Q&A: Head of PE at Asian SFO

I head PE/VC investing for a family office based in Asia. Our firm makes direct investments across the capital structure (private credit, PE/VC, public markets and real estate). Although we are direct investors (>95% of capital deployed are directs), we regularly review fund investment opportunities as well. Similar to most folks on this site, I began my career in investment banking. Happy to discuss and share thoughts, if you have any questions.

Comments (57)

Jun 5, 2022 - 2:22pm
anothergodammasian, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thank you for doing this, I had a a few questions:

1)Which countries do you invest in/have invested in the past?

2)How does one actually get to the top at a Family office, i assume it must be highly political and one must be very trusted by the person whose capital is at stake.

3)Do you regret not going down the PE path?What do you think are the pros and cons of Family Office vs Career at a PE firm?

Most Helpful
  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 5, 2022 - 2:51pm

1. We invest across the asset classes, but I can speak to PE/VC. We have invested in the US, China, HK/SG, Europe, Australia, India, SE Asia, etc. No LatAm or Africa. The Europe and Australia investments were rare and special situations. We don't actively cover/track/source in these markets.
 

2. I think it depends on the family office. There are very sophisticated family offices that run like medium-sized instituion, with very clear investment decision-making processes. Clear segregation of private and public investment teams. Dedicated structured finance/private credit professionals. Dedicated real estate investors. Some FOs' key principals still wield all the power, so even if you are his right-hand man, you still need his/her sign off on everything and may lack discretion in your investment decision making. This could be annoying if you are trying to introduce new styles/regions/deal-types to the decision maker, and it's something that they are not familiar with....it will take a while (think years) to get them to warm up to something new. There may be seemingly autonomy on the public side, but you can bet that the principal(s) will watch over the large/key positions like a hawk. Multi family offices have a completely different dynamic from single family offices. I personally don't like MFOs. Not all MFOs are principal investors. Some source deals and then market the opportunities to the families in the MFO, almost like a syndication process to see which ones opt-in to invest. So, if you consider a MFO, I'd suggest understanding whether there is balance sheet capital at the firm to deploy....or is it deal-by-deal....because if it's the latter, you will feel like a deal broker/advisor (sell-side) than an investor. Politics in families, especially Asian families, will require a whole different thread. Actually, you could write an entire book on it. So, I'd rather not get into that. If you are facing a particular situation and want my input, please DM me. Ultimately, politics vary depending on the FO. If you work for a multi-generation old money family, and there are many different family members involved in managing family capital (as well as family business(es)), obviously, it will be 20x more complicated than working at a small firm with just 1-2 family members involved. Hard to comment. Track record is important though. Principals would rather lose money investing in something they are familiar with than lose money investing in something new. So, if you are introducing something new to the firm, you better make sure the first couple investments are at least somewhat decent, and no matter what, don't lose the principal. Or else, you will find it a hard time pushing for your new agendas. 

3. Yes and no. There are people who do banking and then go to a FO, then back to banking or transition to a HF/PE. There are also older generation professionals that have institutional careers in PE/HF, and transition to a FO. I don't want to give a broad answer here, because PE firms in Asia differ a lot in strategy and approach. FOs differ even more. It's very case-by-case. I think for both, ultimately, it depends on the team that you work with, and the mentorship you will receive from either the gatekeeper (typically the right-hand man of the principal(s) and highest ranking/power individual at the FO who is not a family member) or the principal directly. Financial savyness of the principals also vary drastically, and depends on how they generated their wealth. The firm I work at, the principal generated his wealth completely through investing his own capital and making complex direct investments, so the mentorship I received was tremendous. If you work at a FO where they run 60/40 portfolios, and make more fund  than direct investments, then obviously the job will be less exciting (at least to me). PE offers more predictable visibility on your total comp than a FO, in my opinion, at least broadly speaking. This is definitely a plus. But, when you make it past the VP level at a PE, it's same as anywhere, you really need to differentiate one way or another to continue progressing. The uphill battle only gets steeper. Some FOs work you like a dog, similar to a PE. Other FOs have an amazing WLB (get in at 9, clock out at 6), but if you are looking to become a savvy dealmaker/investor then WLB isn't something that you should be factoring in to begin with. Again, it depends on the FO and their style. The range is too large. PEs will work you like a dog for the most part, no matter where you go, at least at the associate to VP levels. Happy to try answer if you can be more specific with your question. 

