Calculated decision behind the big changes in his life

Finance veteran moves into property to head OneB Asia and woo Asian investors to Brazil

Financial services veteran Mr Urbanec, 49, took on the role to helm holding company OneB Asia last November. Growth opportunities in Brazil compelled him to make the switch as the firm believes property prospects are bright there.
Financial services veteran Mr Urbanec, 49, took on the role to helm holding company OneB Asia last November. Growth opportunities in Brazil compelled him to make the switch as the firm believes property prospects are bright there.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

Czech-born Tomas Urbanec made some big changes last year.

He switched jobs, switched industries and also gave up his United States citizenship to become a Singapore citizen.

But none of this was done on impulse. For instance, few people would go to such great lengths to suss out their prospective employer as Mr Urbanec, 49, did.

The financial services industry veteran of 25 years flew to Brazil to check out the city of Natal in Rio Grande do Norte state where the firm he now works for, OneB Asia, has extensive real estate projects.

Holding company OneB Asia was formed in 2013 when a construction firm in Natal, Construtora G5, merged with real estate development and investment firm Ritz Property. It has offices in Brazil, Britain and here - and is eyeing a listing on the Singapore Exchange (SGX).

What Mr Urbanec observed on his week-long trip in August last year was enough to convince him to take on the role as the property firm's chief executive.

"I spent a lot of time talking to developers to understand the ins and outs of the market. And it occurred to me that there are lots of opportunities, not just in property. If you have access to capital - in a capital-constrained market like Brazil - there are lots of things you can do," said the former chief executive of insurer Prudential Singapore.

OneB Asia is focused on acquiring greenfield sites and enhancing their value through developing residential, hotel and mixed-use projects.

Mr Urbanec, who is based in Singapore in his new job, said OneB Asia has five properties in Rio Grande do Norte, on Brazil's north-eastern tip, with a total gross development value of $800 million.

They include two residential projects, Palm Springs and Majestic Village, and three hotels: Grand Mercure Piramide, Mercure Natal and Natal Mar (to be rebranded as Ibis).

The three hotels will have about 710 rooms in all, representing 15 per cent of the room supply in Rio Grande do Norte, Mr Urbanec added. All the hotels are managed under the Accor Hotels brand.

With a pipeline of five residential and two hotel projects to come, the firm hopes to tap more capital from Asia to fund its Brazil investments.

"We are tapping largely the high- net-worth individuals, but as the investments grow in size, we are certainly having a few discussions with some institutional funds," he said.

A listing on SGX "in the near future" is on the cards, as well as seeking ways to expand into other types of financial solutions for the Brazilian market.

"One of the things is looking at how we can accelerate (growth in) the residential mortgage market, which is very small now, and how we can sell insurance when people buy land and property... There's potentially a role for us to provide capital at the lowest cost to developers."

Mr Urbanec's extensive experience in the financial services industry and an understanding of how financial products are structured will help him seize new business opportunities in Brazil.

He left Prudential Singapore early last year and started a financial services consultancy - still in operation - before he took on the role to helm OneB Asia last November.

Before joining Prudential, he was at large insurance companies such as AIG and Ace Insurance, now known as Chubb. Mr Urbanec said he wanted change after years of working for some of the largest global financial services firms.

"In the current world of industry disruption, I believe those companies that are nimble and opportunistic will thrive. I wanted to either create or find such an opportunity - so I did both, created a new consulting business and joined OneB Asia."

Mr Urbanec, who has been working and living in Asia for 18 years, also gave up his US citizenship to become a Singapore citizen last year.

Born in then Czechoslovakia in 1967, Mr Urbanec and his parents emigrated to the US in 1969. He became a US citizen 10 years later.

Since 1999, he had been based in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai, before coming to Singapore in 2009 and deciding to stay.

"I think what defines Asia, and Singapore embodies this very well, is a very strong work ethic. It is in an ambitious part of the world. Countries and individuals have big ambitions. The workforce is well-educated and wants to be successful. Those are great qualities."

Working in Asia, particularly in China, transformed his views on where the region stands on the world stage. "I became convinced that Asia would be the centre of the globe in terms of wealth creation, of power and influence - certainly for this century," he added.

The rising number of millionaires in countries including China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia also presents opportunities for OneB Asia to tap investment capital.

Mr Urbanec said about 70 per cent of OneB Asia's investors are from Singapore, but he expects this proportion to shrink in the next 12 to 18 months as more Chinese investors come in. His priorities this year include educating Asian investors about the potential opportunities and risks in Brazil, where the firm believes prospects in the property market are bright, given a housing shortage and growth in tourism.

OneB Asia has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with a Singapore consultancy for urbanisation and infrastructure developments to develop the land around the new Natal Airport. Mr Urbanec said the consultancy firm had asked OneB Asia not to disclose its identity.

Even though he did not have extensive experience in the real estate industry, he said the growth opportunities in Brazil had compelled him to make the switch from the financial services sector.

"I have a simple view on business: As long as you stay focused on creating products and services that offer real value and meet real needs, customers will reward you and things always work out - irrespective of the industry," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Calculated decision behind the big changes in his life'. Print Edition | Subscribe