Me&MyMoney

Understanding the science and art of investing

Ms Eunice Tan, a road accident survivor, left the legal sector to set up her own business, JPS Consultancy, in 2010. She says her guiding principles in investing are that money is something she can afford to lose and that it is fine that she does not
Ms Eunice Tan, a road accident survivor, left the legal sector to set up her own business, JPS Consultancy, in 2010. She says her guiding principles in investing are that money is something she can afford to lose and that it is fine that she does not see immediate returns.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

This is the final of a four-part series on women from various fields, including technology and consumer businesses.

A near-death experience did not stop business consultant Eunice Tan from completing her undergraduate studies, even though she had to spend seven years to do it.

She was hit by a bus while crossing the road when she was a law student at the University of Manchester in April 2001.

"All I remember is that I was crossing the road and suddenly felt like I was flying and thought I was dreaming," recalled the 39-year-old.

"I felt the cold draught in my face and the hard floor, and the next thing I knew, I felt something dripping down my forehead and smelt blood."

She said she required "seven bags of blood, four operations in two weeks", and months of recuperation. But she was determined to complete her studies, even as she needed to work part-time to pay for the school fees and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

GOING WITH THE HUNCH

You may have all the steps and strategies and gurus teaching you, but it's an art to listen to that hunch that you have... It's like what Warren Buffett says, when people are fearful, be greedy. Sometimes your hunch tells you to go ahead, and sometimes it tells you to stop.

MS EUNICE TAN, a business consultant, on investing being an art and a science

Even though the unfortunate events were not her fault, she felt bad that she had chosen to leave her family behind to study overseas.

She said she started thinking that had she not moved overseas, the accident would not have occurred and her family would not have gone through all that heartache.

It took a while, but she eventually recovered with much effort, "grateful that I was given a second chance in life... and learning to forgive myself for everything that happened, as I felt guilty many times".

After returning to Singapore in December 2007, she was ready to pursue her career. She worked in the corporate department of a law firm as a legal executive for 21/2 years.

She was planning to take the Bar exam, but something her colleague said got her thinking about leaving the industry, even though her degree had been hard-earned. "I was going through a lot of contracts and working long hours," she said.

"The long hours were never the issue. But the lawyer I worked with told me that to be a good corporate lawyer, I had to think of all the things that could possibly go wrong so that we could have a watertight contract, to act in the best interests of the client so that the client wouldn't have to go through litigation."

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A There have been investments that went wrong, but I wouldn't say any one was the biggest mistake.

    With every mistake, I learn something from it. I take those as my school fees.

    The lessons I've learnt include one about partnership, and who you team up with is very important. Your mindsets, risk level and personalities must be aligned.

    And these fall under qualitative rather than qauntitative factors. In many partnerships, whether in business or investments, those will make and break your investment.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A A personal development course that I signed up for in 2008. It was about starting a business with little or no money.

    It changed my whole perspective and mindset and showed me what is possible.

    I learnt my limiting beliefs and doubts, and how to let go of them. It was also when I started forgiving myself.

    I also got to know more people from that network, and the trainers also introduced me to others. The trainers showed me the sky's the limit. It's a matter of whether you want it or not.

    Rachael Boon

It was then that she asked if law was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, and she eventually decided to leave to set up her own business, JPS Consultancy, in 2010.

She applied the same doggedness that she had employed in her studies to her firm, which undertakes consulting for business owners and investors. It also offers corporate secretarial, accounting and marketing services.

Ms Tan does not feel that her legal experience was a waste as it has helped her to give her clients more holistic advice, from a legal and business perspective.

She believes investments have qualitative and quantitative parts.

She noted that although facts, figures and numbers are important, people miss out on the qualitative aspect of investing, which includes individual mindsets, personalities and risk appetites, among other things.

She cited an example: "If you buy a property with a few friends, are you able to separate friendship from the investment?"

She noted that in 2010, many people were looking only at residential real estate and not commercial units, which could have a purchase price of just $300,000.