Hope this is helpful.

Jun 5, 2022 - 3:09pm
spark-pool, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thanks for doing this.

I was wondering how common it is for foreigners to recruit into PE (firms of any size) roles in Asia. Would someone who did a 2 year IB stint in NYC/London have a shot, or are the cultural differences and lack of local languages a significant downside?

Realise this will likely differ by country but any thoughts would be appreciated.

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 5, 2022 - 3:23pm

Haha this thread is intended for FO discussion, but I will give it a shot.

Yes, there are foreigners at PE firms of varying sizes and strategies across Asia, from associate to partner levels (same with VCs). I think just like any front office job in finance, you need to have a unique spin to your individual story, and you need to network hard. Cultural differences also vary depending on the firm. Eg. a China buyout fund will 100% only hire local Chinese. Country-specific funds will largely only hire people from that country. But, a BPEA would bring on foreigners (I mean their founder is a foreigner) and they do lots of cross-border deals. Some of the best investors in Asian countries for PE/VC are not necessarily from that country. Look no further than Jeffrey Perlman at Warburg Pincus. He runs SE Asia and all Asia Real Estate. He co-founded ESR, which I believe is one of the largest (if not the largest) real estate asset managers in Asia. Dude is from the US. There are so many examples of this. The large MF PEs with Asian offices will also have foreigners. 

There is definitely a shot, but it's certainly tougher if you don't have Asia experience. Put aside transaction experience, I think you need to convince people that you are passionate about Asia as a region...you are open-minded to learn the cultural nuances, and you understand that business is done differently in Asia. Even within Asia, the cultural differences among countries are vast (eg. Japan and India could not be more different in many ways, but China and Vietnam may share more similarities than you would imagine). If you are interested in moving to Asia, you better have your answer to the "Why Asia" question ready.

Jun 5, 2022 - 3:27pm
spark-pool, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thanks! I'm still a student so don't know enough to ask specific questions about FOs and so on haha - I'll leave that to people with real-world experience.

Sep 28, 2022 - 2:35am
c1nlllllll27, what's your opinion? Comment below:

To be honest, I would say very difficult base on what i see. Firstly, you dont speak the language (be it chinese or japanese or korean or etc). Many locals even with 2 year IB stint in NYC/london find it very hard to relocate back internally. Having said so, jumping into buyside in Asia with no Asian experience whatsoever or convincing reasons etc you are doomed to fail. And also because firms here not only want you to have local deal experience, they also want you to have the network for better deal sourcings etc. I can tell you the US top notch PE funds or growth equity funds are mostly Asians at the working level (Analyst - VP/directors) maybe just the top guys are foreigners. In singapore this might be a bit different but still with a lot of locals like malaysian, indonesians or thai.

  • Analyst 2 in IB - Cov
Jun 5, 2022 - 10:01pm

Assuming you are based in China/HK:

When you look to hire bankers, do you only consider BB candidates? Or are you willing to consider candidates from less prestigious places? How do you make hiring decisions?

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 6, 2022 - 12:37am

No, we are not a Chinese firm. Think more SG/HK.

