Mergers can feel like an earthquake. This was certainly the case for Gigi Chan CPA, after the American investment company Janus Capital Group merged with United Kingdom-based Henderson Global Investors in 2017.
“Things were shaky. After the merger, I was the only member of top management in Asia who could stay,” says Chan, who managed the shockwaves at the time as head of Greater China of Janus Henderson Investors Group. “For around a year after we heard about the merger, I experienced dealing with the new staff, the new group chief executive officer, and the new group top management based in the United States and in the U.K. Then one day, I sat down and thought to myself: ‘what should I do next?’”
She decided it was time to move on. Reacting or adapting to change has become a theme in Chan’s career. Now the Founder and CEO of Wonder Capital Group, a Hong Kong-based boutique investment management firm, she expanded her business in 2020 to specialize in family offices serving high-net-worth individuals as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wonder Capital has a flagship private equity fund focused on Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, and under that fund it operates a condominium development project called MESONG, which is set to be 252-metres tall, and the tallest building in the country. Because of the pandemic and travel constraints, both sales and construction work have become a lot more challenging, says Chan.
“On the positive side, with the established local team, reduced travelling allowed me to have more bandwidth to strategize how to adapt to such an adverse investment environment. To manage the risk of reducing returns, I needed to think about how to keep the company growing and identify new opportunities. That’s why during the pandemic, I thought about what other kinds of business Wonder Capital should do,” Chan explains. “I thought, as a boutique firm, how could I leverage on the resources my team and I have built in the past 20 years? And then I realized how I have a very diverse and resourceful group of lawyers and accountants in my team, and talked to people who are familiar with family offices. That’s when we started the family office business.”
She points out that many multi-family offices use a similar strategy of partnering with private banks and other financial institutions to provide clients with a more balanced portfolio. Multi-family offices also provide investment advisory. Wonder Capital, on the other hand, positions itself as a solution provider in terms of both investments and financial advisory. “I believe we’re able to offer more because we run our private equity fund and operate it day-to-day, and we also offer professional advice on the non-investment field,” she adds. “With my audit and accounting experience, I have a good circle of accountants and lawyers, and this has helped a lot of family offices. For example, if they have an unstructured set-up for their investment portfolio or have business issues, we could give them valid advice from an accountant’s or lawyer’s standpoint. I think that’s a value-added service and clients appreciate it.”
A leading hub
Hong Kong in recent years has been focused on the family offices sector, recognizing it as an important growth segment in the wealth and asset management industry. Subsequently, the government has been developing an environment and policies to attract more family offices and high-net-worth individual investors. In June 2021, InvestHK announced the opening of the independent office of its FamilyOfficeHK team, which aims to support family offices to set up in the city. Also, in his budget speech delivered in February, Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary proposed that tax concessions be provided for eligible family investment management entities managed by single family offices. The government has completed the consultation process on the proposed income tax exemption scheme for family office businesses in Hong Kong, and aims to introduce the amendment bill into the Legislative Council later this year.
Chan is pleased to see this emphasis on fostering the growth of family offices in Hong Kong. However, she points out that whether the world is heading into deglobalization or not, the city still faces challenges as a result of the pandemic. “Even if globalization continues, investors have become more sceptical on investments with less proximity. Hong Kong would need to identify its uniqueness in the global market given that other financial centres have been accumulating experiences and credentials in the past decade,” she says. “It’s hard because we are not doing low-price products. As investment managers, we need to do a lot of face-to-face meetings to explain the risks, build trust, and explain how you can achieve the returns. But mobility has been down to zero in the past couple of years due to travel restrictions.”
Chan believes the work of InvestHK has never been more important. “I really appreciate the promotion that FamilyOfficeHK is doing. I also think we can do more to let people overseas know that Hong Kong is a very well-established, global platform for you to invest in different investment products, and invest anywhere, not just in the Hong Kong stock market.”
She also notes that despite the challenges, she sees many opportunities in Hong Kong for her business. “I think many high-net-worth individuals and family offices in Mainland China lack international investment knowledge, and Hong Kong asset managers or family offices can fill in that gap. Hong Kong is also a very good gateway for clients in Mainland China to engage family offices in Hong Kong to look at global investment opportunities. I think this positioning is still strong,” says Chan.
According to Chan, family offices are currently very risk-averse as there is a lot of fear in the market. “The high volatility of a secondary stock market and new era investment opportunities, such as cryptocurrency, not to mention the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, is having an impact on market sentiments. Private equities have longer horizons than public markets, which make investors hesitate to invest due to too much uncertainty,” she says. Asset reallocation is happening, she adds, with investors considering fixed income products, real estate and hard assets.
