As a youngster, if Freddie Chan wanted to go to a movie, he had to take up school holiday work that was sometimes so demanding that he got hurt.
During his Secondary 2 break, for instance, he lugged around and installed office partitions as part of a full-time job for an interior renovation firm.
Mr Chan, 47, recalled: "Because I was quite young, physically it was very demanding because you need to carry heavy stuff.
"That time I was also not good at installing panels and injured myself on and off, like by getting a lot of cuts on my hands."
Today, he is the proud owner of four businesses in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) sector which earned a collective US$15 million (S$20 million in sales last year.
When he was an 18-year-old polytechnic student, a stint at his eldest brother's oil and gas firm Aircom instilled in him a determination to run his own business.
His brother, then in his early 40s, was making "millions of dollars", driving his own car and living in landed property.
"I felt that through doing a business you can generate more income than working for somebody," said Mr Chan, who assisted with tasks such as delivering spare parts for air compressors.
He graduated from a mechanical engineering programme at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and started work at home appliance manufacturer Asia Matsushita. He stayed at the firm, now called Panasonic, for one year as a marketing executive.
Worst and best bets
Q What has been your biggest investment mistake?
A Around 1994, I bought some Clob shares on rumours heard through friends that they were going up, without doing market research. I bought on a "contra basis" which meant I could buy without any capital outlay but had to sell within seven days.
Because of a few stocks which fell in value in 1994, I lost about $30,000 to $40,000.
Q And what has been your best investment move?
A My best investment would be my business. I started in 2004 with almost nothing, and last year, the four businesses made US$15 million (S$20 million) in sales. Start-up capital for Nenutec Asia Pacific was $2,000 and it broke even in the third year.
Then he moved on to become a product sales engineer for automation systems manufacturer Johnson Controls. He closely studied the products he was selling - they were made for equipment like security systems and fire-alarm systems - and regards this as vital to his success.
"Although I was in sales, I did a lot of hands-on work like connecting the products with electrical wiring and testing them myself - (to figure out) how it works and understand the individual product. This gives me a lot of confidence to talk to the clients."
Customers would call him a "walking dictionary", he recalled.
He established close relationships with clients, who would frequently turn to him for advice. When he provided the advice, this boosted their confidence in him.
Within two years he achieved a double promotion - he was made product assistant manager and then product sales manager. Sales for his team, which consisted of him and an administrative executive, rose from $1 million when he first joined to about $2.5 million in two years.
He was then headhunted by Swiss-based HVAC equipment manufacturer Joventa, a Johnson Controls subsidiary. After he worked there for six years as regional sales director, Joventa was fully acquired by Johnson Controls in 2004 and it was then that he decided to start his own business.
IT'S NOT ABOUT MAKING MONEY NOW
I'm growing my business because of my passion for it. No matter how much you have, when you kick the bucket, you can't take it with you.
'' MR FREDDIE CHAN, on what money means to him now.
Another push factor was his 60- year-old boss, a Swiss national, who suggested that they start a brand of HVAC products together. His boss would sell these in Europe and Mr Chan's firm would market them in Asia.
The companies would be served by the same suppliers in China, to which his Swiss partner would impart product manufacturing know- how. They would also both hire engineers to do research and development and share the costs.
Mr Chan, who was not married then, agreed and founded Nenutec Asia Pacific in 2004, knowing he had enough savings to cover two years of living expenses - about $50,000 to $60,000. The firm's profits grew and he set up three more firms in the HVAC sector - Swisotec Jiaxing, Swisotec Actuators and KVS Valves.
Mr Chan's wife, Anna Chan, 45, is an executive director for accounting at Nenutec Asia Pacific. They do not have any children.
Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
A I am the youngest in the family with three brothers and eight sisters. Before I was born, my parents gave a brother and two sisters away at no cost to family friends and a relative as we could not afford to bring them up. When I was growing up, most of my siblings were already working, so I did not have to worry about my daily expenses. However, we could not afford luxury goods.
