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Marvelstone chairman Joe Cho harnesses technology to achieve goal of building financial empire

Marvelstone Group chairman Joe Cho has plans for the company. Marvelstone, already a financial institution in Singapore, is applying for a retail licence - a process which he estimates will take at least 12 months. There are plans to list on the main
Marvelstone Group chairman Joe Cho has plans for the company. Marvelstone, already a financial institution in Singapore, is applying for a retail licence - a process which he estimates will take at least 12 months. There are plans to list on the mainboard of the Singapore Exchange.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

South Korean harnessing technology to achieve his goal of building a financial empire

With just a laptop, two spare shirts and $500 in his pocket, young South Korean Joe Cho packed his bags and headed to Singapore 12 years ago.

He quickly fell in love with the nation and a Singapore girl he later married. Together they are on their way to building a financial empire.

The 38-year-old chairman of private investment group Marvelstone Group came to Singapore to join an Israeli start-up, whose chief executive liked how he had lived all over the world, recalls Mr Cho. This included 21/2 years in Nepal where he volunteered on a Nepalese and Korean government project.

"He thought I was quite creative and I came here for a three-month project and met my wife and business partner, Gina," he says.

Marvelstone, which moved its headquarters from Hong Kong to Singapore this year, is also behind the not-for-profit fintech hub Lattice80 at 80 Robinson Road, which opened on Nov 10.

After that start-up stint, Mr Cho did mostly programming-related projects for a year before setting up his asset management firm Leonie Hill Capital with Ms Gina Heng - now Marvelstone's chief executive - with $50,000 of their savings as working capital.

Mr Cho was inspired by a TED talk - a popular series of online talks on a wide range of topics - featuring Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, to start his own business.

"They asked how happy you were when you wake up every morning and if you were excited about it. Programming had been my passion all this while but I found stock trading more interesting and thought I'd be happy doing it for a long time.

"I quit my job the next day, without even having money for the next month's rent. I was talking to Gina, who was a banking analyst, and we had the same vision and we registered Leonie Hill Capital one day in 2007. Leonie Hill because we were living there," he says with a laugh.

The computer science and finance graduate, who has been programming since he was five years old, became interested in trading while studying at Handong Global University.

"Luckily I started programming early. I tried creating strategies and an automated trading platform, so my quant fund strategies started in university." Quant funds use strategies based on computer models.

At Leonie Hill, he was working 15 to 20 hours every day, seven days a week for five to six years, delivering high double-digit returns every year. But the firm took two to three years to raise its first million.

"As a business we failed, we made a lot of money for investors but not the firm. I was helping small investors, and because I liked trading, I was almost doing it for free.

"We found out many people wanted to buy the business, but exited it instead of selling. My dream at Leonie Hill was to manage US$1 billion, be in Bloomberg magazine and be a popular hedge fund but somehow it didn't work out."

So the couple and Mr Joel Ko, a South Korean living here - now Marvelstone's managing partner - came together with the lofty ambition of overtaking BlackRock, the largest institutional investor with US$4.7 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) of assets under management.

The trio started One Asia Investment Partners in 2012, pooling "all the money we had" .

The first move was to acquire an asset management company in South Korea managing US$2 billion of assets for US$20 million.

The plan was to find maybe 20 of such partners, as "we reverse engineered the process to make US$8 trillion in 15 years, as BlackRock took 30 years to reach US$4 trillion", he says.

However, the South Korean deal fell through after two years, and the trio left the firm, starting anew using Marvelstone, which was initially set up in 2010 in Hong Kong by Mr Cho to do commodities trading.

They closed Marvelstone's operations in South Korea and Indonesia and applied for a financial licence to set up shop in Singapore this year, moving all operations here because they saw how the fintech scene was growing.

The Marvelstone Tech arm, which raised US$12.5 million earlier this year, and an accelerator called 10K were set up last year to incubate 10,000 start-ups or ideas in Asia . Lattice80 was set up to build a fintech ecosystem in Asia and Singapore, as part of corporate social responsibility efforts.

Mr Cho says: "Marvelstone Tech's story is simple. We want to invest or develop all the fintech services in every sector, to become a digital bank for Asia. We focus on acquiring banking licences in Asia. That's my day job."

Marvelstone, already a financial institution in Singapore, is applying for a retail licence - a process which he estimates will take at least 12 months.

There are plans to list on the mainboard of the Singapore Exchange, adding credibility as Marvelstone wants to acquire more firms.

He notes: "We will bring Goldman Sachs' private banking service to retail customers, and the only way is through technology. One will be offering robo-advisers to help people manage their money, just like what we used to do for big hedge funds, but everything is automated."

Mr Cho also says the firm will spend the next 12 months educating the public, and has lined up a string of products including an education website and budgeting and payment apps to be released every two to three months.

Technology is the way to go, he adds, as it lowers the cost of financial products and services tremendously.

"Instead of hiring expensive fund managers like us, we can build strategies and replicate existing mutual fund products at no cost. I still believe in the zero commission model to help everyone.

"It's the same for Lattice80 as we're losing money from rental but it's easy to build revenue streams once you own the market, and we'll make money from big data, among other things. Retail customers should be the beneficiaries, getting premium services, and we want to offer these for free over time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Marvel of a program for his financial empire People'. Print Edition | Subscribe