This CEO is a fighter

Founder of business financing platform has goals firmly in sight

New Union chief executive Eddie Lee, who is trained in martial arts, wants to return to his real passion and set up a Muay Thai gym, "where going to work means training every day".
New Union chief executive Eddie Lee, who is trained in martial arts, wants to return to his real passion and set up a Muay Thai gym, "where going to work means training every day". ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Lying on the floor with a swollen face, a teenage Eddie Lee had just lost a fist fight to a classmate who was shorter, but heavier, than him.

Now 36, the 1.8m-tall entrepreneur recalled the blows. He had told himself then: "The next time I fight, I will not lose again."

He picked up martial arts and was good enough, at age 18, to be selected to represent Singapore in the SEA Games. But his mother, fearing for his life, did not consent.

Singapore's recent first Olympic gold medal triumph causes Mr Lim to ponder what might have been.

He said wistfully: "That's been my biggest regret, for not contesting. After watching Joseph Schooling, I thought it wouldn't have been so bad to at least give it a shot."

New Union chief executive Eddie Lee, who is trained in martial arts, wants to return to his real passion and set up a Muay Thai gym, "where going to work means training every day". ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

That is probably why he pulls no punches at work and in life, armed with a fighting spirit to succeed.

"Martial arts requires a lot of discipline and perseverance, and as long as I had set my goals, I knew I'd achieve them. That had an impact on how I run things."

He described himself as an entrepreneur from the streets, who was "a typical C, some say D, student".

An interest in technology would later guide his path and he worked on Web application projects in polytechnic, setting up his first technology business in 2004.

He said: "From a one-man show that started from home, it grew into an 18-man team in an office in Orchard Road." In 2014, he sold that firm for a seven-figure sum because the scene was getting crowded.

He co-founded his latest venture, New Union, in 2013 - a debt-based crowdfunding platform that helps small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) raise working capital from a network of private investors - with capital of $200,000.

Should the firm's fortunes take off, he plans to go back to his martial arts roots later and maybe rope in his longtime coach, who trains national athletes.

"I'd set up a Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) gym because it's in my blood. I'll return to my real passion, where going to work means training every day. That's the life."

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

  • Worst and best moves

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A I have yet to make any losses in any investment. My major investment for 10 years was my first company.

    Come to think of it, I have been very blessed. Maybe it's because I do not invest in things that I do not understand.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A My best investment so far was to start my own tech business in 2004.

    It was a $2,000 start-up that led to a seven-digit- sum sale. The return on investment is more than a thousand times.

    Besides the monetary return, it was how the 10 years of time invested in running the company transformed me as a person, from a "street" entrepreneur to a resilient fighter who overcame challenges with persistence.

    My next best investment to date has to be founding my current company, New Union, with my partners. We are in the process of applying for the Capital Market Services licence.

    We are operating in four countries and have helped SMEs raise more than $1 billion across South-east Asia and China so far.

    In Singapore, we have helped SMEs with $39 million through crowdfunding and look forward to doing more for them, with funding and scaling their business as partners.

    Like a kid with a wish, I hope it will become a unicorn (start-ups valued at US$1 billion or more) and we have been working towards that.

    Rachael Boon

A My father was a hawker and my mother was a production worker in a factory.

I understood what financial constraints meant when my parents separated and I saw my mum bringing home $600 a month for me and my younger brother.

I decided then that I had to start my own business to be in control of my destiny. I was inspired by my grandfather, who had handed over the hawker business to my dad, and the SME boss I had worked for during my polytechnic attachment.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A Besides wanting to have my own business, I also read Robert Kiyo- saki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad during my national service, where I was a programmer.

I discovered it on a Mindef online forum, which had a segment on finance. The forum members would organise outings during weekends to play a cashflow board game. It taught us things like how to generate passive income. I learnt simple concepts about buying and renting property, but it didn't teach us about capital appreciation.