I look at BB IBD and MF PE candidates, but haven't hired one. Our shop is quite "sweaty" and we have below average pay, which makes hiring a true "value-seeking" exercise. As a joke, I like to think I am the Warren Buffet of hiring. Probably would make a decent HH/recruiter, if finance fails for me. Top SFOs will pay market price equivalent to BB IBD or MF PE, but you will be expected to work just as hard (don't think you can take days or weeks to turnaround analysis or go through materials or draft memos). This is for private investing though (both credit and equity). I am sure public side guys have it better. They will expect you to crunch. So, if you think you get paid top bucket, but your life will be super chill, please stop dreaming. I'd say on average BB IBD and MF PE guys will need to expect some sort of pay cut to join a good SFO. I don't know what the discount is, but maybe ~15-20%? Ours is much larger than that. I survive and have netted more though, because our firm encourages team members to coinvest directly in deals that we underwrite/do, even if it's a very small cheque, unless the deal dynamics and timing make it hard to include employee coinvestment. I happen to have hit a massive homerun on one of my coinvests, and it's already partially realized, so if you consider my returns on my coinvestment into my comp, I am many times above market pay. I don't even want to share the MOIC on the deal, because it's ludicrous. But, at the same time, my cash comp is so low for my level and responsibilities that I also won't be sharing haha.

I generally like candidates from less prestigious places. I think they are more hungry, and will less likely be on their high horse. They are typically more grateful for the opportunity. I think it takes 12-18 months to train someone new to understand how our team works together, how we evaluate businesses and deals, and get them to a point where they can run shit on their own. People from less presitgious places (boutiques/other FOs/Big4 M&A or TAS, etc.) will value the opportunity more, and they don't think they are hot shit. They are also likely going to be more loyal, and stay for longer, and don't try to hop on the next hot job opening and ditch after a year. Just a reminder, the top paying buyside jobs now are often in crypto. They will outpay BBs/MF PEs and SFOs. I don't want to teach someone how to invest or do deals, and then have them leave when they are starting to finally get a hang of it. It's tiring to hire, and you don't want to have to do it all the time. I personally feel that flight risk is higher with the top candidates. Some may also have attitude problems. But then to be fair, I think from the employer's perspective, besides comp, you have a better chance of retaining team members if they are continuously progressing, learning and challenged. I think that's something that the shop that I am with offers.

We do multiple interviews. A case study is handed out typically at the 2nd or 3rd step of the hiring process. This immediately filters out >50% of the candidates, as they don't meet deadlines or complete the case study at all. And then, depending on work, we invite them back and continue with the hiring process. And no, we have passed on many candidates that had the best models. Some "elite" candidates from MFs and top BBs do produce great models. But, they slice and dice operating data, and still miss out on the key takeaways because they are unable to simply take a step back, and look at the big picture. They get lost in the numbers, and then miss the point, when they have done the work and the answer is right there screaming for their attention. But, certainly, I do think some of the candidates at more "prestigous" places do have materially better work products, whether it's their model, memo or presentation skills. Those things are just "nice to have's" though. Passion, hunger for learning and attitude will always be number one for me. I will get by without the "nice to have's". I certainly hope that they will make my job easier, but I won't be relying on them on decision making, and neither will my boss.

  • Works at 137 Ventures
Aug 6, 2022 - 10:12am

Just curious why is the comps less than PE funds and banking? Why not offer more, since it's obvious the company can afford it? Is it just a matter of the owner being stingy with pay?

Also I don't understand why people have to take a pay cut moving from IB to buyside in Asia whereas it's the opposite trend in the US?

  • 1
  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 6, 2022 - 12:10am

My passion is growth equity investing in Asia. My dream would be to run my own firm, ideally with one or two people from my current team, and maybe one or two new partners to slowly scale AUM. But obviously, it's a pipedream - since starting a 1st-time close-ended fund is incredibly tough, even if you have the track record. I would also consider joining a growth equity fund/team, but would not sacrifice or compromise on decision making or power, relative to where I am now. I also wouldn't transition to a large PE, but into a more junior role (think VP/SVP) just to clip a larger pay check. I enjoy where I am at for now, and do have great satisfaction in the work I do. I am still learning, and continue to be challenged. I think the only scenario where I would leave is if randomly, the firm I am at decides to significantly reduce deployment in PE/VC, or if I (and/or the rest of my team) am asked to switch to another asset class. I like PE/VC, so want to continue to develop here. Less passionate about other asset classes. Private credit is big in Asia SFOs though. Great career opportunity for someone who doesn't mind it. You will always have a job, if you are somewhat decent at private credit, don't mind the execution and have deal experience.

