SMU student's 2-month stint in Dubai after NS turns into a year-long job, laying the ground for his business ventures
An initial two-month stint at a Saudi marine firm in Dubai after national service ended up charting the course of Mr Eric Chean's life.
Not only did that turn into a year-long job from 2011 to 2012 - which involved giving up a spot at university - but it also laid the ground for his businesses.
"I slept in the office. I followed my boss around, during which I exchanged name-cards, got some contacts to start with, and learnt how to network," says Mr Chean, 26.
When he returned to study accountancy at Singapore Management University (SMU), he was steered towards shipping again.
Mr Chean recalls the brokerage fee for his first deal - a rig move - was US$6,000 or 1.25 per cent of the entire contract, which took five months to secure. Cold calls, knocking on doors, he did it all.
He set up his shipbroking business Oceanus Offshore in July 2012, with savings from Dubai, and funds from investing, and a year in Brunei on national service - which few people wanted to do - just before school started.
"During orientation and classes, I'd make calls, to the extent that my professor told my classmates, 'Wow, this student acts like a boss, walking in and out'. I didn't know until they told me much later. I tried to be as undisruptive as possible," says Mr Chean, who is a final- year student at SMU.
The firm expanded to four people and did well for three years until oil prices started to fall. In between, Mr Chean took a year off school to work on his business.
Oceanus Offshore is now dormant, and his latest venture is Marine Nexus, an online platform that connects vessel providers with their customers globally.
"The offline methods are inefficient. The way I was doing business was to make 100 phone calls, and I thought there should be a smarter way." He started work on the platform in January last year and eventually roped in former classmate Timothy Ong, who started working in July last year. Marine Nexus went live at the end of February this year.
Mr Chean, who is the chief executive, invested more than $10,000 in the platform. It also won $20,000 from an innovation competition by SMU and the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce last November.
Worst and best bets
Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?
A Investing in a shipping company on speculation that a buyout by management was imminent, only for it to not materialise and the stock to drop 10 per cent.
The US$20,000 loan to my client was also bad because of the opportunity cost as money was stuck there. I even had to delay my staff's salary by one to two weeks, and one of my guys had to lend me money but I returned it to him three days later as we had a sudden payment.
Q And what has been your best investment move?
A Investing in Marine Nexus has been my best investment, not just from a financial standpoint but also from a personal growth standpoint.
Growing Marine Nexus has allowed me and my partner to be at the forefront of innovation in the way the shipping business is conducted. We are at a crossroads of shipping, energy and technology, meaning that every day I come to work growing more and being part of the discussion on how to improve the industry through commercial application of information technology in shipping.
Investing in Marine Nexus has also been extremely rewarding from a personal growth standpoint because it has exposed me to the development of technology, which frankly is the way forward in this century.
As we see technology basically permeating every aspect of our society now, I knew that I had to start gaining experience in working with technology, allowing me to upgrade my own skillsets and making me more relevant in the economy of the future.
My books have also reaped the best returns ever. Just on investment, I've five books, many of them related to Warren Buffett.
The firm employs seven people, including two Norwegian interns, and the platform has more than 300 vessels in the offshore support and construction space, from almost 50 companies. Its users come from 80 countries.
Mr Chean says: "A large majority are ship owners, some are brokers, too. We hope to help forge new connections in other active markets at lower costs, and to be a sales channel for equipment and services, to bring to light newer technologies in the industry."
His atypical path has also been influenced by his brother, who is seven years older.
"He's also an entrepreneur and, some time ago, he returned from San Francisco, where he went for an exchange. He told me how different it was there - people were forward thinking and thinking out of the box. Being not that fantastic at school, I always tried to excel in other areas and I identified with that."
Before Mr Chean took a detour into shipping, the financial crisis in 2008 pushed him towards wanting to be a fund manager. "I wondered why everyone was saying it was the end of the world and talking about Bear Stearns - I had no idea what it was about. That's when I started getting interested and watched videos on YouTube."
Bear Stearns was a Wall Street firm that collapsed in 2008 during the sub-prime crisis.
Mr Chean developed a keen interest in investment guru Warren Buffett's advice - the name comes up several times - and was running his own portfolio in 2009.
He also invested on behalf of his friends, which became a portfolio of about $25,000. "I was watching Bloomberg, CNBC every day, watching the stocks and studying the market every day. I even issued monthly reports to them."
His accountancy training also came in handy later on. "I can dig into the notes of financial statements and find out how companies are valuing their assets and recording their revenues. That's very important. As far as I'm concerned, the closest thing to magic in this world is accounting and law. It's all based on interpretation, to some extent."
Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
A As my parents came from very poor backgrounds in Malaysia, they ensured that as my siblings and I were growing up, we were not pampered, and also learnt the value of frugality. My parents always emphasise the importance of hard work and keeping a large portion of my income in savings. I spend on "needs" more than "wants" - the foundation of all my financial decisions.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A I was exposed during national service when an old schoolmate of mine told me to read the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
I used to think that to be successful financially, I'd to work hard at my job and save consistently; I was not taught to let your money work for you.
