scientists, statisticians, geneticists, etc. The transition will be painful as jobs are lost in industries like accounting, auditing, banking operations and legal work, but at the end of the tunnel will be a better quality of life and – I think – better work life balance.
Singapore is centred in the fastest growing region with a market of 600 million, not counting China and India. We need to get closer to that, and not just focus on Western markets and MNCs, as we traditionally have. The future is a global scale with a local touch, and familiarity with the latter is the competitive advantage for Singapore companies going up against domestic US companies in their home markets, or Chinese companies in China. It is the equivalent of charging up a fortified hill.
Over the years, you’ve had various mentors guide you through your working life, and you now do the same for the next generation of business leaders. What are some words of wisdom your mentors imparted to you, that you continue to share with your mentees today?
Learn to be happy in your work. You’d need to enjoy what you are doing, or every day will be a long day. I love engaging with entrepreneurs and start-ups because they’re pursuing something they want to do or achieve. They are happy in their work, and that energizes everyone around them, including me.
Mr Koh Boon Hwee will be speaking at the Singapore Speakers Series in London on 30 November 2018 (Friday), 6.30pm-9.30pm at the Millennium Gloucester Hotel, London Kensington.
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