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 6, 2022 - 11:22am

Just like the rest of the world - tech was very expensive in Asia through the end of 2021, from early stage to late stage. Competition for assets differ depending on sector, and I don't think blanket statements will do your question justice. I think in the large cap buyout space. It has certainly been competitive. There were lots of depressed valuations in the public markets that presented opportunities for private deals, which made for interesting investments.

1. Li & Fung was privatized from the HK stock exchange for $923m. They flipped the logistics arm in 2021 for $3.6b (still pending approval I think).

2. CVC privatized Razer for $1.4b (at $3.2b val). Clearly they think there's a lot of value there. I don't know enough to comment on the angle.

China PE is screwed, and no one is touching that. China-heavy PE funds have really terrible looking books right now. China PE/VCs are also aggressively trying to sell secondaries. India was the star of 2021, both from investment and exit standpoints, but also seeing slowdown in 2022. Mid to late stage venture will be challenging in Asia in the short term from a capital raising perspective, but that means good for buyers. People generally are more cautious right now. SE Asian tech exits will likely continue to be challenging. We don't do Japan, so don't know much about that, except knowing that Japan SaaS privates was a great trade, because of how they are priced in public markets. There was a huge arbitrage. It has definitely slowed down this year.

Jun 7, 2022 - 3:25am
Jon.sim, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Hi, thanks for doing this AMA, very informative thus far. I am curious on a couple of things.

1. How big is your AUM?

2. Can you talk a bit about the challenges of deal sourcing in the region?

3. I have the sense that family offices in the region tend to have preference towards income generating type investments, hence real estate tends to be investment of choice. Is that one of the things that is propelling the private credit space?

4. Any advice for first time fund managers looking to raise capital in the region, especially from SFOs?

Thanks!

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 7, 2022 - 3:58am

1. I don't know what our full AUM is. I think only the principal knows. Based on what I know from our book and the private credit book, can confidently say it's >$1b.

2. I think it depends on what kind of deal. If you want to lead venture or growth equity rounds, then you need to compete directly with GPs. If you just want to participate as a non-lead, then it's much easier, but even then, you need to be in the flow like GPs. I don't know how to explain it to you, but it's very network-driven. You are as good as your relationships, and your rep is only as good as your track record. The more decent deals you do, the better deals you get into (there is a feedback loop). My team takes an approach where we identify a space we like, and we go speak to every company in that space (both traditional businesses and start-ups). We then evaluate the entire space, and formulate a view and rank in order the best team/company, and the second team/company. When they raise, we pre-empt and already have a deep understanding of the space. Once in a while, when we get rejected by what is in our view the #1 player due to oversubscription or competitive dynamics, we let them know that the market they are operating in is not a winner takes all, and  if they rejected us, we will go fund the #2 player. Of course, we only do this when we have conviction on the space, and only when the space is truly not a winner takes all. We compete directly with PE/VCs, and have successfully outbid both PE/VCs in the past to lead (of course, we have lost too). This is unusual for a SFO to do though, but as mentioned above the principal at my firm is a financier and did not generate wealth from traditional operating businessese that most FOs come from. Most SFOs are more opportunistic and broker/banker-dependent (ie. passive). It's an easier life, but you also don't get into the best deals. A deal that needs a banker/broker to market is probably not a Tier 1 deal. On the buyout (or activist investing in public markets, which we do) side, a lot of our deals are driven by the principal himself. We behave more like a GP than a traditional SFO. But, short answer is that sourcing anywhere in the world is network and relationship-driven.

3. This is correct, not just income generating only, but structured financing. Must have collateral/asset-backed. Not unsecured. Capital preservation is very key. Our private credit investments in the past typically do deals that range from 15-24% in interest rate, highly structured special sits deals (ranging from bridge financing, acquisition financing, distressed, turnaround situations, etc.). Also, working alongside directly with many private credit GPs. FOs from real estate busineses will do lots of property-related structured financing, because it's in their wheelhouse. And, no one understands the value of the underlying collateral better than they do (be it flat, retail, house, office building, land bank, etc.). The speed that SFOs can move is also one of the reasons why they can be competitive with GPs and banks. Some have longer processes, and can be more bureaucratic. 