Eleven of us lived in a three-room attap house in Mergui Road until I was seven. We then moved to a three-room HDB flat in Bedok.
When that happened, three siblings had to move out as there was not enough room. They were already working then.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A My first investment was buying $3,000 worth of Singtel IPO shares in 1993. When Singtel listed, everyone was so excited, so that made me buy the shares. Thereafter, I started to pay more attention to the stock market.
Q Describe your investment strategy.
A I invest in overseas and local companies where the earnings before interest and tax is 6 per cent of sales and above. I strike a balance between high-risk and low-risk stocks. I also read up to see if the company I am considering is planning any investments or new projects.
I bought $34,000 worth of Sheng Siong shares around 2014 at about 68 cents apiece. This is because it is a resilient stock that pays good dividends. When times are bad, people will still need to buy necessities and supermarket goods will also look cheap.
I also bet on the outcome of events that will influence currency values. I only deal with the US dollar/Singdollar, US dollar/euro and US dollar/yen currency pairs. To improve my accuracy, I read up on such events.
For instance, I expect Britain to vote to remain in the European Union (EU) in the June 23 referendum. Thus I bought €400,000 on leverage last month (I have paid for only €44,000).
Britons will likely choose to stay because if they exit, it will negatively affect their currency and economy. Even their prime minister and major political parties have said they should stay in the EU. After the vote, if they stay, the euro will strengthen against the US dollar as people were afraid they would leave.
For bonds, I usually buy those paying less than 5 per cent in coupons. There is a much lower risk of default for such bonds. Most Singapore bonds do not have Standard & Poor's ratings, so I look for issuers in which Temasek Holdings has a share.
Last year, in May, I bought $250,000 worth of Sembcorp Industries perpetual securities paying 4.75 per cent per year.
I also invest in a mix of equity funds and bond funds. I mostly pick equity funds which invest in the big companies of a particular market. For instance, I have invested in equity funds investing in Chinese equities as I believe that their economy will continue to grow.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A The property portion is worth about $1.5 million and makes up about 30 per cent of my portfolio. It includes a condo I'm living in in Upper Serangoon and a condo in China's Zhejiang province that's worth about $500,000.
Equity, which includes equity funds, makes up 30 per cent, and bonds, including bond funds, take up 20 per cent. Forex now occupies about 10 per cent and cash about 10 per cent. Average annual returns for the past five years is about 5 to 6 per cent.
For my businesses, net profit from the four businesses last year was about US$750,000 - about 5 per cent of sales.
Q What does money mean to you?
A Money is immaterial to me these days. All my properties and cars are fully paid for, so I need a very low income to survive - $3,000 to $5,000 a month. I'm growing my business because of my passion for it. No matter how much you have, when you kick the bucket, you can't take it with you. I earn more money to help family, friends and charity organisations.
Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?
A I bought a sports car - a Porsche Cayman S - for close to $400,000 six months ago. I enjoy driving it more than a normal car and the shape of the sports car looks really nice. I was thinking I only live once, and since I can afford it, I decided to buy it.
Q What are your immediate investment plans?
A I am looking at condominiums in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
One particular condominium I'm looking at has the name Vinhomes. Its developer guarantees that it can help us rent units out at an 8 per cent rental yield for rental periods of up to three years. Some of my business clients there said the rental yield can go above 8 per cent.
I intend to get two two-bedroom units this month. One unit is worth about US$250,000. I'm not looking at stocks and bonds now.
Q How are you planning for retirement?
A I can now generate a passive income of $20,000 a month with my investments.
For me and my wife in retirement, we need about $10,000.
For my business, I will let it go to anyone who is able to take it to the next level. I will probably step down from the business about 10 years from now but I will not totally retire but still be an adviser to the company.
Q Home is now/I drive...
A A condo in Upper Serangoon. I bought it for about $577,000 in 2003 and it's now worth about $1 million. I live with my wife. I drive a BMW X5 and a Porsche Cayman S.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline ' Being his own boss - that's the way he likes it'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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