I realised that not only was learning how to invest good to know, but it was also a necessity for a sustainable financial future, considering how the value of money has been deteriorating over the years.
I started investing in 2009, as I saw the markets were going crazy. Everything told me this is the time to invest. I put $500 in a unit trust at first, but that was not beating the market. In August 2009, I took out the capital and with savings from national service, I invested in stocks such as Cosco Corp and got a 25 per cent return for my portfolio.
I remember buying Golden Agri. It went from 51 cents to 76 cents, and I sold it. I'd bought it before I left for a short trip to Brunei; when I got Internet access I saw it was 60 cents; and when I came back it was near 70 cents. It spiked from August to December 2010, by 30 per cent, one of my best-performing stocks then. By March 2011, I grew my savings to about $13,000.
I calculated my returns against the MSCI AC Asia Pacific ex-Japan Index, and beat the market by 3 per cent for 2010. I was doing all of this thinking of a career in fund management.
Q Describe your investing strategy.
A I would say my investment tendencies are more of a high-risk strategy. However, I also apply a simple framework when studying investments: safe, growth, cheap.
These three components of my investment strategy are derived from many sources but I've mainly been influenced by The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham.
I'd dig deep into the financial statements of the companies and then combine that with qualitative assessments of their position in the industries they are in.
Safe refers to the company not having any risk of catastrophic collapse, and it can support its liabilities in a sustainable fashion. I use ratios like current ratios, interest coverage and studying a firm's cash flows.
Growth refers to the company being in a good industry which is growing healthily. Buffett says it's better to buy a good business with moderate management, than to buy a poor business with excellent management, in the context of the industry. It's extremely difficult to pick stocks that will do well from a capital-appreciation point of view, when the industry they are in is not growing.
To some extent, you buy industries that are doing well, and then you pick the guys who are better positioned. I invested in companies I knew well in the oil and gas space like Swissco Holdings, Jaya before it was bought out, and Ezion back then. Those were my big gains.
So I prefer to pick businesses in a growing sector, where I can dig deep into their financials to get an understanding whether to invest or not - and I use qualitative and quantitative methods.
Cheap refers to the company having a low price relative to its value.
I use a combination of the price-earnings ratio and price-to- book ratio, which I multiply to get the enterprise value. I avoid investing in companies with a value above 16 as it indicates an over-valuation.
Sometimes I look at other determinants that may make me deviate from the rule. Investing is an art, not a science.
If the financial statement is too complicated, I find it's not a good firm to invest in, as Buffett suggests. I like simple companies, like Chip Eng Seng. They tell you things like they recognise 75 per cent of the revenue once the property is built.
I also like the focused strategy that Buffett and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman do, rather than to diversify. I can dig deeper, and spend as much time as possible observing a counter. Then I can see myself as the owner of the company.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A From 2012 to 2013, my returns were about 30 per cent, and the portfolio was below $30,000. I started to draw down funds because of my company's cash flow. I'd loaned a Middle East client US$20,000, which I got back only two years later. At one point, I had to borrow $3,000 from my mum and $2,000 from my elder brother. But I returned the money three months later.
Oceanus was doing well from 2012 to 2014. In the first year, it earned a net profit of $5,000, $15,000 next and $40,000 in the third year. It did more than $200 million worth of deals for jobs in the Middle East and South-east Asia.
In the second half of 2014, the market collapsed. I'd secured multi-year contracts with clients but they were having difficulties. I'd an order book of commissions - thrown around a lot these days - of almost US$3 million to be collected over five to seven years.
Marine Nexus is my main investment now, but I still hold stocks in Singapore-listed companies such as Chip Eng Seng and a Reit called Ascendas India Trust.
Chip Eng Seng has been performing nicely, based on my purchase price, with a payout of 5 to 6 per cent. It has plenty of upside once the property market turns. I bought the trust because India is one of the few economies that seem to be able to grow in the next few years.
I used to focus more on growth stocks but due to my business and the subdued investing environment, I'm focusing on companies that are able to provide a good yield with potential for capital gains.
Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?
A I rarely splurge on material things, but I'm willing to spend on people I care about. To celebrate my girlfriend's birthday - as she is quite a foodie - I took her to a top- class restaurant and bought her a bouquet of roses. That's nothing compared to the support she has given me over the years.
Q What are your immediate investment plans?
A To pour most of my resources into developing Marine Nexus further. With my business partner Timothy, we intend to make Marine Nexus the connector for the entire maritime industry. We believe that on multiple levels, spiritually and financially, we will make big gains.
Q How are you planning for retirement?
A To have an active retirement focused on community service and helping my church. I hope to be financially independent by 35. That means a moderate-sized Housing Board flat with a simple lifestyle, and not to worry about money.
Q Home is now/I drive...
A I live with my family in a terraced house in the north. I don't drive because I find Uber so much more convenient.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Stint at marine firm charts his course in life'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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