When it comes to the young generation who are becoming more engaged in family office investment decisions, Chan says they are “more open-minded,” and are investing in crypto assets such as non-fungible tokens, despite the sector being clouded by volatility. “But for the traditional, ‘old-gen’ investors and family offices, many of them would love to try investing in virtual assets, but they won’t because they are very alert. I think if the virtual asset is actually linked to real business, then that would change their behaviour.”
Gigi Chan CPA, pictured here at the construction site of MESONG, a condominium development project in Phnom Penh, started her asset management career at AllianceBernstein as chief financial officer for Asia.
“Hong Kong is also a very good gateway for clients in Mainland China to engage family offices in Hong Kong to look at global investment opportunities. I think this positioning is still strong.”
Journey to Phnom Penh
Wonder Capital’s interest and footprint in Cambodia started in 2018. After some nudging from a family friend in real estate, Chan packed her bags and flew to Cambodia to see the country’s booming property market for herself. “They asked me to consider to invest. We did a lot of desktop research, but desktop research is not everything,” she says. “You really need to experience it and do all the due diligence yourself, especially for an emerging market.”
After that trip, several factors convinced Chan to launch a new economy fund focused in Cambodia, and start the MESONG project, including the country’s political stability and young demographic. “Its gross domestic product annual growth rate averaged over 7 percent consecutively over the past nine years,” she says. “These bring tremendous promising investment opportunities. We need to risk manage it by investing in quality hard assets to get the right balance for emerging market investments.”
For Chan, it’s clear that Southeast Asian countries are destinations with huge investment potential. “Southeast Asia is definitely a rising star. We have heard this for about two decades, but I think now really is the time to look into it because of the pandemic and the proximity to Greater China.” She adds that around two years ago, sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East had set up teams focused on Southeast Asia for the first time.
With all the insight on emerging markets built from research, Chan in 2019 co-founded International Finance and Economic Association, a professional platform providing resources and advice to those considering to invest and start businesses in emerging markets. “Through this association, we can share the network and share the investment or business opportunities with the members. We have helped with some very successful cases where members have gone to Thailand or Cambodia to start their businesses, or have moved their manufacturing arm from China to Cambodia,” she says. “And also from an investment standpoint, people can learn more about Cambodia. We hope that through the association’s activities, seminars and networking events, we can share all of these resources. Otherwise to me, it’s a waste.”
Back to client-facing
Chan looks back positively on her time at the now-defunct Arthur Andersen, where she worked as an auditor after graduating. “I enjoyed so much of my life at Arthur Andersen. It was fast-paced, I had early responsibilities and the firm had ambition.”
This made her decision to leave the firm difficult. But with the firm collapsing following the Enron scandal, Chan and her colleagues found themselves thinking about their options out of panic. “At that moment, you needed to think through your career, your ambitions and about a way out. Perhaps if I had stayed longer, I could’ve developed my professional career and become a partner at PwC (the firm merged with Arthur Andersen in Hong Kong in 2002). But I have always reacted to change. That’s who I am. I think it’s important to react not quickly but thoughtfully to all changes.”
After leaving Arthur Andersen, Chan worked at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX) as assistant manager of business finance. She says the transition to the corporate side was not easy. “HKEX is a regulator and listed company hybrid – stable, less mobile and more repetitive. I needed to adjust my mindset and approach to work.”
Then in 2005, her asset management career kickstarted when she joined AllianceBernstein, the U.S.-based asset management firm, as chief financial officer for Asia. Her first task was focused around a buyout relating to the 50-50 joint venture between AllianceBernstein and Hong Kong property developer Sun Hung Kai Properties, which was created in 1997. “We acquired the 50 percent shares from Sun Hung Kai Properties. So at the beginning, I spent a considerable amount of time dealing with the two very different shareholders to make the transaction happen. Even though I had a finance role, I dealt with a lot of restructuring before and after the buyout, so it was a very interesting experience,” says Chan.
In 2011, following her boss at AllianceBernstein, she made the move to U.S. investment management company Janus Capital Group where she was offered the role of chief operating officer for Asia Pacific to oversee back-office and middle-office operations. But a business trip to Taiwan exposed her ability to do more. “It was my second day, and my boss asked me to fly over to Taiwan to handle a litigation case. And while we were there, we took the chance to meet with the biggest clients – institutional clients and banks.” After being pleasantly surprised with how she handled client relationships, her boss expanded her role after the trip to also head up the front line operations, including sales, and she became head of Asia Pacific. “My boss spotted my skills and he didn’t hesitate to give me a chance and let me prove myself. I think along my career, I’ve been lucky to have met very good people,” she says.
