Mr Mark Bedingham is driven by an insatiable curiosity.
The Malaysia-born Briton and chief executive officer of Singapore Exchange-listed Singapore Myanmar Investco (SMI) finds exploring the unfamiliar totally exhilarating.
Mr Bedingham, who spent his entire career - more than four decades - working in the Asia-Pacific, describes his passion for the region as a subconscious association resulting from the first seven years of his life in Malaysia.
"My father was in the Malaysian police - in anti-communist intelligence - before and after independence, and my parents had many friends who lived and worked in this part of the world," he recalled.
After graduating from St John's College, Oxford University, with a degree in biological sciences in 1977, Mr Bedingham began his career with Jardine Matheson. He held positions in various key consumer divisions in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan before being appointed director of Jardine Pacific.
Mr Bedingham, who also holds a master's degree in agricultural and forest sciences from Oxford University's School of Biological Sciences, joined LVMH Moet Hennessy in 1995 as its regional managing director of Asia-Pacific.
Fast-forward to 2015, when Mr Bedingham began the next leg of his journey in one of Asia's largest frontier markets.
In January that year, he was appointed CEO of SMI - a diversified business group with a primary focus on Myanmar. The company, previously known as Singapore Windsor Holdings, exited its printed circuit board business due to price competition, and changed its corporate name to SMI.
Why Myanmar? "In my view, it's too late to get into markets like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia - they already have very well-established domestic companies," Mr Bedingham noted. "I've been travelling to Myanmar for the past 20 years, and have good contacts there. I believe this market has better medium- to long-term potential."
SMI has a market capitalisation of over $140 million. In the last 12 months, the stock has generated a total return of 38.5 per cent, outperforming the benchmark Straits Times Index's 22.7 per cent and FTSE ST All-Share Index's 21.5 per cent total return.
In the three years since SMI began its transformation into a Myanmar-focused group, it has narrowed annual comprehensive net losses to US$159,000 (S$223,000) for the year ended March 31 last year, from HK$87 million (S$15.8 million) in the year ended March 31 , 2014.
The group's operations revolve around five business pillars - duty-free travel retail, food and beverage, auto services, construction services and infrastructure.
"Our mission is very simple - to play an active role in the modernisation of Myanmar, and to bring in products and services that are not present," Mr Bedingham said.
The outlook for the first pillar is bright, after SMI secured 90 per cent of the commercial space in Yangon International Airport's new terminal for 10 years. The contract covers multi-brand and multi-category space that spans nearly 2,200 sq m on three levels of the terminal, and over 4,500 sq m of mono-brand fashion, lifestyle and travel retail concepts, all of which are duty-free. A total of 39 stores have opened since September last year.
The Group's exclusive 10-year supply agreement with DFS forms an integral part of its business model, which aims to raise Myanmar's airport shopping experience to the next level, said Mr Bedingham, who served nearly seven years on the board of the world's leading travel retailer.
"Duty-free and travel retail will be a major growth driver over the next few years. We buy from DFS, with Singapore as our logistics and processing hub," he added.
The next phase of SMI's strategy involves introducing major F&B franchises, such as Crystal Jade, Ippudo and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, to the airport and broader domestic market.
"We're extremely confident about the Crystal Jade franchise. We're starting with a mid-tier concept, and hope to do a higher-end Crystal Jade Palace later on."
One Crystal Jade Kitchen outlet opened last year in the new terminal, and the second began operations last month in Junction City, a mixed-use development with a total built-up area of 260,000 sq m in downtown Yangon. SMI has also inked an agreement with Crystal Jade to develop six restaurants in the nation over the next decade.
SMI opened the first Ippudo ramen restaurant last month in Junction City. It signed three franchise agreements for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf for the airport, with the third outlet being located in the new domestic terminal.
The group has also made inroads into the domestic retail market. It secured about 65 per cent of the commercial space on Level 1 - the luxury floor - of Junction City mall, and featured brands will include Coach, Aigner, Furla, Pandora, Love Moschino, Bering and Versace Versus.
Myanmar's Tourism Ministry forecasts visitor arrivals to rise to 7.5 million in FY2020 from five million in FY2016, which will stoke demand for SMI's F&B and retail brands. Apart from tourism, international business travel will be a key driver, Mr Bedingham said.
"Our selected brands are targeted at Chinese and Japanese business travellers. How well we're doing with travellers from Vietnam, as well as other Asean countries, has also been a pleasant surprise."
Meanwhile, the country's domestic demand potential should not be overlooked.
"We estimate that 300,000 to 500,000 Burmese can afford to shop in domestic malls, together with international residents," he noted. "The wealthy are not in the habit of buying locally, largely because there was nothing to buy. We're in the process of changing that."
Mr Bedingham expects SMI's F&B operations to expand at a rapid clip. "For retail, we'll have to see which brands and concepts work. We've no intention of introducing ultra-high-end labels, but there's definitely an opportunity to bring in prestige and premium brands."
The World Bank projects Myanmar's real gross domestic product to grow 7.8 per cent in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, up from 7 per cent in 2015-2016, and averaging an 8.2 per cent expansion over the medium term.
The country's population of nearly 54 million - more than 60 per cent of whom are below the age of 35 - also offers a significant consumer base.
In auto services, SMI holds a master franchise agreement with international car rental company Europcar to provide vehicle rental and limousine services.
"The potential is huge - Europcar is the only international brand operating in the country. We've already increased sales by nearly 100 per cent over the last 12 months, and expect further growth," he noted.
TAKING THE LEAD
For construction services, SMI has partnered Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer Sany International to market, distribute and service a full range of equipment, including excavators, cranes, drilling rigs and road machinery.
With Myanmar's economy expanding rapidly and extensive infrastructure projects in the pipeline, its construction sector will see robust growth.
To gain a leadership position in the market, SMI modified its business model by offering customers financing options through Sany Capital, as well as tying up with local and offshore banks.
• This is an excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: the Company Brew, a regular column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed companies. Previous editions can be found on SGX's My Gateway website www.sgx.com/mygateway