From Buying Bicycles to Developing Real Estate: Ryan Gwee, Group MD of ZACD
Ryan Gwee is the group managing director for ZACD and has held the position since 2015. The veteran in the financial services industry brings with him over a decade of experience in management. He once served as the Head of Private Banking China at Standard Chartered Bank (SCB).
With a solid track record of driving successful regional corporate development initiatives, we can’t help but wonder how his expertise in the industry translate to his personal investing style.
In an exclusive interview with ZUU online, Gwee shares his thoughts on being a leader and how he started investing from young. His first investment? Bicycles.
“My first ever investment was buying and selling used bicycles in the States. I had a friend who owned an auction business in California. Every Sunday, there were auctions for impounded vehicles, confiscated bicycles and such. I would go to the auction and bid for confiscated bicycles,” he shares, laughing at the memory.
“It was really cheap, and some were pretty good brands. I would buy them and work on them during the weekends, then sell them through the school bulletin board. I used to make a couple of thousand dollars a month,” Gwee adds.
And that’s just the beginning of how he became a serious investor.
So, you started off making good money by flipping bicycles. Are you the kind of investor who flips properties too?
When I worked as a banker, the bulk of my money went into buying one property a year from my bonuses. I did this till 2006, then I was posted to Hong Kong. But I wouldn’t say that I flip them. My property investments are done in the medium-term.
When I first joined for ZACD, I ran the numbers for an ongoing development project with our joint venture partners. After an in-depth analysis, I decided to put in S$200k in the development fund for this project. Moving forward, I will also be putting my personal investments in all our projects through the direct developer funds.
It's not easy to reap developer profits if you only have about a million dollars’ liquid to invest. With direct developer funds, you are able to partake in the profits without the risks. All you need is to truly understand the fund management team as well as their track record to invest in direct developer funds.
I think I am what people would consider a very aggressive investor. I was quite well-known as a foreign exchange banker. So, naturally, most of my own investments were in FX. Though the risk is significantly higher than property, I consider it a calculated risk.
You could say that I am a high risk, high return kind of investor and that hasn’t changed throughout the years.
What would say is the biggest mistake that even some seasoned investors still make?
A good investor is one with no emotions and no feelings. However, no investor will have no emotions or feelings as long as you are dealing with your own money. That’s why I believe fund managers work and personal investment doesn’t work. This is because fund managers manage someone else’s money, so they can make the hard decisions.
But when you invest for yourself, even the seasoned ones, sometimes you will be emotionally attached to certain investments that you make. This is especially for male investors as having an ego is typically in their DNA. Even for myself today, I would leave some investments to my friends who are seasoned traders to give me guidance.
So, who’s investment style would you say you admire and would emulate?
One person’s investing style I really admire is my business partner’s, Stanley. He turned S$165,000 into S$70 million investing in not only ZACD but also in land banks and developments.
I started with a much larger capital base, but I did not manage to make S$70 million after 10 years.
Despite there being gurus like Mark Mobius and all the very famous investing people, I think that our home grown investors, like Stanley, are people I really look up to. I’m still in the process of learning how to make good money in the real estate sector.
Is that part of the reason why you’re with ZACD?
After banking, I went into private equity. I was doing private equity in the mining and medical industries. From there, after we made good money, we needed to see where we could place our money to do investments and divestments. I’ve been in Shanghai, Hong Kong and other parts of Northeast Asia for many years.
3 years after I started the private medical equity, my partners and I needed to divest out of China and back into Southeast Asia. And we were looking for a very good platform that we can put our money in. Hence, we made the decision to invest in ZACD.
Real estate investments require a slightly longer time horizon unlike capital markets investments.
One key thing is to learn how to select a good manager and project management team that knows how to enhance the asset to produce better yields.
How would you describe your management style?
I delegate and give my leaders enough autonomy to do what they believe in. If I put my faith in a leader, I usually just guide them through and not direct them how to do things. I think my management style is very simple, very Western, and I will tell you upfront what’s wrong or right.
I always tell my staff that I may not always be correct. So, they are open to give me any feedback. This open management style involves me being direct and sincere. I think for the last 18 years managing people, as long as I am sincere and I really want people to do well, it works.
That is very progressive of you, considering many companies still adopt a very traditional, Asian style of management. Do you also have any contrarian views when it comes to investing that you would like to share with our readers?
Well, this is a tough question. Everybody is quite weary of China and its economy now, as well as shadow banking, debt ratios and non-performing loans.
But I believe that from 11 years working in the China market, there are pockets of asset classes and certain service industries that can still be very attractive for investments. I do have a couple of very niche places that I will be investing in the next 6 to 12 months.
Thank you for making the time to do this interview with us, Ryan. Before we let you go, do share with us, what would you say would be your ideal retirement scenario?
I’m a big cigar and whiskey guy. I would like to someday own a nice cigar bar that will also serve chicken rice and bak kut teh in either Qing Dao in China or maybe even in San Francisco in USA.
I would like to open up this place somewhere near the sea, where I can meet and entertain people on a daily basis, as well as cook, because I love cooking.
Stay tuned as we go behind the scenes and chat with Darren Chew, Deputy Managing Director of SLP next.