Ms Shirley Crystal Chua: Financial Entrepreneurship – Creating and Managing More Than a Financial Conglomerate

Shirley Crystal Chua, Founder and Group CEO of Golden Equator

By Neo Teng Wei (ECONews Student reporter)

Graduating from NUS with a Double Degree in Economics and Southeast Asian Studies, Shirley Crystal Chua started her career with American Express International, and later moved to Citibank and became the youngest director at the age of 29. She set up her own business, Golden Equator Capital (now known as Golden Equator Group), in 2012 at the age of 32. The ECONews met with Ms Chua and listened to her life story and unique business model encompassing fund management (venture capital and private equity), a multi-family office, business consultancy, a technology and innovation club and more.

Can you tell me about your businesses? Golden Equator looks more than a financial group. It has not only asset management, a multi-family office and venture capital but also a consulting arm, business platforms and so on…

I founded Golden Equator Capital with two major components – multi-family office and fund management. We have then added new businesses as our businesses were developing. We now have three distinct sectors – financial services, consulting and a technology and innovation business club. It is a very distinct and unique business model. We do not see any other company in Asia that provides a wide scope of services as we do.

Let us talk about your businesses one by one. We had an interview with a private banker, Daniel Lo, in the last issue of the ECONews. How is family office different from private banking? 

Family office is a concept popular in the West such as Switzerland and the United States. We formed a team to manage the whole wealth of rich families. This included helping them set up family constitutions and pass on their wealth to the next generation. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, I noticed that wealth management in Asia was not substantive enough for the ultra- rich. I decided to cater to their needs. We work with more than ten different private banks, and a dozen of other service providers like trustees, tax advisors and private fund companies. We structure funds following the needs of the families and consolidate management of their wealth in different banks and financial institutions. Each family is unique in their requirements, which is why we tailor our services to them.

Daniel Lo gave us an analogy that private banking is like a first-class flight whereas premier banking is a business-class flight and retail banking is an economy-class flight. What is a multi-family office, then?

I can say family office is a private jet that arranges your own travels. The ways you arrange your trips are unique to your own needs. Some family offices only cater to one family, mostly billionaires. But there are rich families in between who will need family office services. We focus on such families. Multi-family office is akin to having a fleet of private jets of different sizes, shared by, say, ten different families. We use different jets depending on how many people we would want to bring along. For example, we have a venture capital team that different families can utilise and we cover more than 12 different countries around the region.

How do you run your fund management arm?

Under the fund management, we have a number of funds, including venture capital funds, prime currency funds and development funds investing in regional properties. Our core focus is technology and innovation funds. We invest in start-ups focusing on series A and series B funding around the Southeast Asian region. While serving the needs of our multi-family office clients, we realised that there is a strong demand in venture investment. 

At the moment, we are interested in Fintech, blockchain, AI (artificial intelligence), and digital economy. They can bring efficiency for consumers and the market development is quite interesting. The way that the future generation will interact with technology is different from the older generation. For instance, live streaming is a new form of media, something which was unthinkable ten years ago. It is now something revolutionary across different generations. We try to understand the reasons why these new technologies became popular and why the future generation finds them interesting.

You have Mr Taizo Son, younger brother of Softbank’s founder Masayoshi Son, on your board. How’s the relationship between Golden Equator Group and him?

We are closely working with Mistletoe, a venture capital and incubating company founded by Mr Taizo Son. He is a very innovative and smart man. He is also well-travelled and exposed to a lot of business ideas and companies. He himself has invested in and co-founded many venture companies. We feel validated as he picked Golden Equator Group as a partner to build a start-up ecosystem collectively. We share similar values on what we want to do. We both hope to see more excellent innovators coming out of Asia.  He is a special adviser for us. He is not a shareholder at the moment.

You also have a consulting arm…

That is also an extension of serving our customers’ needs. Start-ups require a lot of support. The beginning is not easy. They also need support from different areas to accelerate their growth as quickly as possible, especially in terms of market penetration. I co-founded Golden Equator Consulting to help start-ups accelerate. We also help MNCs to transform digitally. We live in a digitalised world but their businesses may not fully utilise new technologies. The consulting arm helps them to do that.

