Funnyman Mark Lee knows his business, keeps a close eye on value and bottom line

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 14, 2013

Local celebrity Mark Lee, 44, always pays for his meals when he dines at OldTown White Coffee, even though he is the co-founder, having brought the Malaysian chain to Singapore in 2008.

Mr Lee may be known as a host-comedian to most people, but he is very serious when it comes to business.

When he got the Malaysian firm behind OldTown to team up with him, he got cracking. "Within three months, I chose East Coast Park for our first shop. I told them to trust me, it's a good location.

"We invested $300,000 in the first shop and just kept rolling the profits (to open other outlets)."

At that time, Mr Lee, who has been called Singapore's favourite Ah Beng, already had another business - he co-owns the Monsoon Group, which runs nine hair salons here and two in Shanghai.

So, he says: "I got a manager, gave him some shares, and said, 'Don't tell me about the staff quarrelling... You just handle it yourself. If (the staff) want higher pay, I will say give me higher sales. If you can give me what I want, I will give you what you want.'"

At the hair salons, when his wife told him that a staff member was getting a high $10,000 commission, he had no problem with it. "I said take $30,000 or $40,000. Because if they earn more commission, it means I make more profit."

But Mr Lee is first and foremost an actor, and most of the time he focuses on Galaxy Entertainment, a production and artist management firm that he co-founded. He is also a producer and director.

He has appeared in various movies, including the 1998 runaway box-office hit Money No Enough, along with other hits such as I Not Stupid and Ah Long Pte Ltd.

His new movie Judgement Day is due for release this Thursday. He started filming before he got investors on board. "I have confidence that it will work, but it was very tough for the team. So I said, 'Okay, I won't do it again.'"

He is married to Ms Catherine Ng, 39, who handles his finances as well as those of his hair salon and cafe businesses. They have two children, Calista, who turns five in July, and Maksonn, one. A third one is on the way.

Q: Are you a spender or saver?

A spender, but I'm trying to spend less since the kids arrived. I need to save more for a rainy day.

I spend on cars, branded bags and clothes, and watches. For me, everything has no price. It's whether you like it or not. If you like a Birkin bag, then it has value to you.

Even now, people tell me: Wah, Mark, you earn a lot of money.

I tell them I have only $2,000 to $3,000 to spend, including on petrol.

Previously, I managed my own expenses, and at the end of every month, I would have nothing left.

So now, my wife, who helps me look after the accounts at OldTown and Monsoon, gives me a lump sum every month and I use it to pay off the mortgage, our kids' education and so on.

Q: How much do you charge to your credit cards every month?

About $2,000 to $3,000.

I used to spend $6,000 to $7,000, or up to $20,000 to $30,000 when I travelled. When MediaCorp asked me to do programmes in Europe, I would get very excited as I could get branded goods at a lower price there.

After that, I didn't want to open my letterbox to get the bills.

Now, I spend less. I recently saw a Louis Vuitton sling bag in Paris selling for $1,000 less than in Singapore. It's very Mark Lee, but I told the salesgirl it's not suitable for me. My wife was very surprised.

Q: What financial planning have you done for yourself?

I didn't have much insurance in the past, but when the kids came, I went to buy more.

I also collect watches and have bought 20 pieces in the past decade. It started when I bought a Lacoste watch for $700 and everyone noticed it and said it was very nice. I realised a watch can impress.

That's when I bought magazines and went to study all these brands - IWC, Panerai, et cetera. I buy most of my pieces overseas.

If I am a businessman, I will buy pieces with white gold, for example. But my main business is show business. Mark Lee, my name, is already bigger than that of my watch.

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

My mum was a hawker and my dad was a barber. My older brother died. I have one elder sister.

We were very poor, but my mum always told me not to be defeated by hardship.

When I was in secondary school, I did three jobs during the holidays. I helped my mum sell chee cheong fun at the kopitiam in the morning, became a coffee boy in the afternoon and helped to sell duck rice in the evening.

I saw how those people around me wanted to make more money.

Q: How did you get interested in investing?

It's a way to grow your money. But I don't buy stocks. I buy 4-D lottery numbers. I once struck the first prize.

Q: What properties do you own?

An executive condominium unit in Nuovo in Ang Mo Kio and a 2,600 sq ft condo unit in Upper Thomson.

Q: What's the most extravagant thing you have bought?

I bought a watch from Holland from a salesgirl, who was from Hong Kong, for $11,000.

When I brought it home, I realised that it looks very "girly". I've worn it just two or three times. My wife doesn't like it, so it's just sitting in the drawer.

Q: What's your retirement plan?

I've not thought much about it as there are still people who want to watch my shows.

But I am moving towards being a director, as it is a job that I can do even if I am in a wheelchair.

Ideally, when the kids are grown up, my wife and I will emigrate to Australia, to a cheerful place like the Gold Coast.

Q: Home is now...

In Nuovo, but I will move to the condo in Upper Thomson soon.

Some property bosses told me to buy a unit at The Sail back in 2004. But at that time, the price was considered very high, as it was leasehold and there was nothing in the area. After that, they asked me to buy a Sentosa Cove property. I said: "Siao, Sentosa got no bus, no supermarket, no school."

Then, a unit at The Boulevard Residence was up for sale at less than $4 million. The condo is where Fann Wong used to live.

I was in Japan and said I would take a look when I came back. But when I came back, it was gone. Now the price has doubled.

I tell myself I don't have this luck to invest in the property market. I have business luck.

Q: I drive...

A black Mercedes E250 with a Brabus body kit, which I just bought. This is very sad as I have just sold my Porsche Panamera. I bought it for $330,000, drove it for two years and sold it for a good price, $315,000.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 14, 2013

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