Retiree mentors young people in business community and draws them to merchants' associations
Back in 1970, Mr Peter Lai was a feisty 19-year-old driving a second-hand Mini Cooper. At 21, he started a business selling eyewear as he preferred to be his own boss.
With more than $5,000 from his good friends and about $15,000 from an informal community group, he opened his first shop in Balestier in 1972.
"I rented only half the space for $250 a month, and it cost $90 a month to employ one person.
"Being your own boss meant you had to be very prudent, but food was cheap. One roti prata was 30 cents," says Mr Lai, now 65.
Over the years he opened a couple more stores in Ang Mo Kio.
In 1977, the monthly rental for a two-storey shop in Ang Mo Kio was $1,600 a month, he recalls.
Mr Lai, who is also a bird enthusiast, retired nine years ago as it was time to slow down, but he never forgot how he got his head start with the help of the community.
Worst and best bets
Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?
A My emporium, where I lost more than $800,000, which was worth a lot back then. I could have bought a house with that money.
It was my third retail shop, which I opened in Ang Mo Kio - it's where I'd say I made money, which is why I like living near it - in 1984 .
I didn't manage it well, and it also suffered in the bad economy then. If I were 30 years younger, I would do things differently.
In the past, there were no tools such as CCTVs or technology to help. We didn't plan properly and had staff and outsiders stealing goods, or mishandling them. We lacked proper stock control and inventory management.
The shop did well for a while and had losses every month later. We couldn't even calculate the losses because we didn't know the full extent of what went missing.
Q And what has been your best investment move?
A The best investments have been my business and property.
Over the years, I've seen how the country has prospered because the two have grown in value.
I had even thought of moving to Australia 30 years ago, but I'm glad I didn't.
I've had a lot of support over the years. After closing the emporium, I owed three months' rent to the Housing Board, and the amount I owed started escalating.
Then Member of Parliament Yeo Toon Chia helped me and I could pay off the original three months' rent in instalment with interest.
Without that help, I wouldn't have been able to move on to invest in other shops in Toa Payoh and grow my business.
That is why he is president of Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association and vice-president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore.
He now invests his time grooming young people in the business community.
He works hard to rope them into the associations and mentors them.
He also gets them to work together and encourages them to give feedback on how to enhance the community.
Mr Lai says: "Once you've made some money, it's good to give back to charity, and it's also good to help grow associations, like those for merchants. Associations should also invest in themselves.
"We must attract the young people, so the associations will withstand the test of time."
Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
HEALTH IS WEALTH
Health is more important than money. I had friends who were richer but younger and who died before their time, which is partly why I retired.
'' MR PETER LAI, on the important things in life.
Once you've made some money, it's good to give back to charity, and it's also good to help grow associations, like those for merchants. Associations should also invest in themselves.
'' MR LAI, who invests his time growing the business community.
I used to try out businesses which were doing well at that moment. When the watch industry was doing well, I started selling watches when I had stores in Toa Payoh.
'' MR LAI, on setting up various businesses as an industry outsider.
A I was the youngest of more than 10 children so I never had major difficulties as I was well taken care of.
My father did accounting and was later into property.
I worked in my eldest brother's spectacles shop before coming out to open my own store, with about $20,000 from friends and the community group.
My wife, who was my girlfriend then, also helped me with my business.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A I was interested in investing in businesses first.
After closing an emporium in 1985, I took over three shops, and balloted for another, in Toa Payoh.
In 1986, I had six shops. I took a break from managing them for 10 months and my wife took over.
I even started a business doing imports and exports, and supplied trophies for competitions at one point.
I started buying property in 1982 because I could not wait five years for a Housing Board flat. The deposit required was only $5,000 then. Before that, we lived above our shop.
I bought a semi-detached home in Jalan Pemimpin which cost more than $600,000 then and the down payment was $5,000. I had no experience in property.
It was only later that I became seriously interested.
Q Describe your investing strategy.
A Even if not many people believe in fengshui, I think it is important when investing in property.
It is about things like the direction which the house is facing and how that corresponds to your personal details.
I feel my business was smooth sailing when I was living in a terraced house in Ang Mo Kio, near my daughter's school. I bought it for $400,000 in 1985 and sold it in 1994 for about $1.2 million.
But after we moved to a bungalow in Surin Road, which I bought in 1994 for about $2.3 million, my business waxed and waned.
It is also about holding power, and I invest for the long term.
I have had losses of tens of thousands because I had no holding power, and once, I even had overdraft issues.
I used to try out businesses which were doing well at that moment.
When the watch industry was doing well, I started selling watches when I had stores in Toa Payoh.
I was also more daring then, setting up businesses as an industry outsider.
I would tell the suppliers: "You can cheat me, but I'm using cash to buy your goods, and if you do it once, I'll never work with you again. But if you treat me fairly, we'll have a long working relationship."
I still got duped, it was a lesson. I sold the outdated stocks for a song.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A I have sold the shops I used to rent out or had bought in the past, thanks to right timing and the Government's help.
At one point, I was able to rent out three shops, starting from $6,000 a month.
Now I have one shop in Ang Mo Kio which is being rented for $18,000 a month, and a terraced house near Yio Chu Kang which I bought for $2.2 million in 2011.
Q What does money mean to you?
A Health is more important than money. I had friends who were richer but younger and who died before their time, which is partly why I retired.
And don't wreck relationships because of money. All the money in the world cannot buy those back.
Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?
A Having changed cars at least 40 times in the past.
I even held some cars for three months and I have had Rolls-Royces and different Mercedes models.
Back then, a car could be an investment as it was much cheaper and the certificate of entitlement could raise the value of a car.
Q How have your retirement plans been?
A At my age, I cannot get loans and I no longer invest actively.
Instead, I invest my time growing the business community. The Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association has grown from 36 to more than 140 members over the past five years.
I do not nitpick over things like membership fees. I also helped the association get the office space near AMK Hub.
It would help if the Government gave merchants more support, and for more association heads to also helm Citizens' Consultative Committees, for instance. I volunteer for such things because I enjoy giving back.
I also used to be the chairman of Mayflower Primary School's school advisory committee for 25 years.
Q Home is now...
A A semi-detached home near Yio Chu Kang.
Q I drive...
A A Mercedes in the 300 series.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Much to be chirpy about'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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