4. First time fund manager doing what strategy and what region? Also, what is GP commit % to total AUM (or absolute dollar amount)? Do you have an anchor already? Can't comment without knowing your strategy. If you share more, I can try to be helpful.

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 7, 2022 - 3:24pm

We don't focus on secondaries (ie. I don't find a company I like and then call up each shareholder on the cap table to try source a block). But, we are not against it. We just want good shit. 

Secondaries float around in the market like it's public equities. The number of random brokers that sell blocks of secondaries in the market is astonishing. Especially this year, where everyone and their mother is trying to cash out. Animoca is a great example. Does a couple large primary rounds, end of last year. Now, secondaries flying around left and right. A shit ton of US names (50-60 top late-stage tech names) as well (yes, brokers distributing to Asia hoping dumb nouveau rich money will bite at hot names because they stupid and lazy and won't dig a little deeper). And then, "MFOs" and new investment firms trying to syndicate that shit charging 2/20. Some even have the audacity to charge a 2% upfront fee and 2% redemption fee (and that's probably because they are investing in another 2/20 SPV, so they make no money, hence the extra 2% upfront and 2% upon exit). Nah bro, really? If I could anonymously screen share, and show you examples of the kind of emails I get, you would be shocked. You'd think I worked on the trading floor or ECM desk of an IB/HF. All these brokers just press the "forward" button, and every time you ask them anything, they don't know and need to find out. But ask you to agree to a x% fee if you buy or sell a block. Ew...not my cup of tea.

My team sticks to our style and approach to investing when it comes to venture and growth (actually across other teams/strategies too). High velocity in deal flow, low velocity in deployment. But every name/deal we back, we are f-ing proud of it and will own the trade. Not shooting from the hip. No FOMO bs. Don't ask me about crypto.

  • Associate 2 in VC
Jun 11, 2022 - 1:18pm

Got it makes sense thanks for that. A lot of the bad actors in the space are getting washed out right now so bad things leading to good things. The idea of a discounted company just doesn't cut it anymore as they're all hemorrhaging $ and multiples are down! I think they're a good strategy only if you get into the right company like a spaceX or an EPIC games and as a diversification to a general VC portfolio. Otherwise the market is dead right now and rightfully so. Let the rapid m&a take over and see who's left standing when we reset! Thanks for the response and insight :)

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 9, 2022 - 11:25am

1. SG and HK will both remain very exciting, but I do think the momentum is shifting to SG. HK was king for 20-30 years, but due to COVID lockdown as well as China's influence, certainly it's losing some allure. Every private banker from any bank will tell you that people from HK are transferring lots of their capital to SG. SG has a lot of money right now, and I do think more talent is going there. HK was the IPO hub for decades, but now, it's absolutely dead. It would not be nice to be an ECM banker right now in HK, I'd be scared. If you like SE Asia and India, SG is definitely a better place to be. There are more firms that focus on those markets. I may be wrong, but HK has a lot more HFs. So, if you want HF, you should go HK. PE-wise, many MFs are based in HK, but often they have SG locations too. Smaller PEs in HK will be more China and North Asia-focused. FO-wise, tons in both cities.

2. What do you want to achieve? I do think the BB brand gives an elevated stamp of approval than the MMs, but also depends if you are doing deals. But even within those  names that you mentioned, I think that there is variance between them, in terms of how they are perceived. Not all MMs are viewed equally. I would only go to a BB if it's the right group. You can be in a shit group in a BB and hate the experience. And, definitely make sure that when you are interviewing, remember that you are also interviewing them. Do you respect the people on the team, and can you imagine working 12-18 hours with them? If you the MD is a tweeb, and doesn't impress you, then do you want to be working for him? Don't join a team where the MD/D interviews you with the attitude of you begging for them, and them not treating you with proper courtesy and respect, some senior bankers are miserable like that. Whether you should go to a BB depends on what you want to do. If you are charismatic and a good networker, you could switch to the buyside with some hustle and luck (assuming you have enough transaction experience under your belt).