What is SPECTRUM and what does it do?

That is the latest one I have co-founded as a technology and innovation business club. Its purpose is to promote the ease of doing businesses around the region that stem from Singapore. It promotes learning and knowledge sharing. It is a curated and inclusive club for people who can contribute to learning and knowledge sharing. SPECTRUM extends and expands the Golden Equator ecosystem by allowing direct access to crucial elements of business growth: capital, consulting and community.

In SPECTRUM, we have seven groups but let me just highlight a few. We have innovators – people who come up with new ideas and are strong in particular skill sets in their industries. We also have executors – people who put together a company and make the company viable in the market. They are the management team. We have learning institutions. The innovations of tomorrow will come from bright minds of the future. We have recently collaborated with GIST (Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology) on an AI town in Korea.

You provide a very broad spectrum of services … How did it all begin?

My first job was with American Express International. I worked there for two and half years focusing on cards. At that time, the financial industry and wealth management were booming in Singapore. I decided to switch to wealth management and joined Citibank. At Citibank, my core area was wealth management but the bank gave me many other opportunities and groomed me to assume a management role. I was the youngest director at the age of 29. I stayed there for eight years in various positions and was exposed to different skill sets.

What drove you to set up Golden Equator Capital? Was starting a company your goal when you started working?

At the back of my head, I always wanted to start my own business. And I found that working in a multinational bank equipped me with many skill sets to start my own business. Six years ago, I felt that it was the right time. The climate was right, the market was mature and I had the right skill set to take the plunge. I left Citibank to set up Golden Equator Capital.

I would say, at that point, it took a lot of courage and bravery. There was a lot to give up. I had to take a pay cut. Back then, the government wasn’t really pro-entrepreneurship and it took a lot of sacrifice to set up a business. But I started Golden Equator Capital with a well thought-out rationale. The government is now more encouraging.

We noticed you have competent co-founders. How did you convince them to take the plunge together?

It didn’t take a lot of convincing. My co-founders had worked with me for some time. For instance, Grace (Grace Chiong, Group Chief Operating Officer) was my mentee at Citibank. I trained her and she worked for a couple of other banks, including Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.

When you pick a co-founder, you’d better pick someone with different skill sets from yours. When you start a business, you need to do ten different things concurrently and you might not have the skill set for all ten things. You cannot be good at technology, vision, ideas, client acquisition, organizational skills, people skills, management skills, convincing investors, market penetration, compliance… You need to know your strong skill sets and whether your co-founders should be able to complement you. But we must have a similar vision and similar values. Our goals must be aligned. We got it right. That’s why we are still here together.

How much did your learning at university influence your career?

I think I am now utilizing less than 10% of what I learned at school. That’s small in my entire life curriculum to develop my skill sets. Most of my skill sets were built from on-the-job training in my career life. I encourage students to learn things and gain knowledge rather than just being educated. Learn things that will help you in the areas where you can build your skill sets. This is very important when you embark on your career journey. 

At NUS, I did an extensive range of social work. I was involved in a church group, mission trips and counselling teenagers. I continued doing them in earlier days of my career as well. Doing business can have a social impact on the lives of the future generation. That is something close to my heart ever since I started helping out teenagers when I was in school.

Tell us more about your time in NUS. Why did you choose to double major in Economics and Southeast Asian Studies? That is a very unusual combination.

I chose to major in Economics for a practical reason – to enter the financial industry. Southeast Asian Studies was very interesting because I could get to learn about the culture, language and people in the region. It sat a bit better with my nature and personality. Southeast Asian Studies made me learn a new language – Bahasa Indonesia and gave me an opportunity to travel during my university days. I came to see people in a different light as I learned how they led their lives in different countries.

Thank you for sharing your life story with us. Finally, do you have any parting advice for our Economics students when they start their professional careers?

When you are young, it is always good to try a number of things in your first five years. This will be the time when you try to find out where your strongest skill sets will be. It will be great if they align with your interests. It is easier to find a strong skill set than follow your interest because your interest can change. Your skill sets can only get better and better, and you can utilise them in different areas. Try as many things as possible because once you reach a certain age, you may not have an appetite to try different things. 

This article was first posted in ECONews in July 2018