"They may have been shown how to invest in commercial property, but only a handful did, and when those properties got their temporary occupation permits in 2013, they were sold for at least $500,000."

Referring to qualitative factors, Ms Tan said those investors had the courage to head in a direction many were doubtful of.

"They were willing to take personal responsibility for their decisions, even if the investment didn't work out."

Ms Tan also said investing is an art and a science.

"You may have all the steps and strategies and gurus teaching you, but it's an art to listen to that hunch that you have... It's like what Warren Buffett says, when people are fearful, be greedy. Sometimes your hunch tells you to go ahead, and sometimes it tells you to stop."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I've five elder siblings - I'm the sixth child. Money was, in a way, tight, but my parents were always good with money.

My dad, who was a lorry driver and died in 2008, always made sure we had a roof over our head and food on the table. My mum had a provision stall in a market and she worked until 2000.

I used to see my dad's budgeting in action. When he gave us pocket money, he would put six sets of cash in sequence on the table, the biggest amount for my eldest brother and the smallest for me.

As a lorry driver, he was paid for each trip and he would record all the trips he made and make sure he was paid correctly. He included savings as part of the household budget, working out how much he needed and the minimum number of trips he needed to make every month. He would always do more than the minimum number of trips.

My dad also told me that I always had to save a portion of my pocket money, no matter how small the amount was, and that my pocket money is for food and necessities. If I wanted anything, I'd have to save up or think of other solutions.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I started to become interested after attending a personal development course in 2008. One of my sisters is in property so I learnt a lot from her too.

Also, I've always wanted to do two things - to be a lawyer and to run my own business. I attempted small businesses when I was younger, such as running a small tuition agency.

The lawyer I worked with really got me thinking about whether I wanted to stay in the legal industry for the rest of my life, and I decided not to take the Bar exam, and to head to my other love - business.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I always say, learn about investment strategies first. You learn, then you earn. Many get stuck on how to get from learning to earning. How do you do that? With the word "learn" as an initialism - you learn, experience, (take) action, review your steps and then you nail it.

I practise that in my investments and business. It may sound simple, but it is not easy.

I also study the qualitative and quantitative parts of an investment. The qualitative is something people forget - like the emotional aspect of investing, whether you can take it if the price goes down, or which stage of life you're at, whether you need the funds or not.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A Shares, in particular real estate investment trusts (Reits), and property. I have exchange-traded funds too.

My ultimate goal from shares is to create passive income, and I think property and shares complement each other.

Shares give you the liquidity and are a little bit more fluid than property, and you can see certain returns within a year.

For property, you buy before it gets its temporary occupation permit, and it could be three years before you get any income. You have to hold it for the long term.

Q What does money mean to you?

A It's a tool and up to you to use it for good or bad.

I'm in a fund-raising group that organises charity dinners every year, and it's a different beneficiary each year.

It's very easy to just give money to charities, but it's not about money, it's about what you can do.

Once you start doing something (actively) and you see the smile on people's faces, it's a lot more rewarding.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A I went to Israel last year with my church for a week for a biblical tour and that cost about $5,000. I don't think that's extravagant, as (the term) implies that it's not useful. This trip was very useful to me.

Q What has been one of your biggest regrets when it comes to investing?

A That I didn't start learning how to invest earlier. I made my first investment in 2009, in a property in the Philippines. The payment worked out to be $700 a month, which was affordable.

Sometimes you just need to take the action to invest, but not necessarily a very big commitment to start with. You can start by taking baby steps with a small amount.

My guiding principles are that the money is something I can afford to lose and that it's okay that I won't be able to see returns in the next five years.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A Continue to build my portfolio, especially in shares, but I'm likely to stick to Reits.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A It depends on the definition of retirement. If retirement means doing what you enjoy after you leave your job at a certain age, I already enjoy what I'm doing, so I always say I'm semi-retired.

Q Home is now...

A A three-room corner Housing Board flat in Ang Mo Kio with my mum and two sisters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'Understanding the science and art of investing'. Print Edition | Subscribe