Jun 8, 2022 - 10:17pm
roundcircle, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Any advice for an associate who joined a SG/HK SFO only to find out that the FO mainly invests in MFs, FoFs and PV/VC funds at LP capacity? During the interview the principal mentioned big plans on expansion of the FO and adding in-house capabilities but I've been here for 1.5 years and nothing has changed. Team is extremely lean, limited opportunities to grow as well as the principal founder had passed a while back. Second gen have taken on the CIO/decision maker role but have never worked in finance before.

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 9, 2022 - 11:35am

I think you should go to an institutional platform that does both funds and co-invests, and try to build your direct investment experience that way. Assuming direct investing is what you are aiming for, get a few co-invests under your belt, network hard and try to move to a PE/VC/FO after. Your fund investing experience doesn't really translate to the sourcing and transaction execution skills that a direct investment team would look for. It doesn't mean you are not capable. They just would rather take someone, who already has transaction execution experience, so there is less to teach. 

You touched on a very painful reality that comes with working at a FO. If the second (or third/fourth) gen works in the family office, it could be very frustrating. Obviously, if this person is driven, hungry and capable, you will respect him/her. But, if this person has no competency and yet has the family's approval to make random and dumb investments, it can be very painful and frustrating. Especially, if you (and your team) have recently had somewhat decent investments turned down by the family/principal. If this person doesn't actually work like a normal disciplined person, and only makes decision, you and your team might have to do the grunt execution for his/her investment too. But on the other hand, if the second (or third/fourth) gen is a hardworking and competent person, it might even inspire you that someone who comes from so much money still has the desire to work hard, and the ability to make good decisions. It really can swing both way. Either quite good or quite bad.

I don't think it's necessary to have worked in finance. Working in finance also doesn't warrant good investment acumen. If a person had good common and business sense, he can still make good decisions. But, of course, if your current new boss doesn't have good common and business sense, then maybe you should consider getting out and not waste your time, since you already mentioned limited opportunities to grow in your comment.

  • Analyst 3+ in IB-M&A
Jun 13, 2022 - 1:00pm

Any thoughts on Real Estate in China today? Is this something you'll look at given where it has come to?

In your view, who are the most reputable (and pay decently well) for co-invest / FoF in SG/HK?

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Jun 13, 2022 - 1:09pm

No, because my team only does PE/VC. I have colleagues that cover real estate specifically, and some of our private credit deals are collateralized by real estate, or have a real estate component. Not me though. I personally have zero interest in real estate.

But, I do know that no one is touching China real estate for a long time. The overhang is going to be here for a while. No turning around anytime soon. The whole sector will undergo massive restructuring. With all the value sucked out of the sector, appetite for China real estate (direct REPE/credit/distressed, etc.) is quite low, from what I can gather.

Someone has already asked bout co-invest/FoF in SG/HK. Unfortunately, I have zero insight or color. Not even enough for me to make one generic comment about it. Happy to help with other things, especially if you have questions regarding PE/VC.

Jun 28, 2022 - 12:08pm
Frighter3, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I previously worked in Big 4 restructuring, now transformed into Special Assets in a corporate bank.

I am really interested in VC/PE. Should I try to get into credit investment / private credit to gain experience and transfer my experience in VC/PE?

Thanks very much.

Frighter3

  • Executive Director in PE - Other
Aug 3, 2022 - 2:20pm

I have seen people successfully transition from private credit to PE/VC, even at the VP level. I think it really comes down to your ability to assess a company's business both qualitatively and quantitatively. The skills you learn in Private Credit/Special Sits is quite different from how a PE/VC would look at an asset. The structuring involved in the two streams are very different. It doesn't mean it can't be done. Get into private credit if you like it, but don't do it because you think it will help you get into PE/VC.

Jul 5, 2022 - 9:12am
earthwalker7, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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  • Incoming Analyst in AM - Other
Jul 5, 2022 - 1:01pm

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