Chan cites her audit experience as the big reason behind those successful client meetings. She recalls that at Arthur Andersen, she worked alongside partners who not only had the technical skills, but were client-oriented. “That’s how I grew,” she says. “As part of the expanded role at Janus Capital, I needed to talk to clients, especially for big mandates worth over US$100 million. I needed to pitch them. I built up those skills from my training at Arthur Andersen.”
While this moment pushed Chan out of her comfort zone and into sales, the biggest defining moment for her took place after the merger between Janus Capital Group and Henderson Global Investors, which formed Janus Henderson. She notes that her objectives at Janus Capital before the merger were clear – grow the company’s business in Asia. But this changed with the merger, prompting her to consider her next career move. “After the merger, the focus was more on internal restructuring, making sure the culture was fine and less about growing the business.”
Chan, who worked at Arthur Andersen as an auditor before it collapsed, is President of International Finance and Economic Association, which provides resources and advice to people considering to invest and start businesses in emerging markets.
Still attached to the idea of growing a business, Chan thought of Wonder Capital, which started out as a family investment and only had an asset management license. “It was a private equity fund. My family just hired people to trade on the stock market,” she says. “I asked my husband, ‘Should I turn Wonder Capital into my own business and use it as the platform for my next career achievement?’ He had reservations because I had been working as an employee for around 17 years. He knew that running my own business would be challenging for me.”
But after gaining support from her family, Chan came up with a business plan for Wonder Capital and presented it to her partners. As part of executing that plan, she expanded the business scope by attaining Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission licenses Types 1 (dealing in securities) and 4 (advising on securities). “It’s important to have types 1, 4 and 9 licenses so that Wonder Capital can offer a wider scope of services, and better cover and address clients’ needs,” she says.
Chan also hired two former employees from Janus Henderson. “I told them what I wanted to do and that it would be a totally different life and career, because they need to assume that they are running the business with me, instead of just doing their own tasks,” she says. “I told them that after joining Wonder Capital, they may need to do anything and everything.”
Chan now oversees a team of around 15 people in the Hong Kong office and 20 in Cambodia. She notes that her previous experience working in two sizable asset management firms has been critical in running her own business. “It’s very important because you learn governance, you learn how to follow the system, and you learn discipline.”
What perhaps has been even more valuable is the knowledge she developed on different business functions, allowing her to wear multiple hats. “I can assist my finance head. We could have a very thoughtful discussion on financial projections and the day-to-day accounting operations. On the other hand, I can talk to the salespeople about the sales strategy, how to pitch to clients, or how to approach branding. Ultimately, I want to be resourceful for my whole team. So I think, for young accountants, it’s good for them to try different things.”
“Ultimately, I want to be resourceful for my whole team. So I think, for young accountants, it’s good for them to try different things.”
Chan studied Accounting at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). “I visited HKUST, which had the best campus and facilities at that time. It was just too tempting to reject,” she says, adding that she was also prompted by a belief that accounting is “a universal tool for everything.”
“For me, when you’re analysing investments, for example, and looking at different local business environments, cultures, and industries, the only common language to link all of this together is accounting. It can show you how profitable or how successful your business or investment is,” says Chan, who also holds a Master of Economics from the University of Hong Kong, and an Executive MBA from the University of Oxford.
“Also, if you look at the top management at many conglomerates, you’ll find that a lot of them were auditors in the past.” Indeed, Chan believes her CPA qualification and training not only gave her the communication skills that are crucial in the asset management industry, but also the foundational skills needed in a range of career paths. “I’ve seen many people who started their careers as auditors then later became a finance director or CFO. It’s important to remember that with the skills developed as an accountant, you can be successful in business,” she says.
Chan firmly maintains that she is not a successful entrepreneur, but is headstrong on achieving the goals of the company. “I like to say that I’m ‘successful-to-be.’ I think it’s important to have that drive. When people say that the Cambodia project is amazing, I say ‘when it’s completed, then you can praise me,’” she laughs.
While such projects and her clients keep her extremely busy, she’s never too busy for family. “I have two boys and the eldest is currently applying for university. My passion are my boys. I really want them to be successful.”
In his budget speech delivered in February, Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary proposed that tax concessions be provided for eligible family investment management entities managed by single family offices, to enhance Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a family office hub.