I became interested in investing in other financial instruments after the first seven or eight years of running the tech business, when I didn't need to worry about the firm's payroll every month.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I sold a commercial property in Orchard for $1.15 million last year, which I bought in 2012 with a downpayment of $250,000, and invested $200,000 in my business.

I bought the office because, over time, I saw my rent increase from $2,000 a month to $4,000 and $5,000. I thought it'd be better to invest in my own space.

I also have $1.1 million in an overseas stock market. Over one year, that has generated a return of 10 per cent.

Besides investing in stocks and shares, real estate and my own business, I also invest in the debt-based crowdfunding projects listed on our P2P (peer-to-peer) platform and have set aside $200,000. The returns over one year so far are 8 per cent.

I don't look at particular sectors. Although I get to go through a lot of loan applications, good borrowers are hard to come by.

There were some funding projects that gave a 10 to 12 per cent return a year for loans, but those were Tier C-type customers, which have a higher risk profile.

Tier B customers or firms are those which are more stable and so have a lower rate of return.

One of my previous P2P investments was in bak kut teh business Song Fa, a heritage brand considered as a low A-, high B-tier type of SME, with good financial health.

I get to study the financial data of firms on our platform, and having been in business for some 10 years, I understand what they are going through and, from there, understand the health of the company.

Those deals on our platform must be something we'd want to fund ourselves too and we do co-invest with investors.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A As an entrepreneur from the streets, I am more inclined to focus on the fundamentals of a business, as those are areas that I am good in.

As Warren Buffett would say: "I am a better investor because I am a businessman, and a better businessman because I am no investor."

I tend to invest more when the economy is bad, so I'm looking at real estate, for instance.

I prefer to invest when the time is right and in what I understand, so I'm not swayed by hearsay.

The returns for P2P investments can be rather attractive, generally between 7 and 9 per cent a year. It's also important to assess how risky the P2P loans will be.

P2P platforms like New Union curate companies through a 12-step risk assessment process, analysing more than 200 data points of a firm. The transparency allows us to make a better investing decision.

There are a few things that I look at as an investor - the firm's financial health, the owners' character assessment, company assets such as invoices, and the owner's personal guarantee - to judge the firm's willingness to repay.

We also get personal guarantees. If the boss has a $2 million condo that is 50 per cent paid for and wants to borrow $500,000, we are comfortable with that, as we can hold him against his assets.

These are some ways in understanding figures and how sound a firm is. For instance, a retailer of Apple products wanted to borrow funds to bulk up on inventory before the festive period for only three months. I found the reason genuine and as it was a short-term loan, I deemed it to be okay.

When the same firm applied for a 12-month loan, I decided not to invest because of news that Apple was opening its flagship store here. Aside from company information, I also like to look at the overall big picture of the industry.

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

A Getting my Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class car in 2013, before I sold my first company. People thought I had bought it after. It was a desire to drive a topless car.

I'm still driving this car after a crazy number of changes, where I once switched cars three times in a year. I wasn't thinking straight then.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A Perhaps I'll try to spot a commercial property, or, as the Chinese saying goes, zou ma kan hua (to take a casual glance).

I'll focus on the company as it will always provide the highest return on investment. My dream is to build the company to a valuation of $500 million by the end of next year.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A After New Union does well, I hope I'd have a second "graduation" - the first was selling the tech business - of $5 million to $10 million. I would park that in a few properties that would give me a monthly income of $20,000, maybe in residential properties.

Besides my Muay Thai gym, I also want to get my MBA. As a Grade C to D student, that's something on my bucket list.

Q Home is now...

A A condo in the West Coast with my wife, who works in branding, and two-year-old boy Edison. It has a great sea view and, more importantly, it's close to my mother-in- law's place.

We used to live in a five-room Housing Board flat in Punggol and it was an hour-long journey each way to take my son to my mother-in-law's place every day.

Even though the condo - costing $1.72 million with a 99-year leasehold - is not the most savvy buy, the time saved allows my wife to bond with Edison, which makes it worthwhile.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline This CEO is a fighter . Subscribe