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Sunday, 2 October 2011

Hedge fund management, Value Partners; Malaysian a Hye Achiever in HK, eyes Penang projects

Image representing Value Partners as depicted ...Image via CrunchBase

Former The Star journalist Cheah makes it big in hedge fund management


PETALING JAYA: He is one of Asia’s most influential men in hedge funds but former journalist turned maverick investor Cheah Cheng Hye (pic below) has not forgotten his humble roots.

As a 12-year-old, he sold pineapples at a wholesale market in George Town after school, worked at a hawker stall and gave tuition to younger children to help support his siblings after his father died.

Today, Cheah runs Hong Kong’s largest investment powerhouse, managing US$9bil (RM28.7bil) worth of funds from investors worldwide. Last year, he became the first Asian to be invited to speak at the prestigious Graham and Dodd Breakfast event at Columbia University in New York.

The Penang-born businessman, who has been dubbed the Warren Buffett of the East, attributed part of his success to being “at the right place at the right time” and the other part, to his strong will to succeed due to his poor childhood.

Cheah, 57, said life was hard in his younger days.

“We never felt sorry for ourselves. We never expected the Government or anyone to help us. We accepted that the only way to improve was through self-help and luck,” he said in an e-mail interview from Hong Kong.

Despite excelling in his studies, the former Penang Free School student knew he could not afford to further his studies after Form Five.

So, he headed to The Star office in Weld Quay and landed a job – folding newspapers.

“We started work at 11pm and finished at 5am. Fortunately, after three weeks, I was recruited as a reporter,” he said, adding that he became a sub-editor and editorial writer within two years.

Cheah quit in 1974 and left for Hong Kong after receiving an offer from the Hong Kong Standard. He quickly adapted to his new environment and went on to become a financial journalist with the Asian Wall Street Journal and later, the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Cheah subsequently joined an investment company and in 1993, co-founded Value Partners Limited with his business partner Yeh V-nee, a Columbia University graduate.

The father of two said he would always appreciate Hong Kong for giving him numerous opportunities but admitted to feeling homesick for Malaysia. “I miss the good-natured people and the food.”

 Value Partners eyes Penang projects


GEORGE TOWN: Value Partners Ltd, a Hong-Kong based investment company founded by former The Star journalist Cheah Cheng Hye, is exploring investment opportunities in tourism and health-related projects in Penang.

Cheah, the chairman of Value Partners, told StarBiz that Penang could do more to attract tourists from Southern China.

“There exists a strong historical relationship between Southern China and Penang, which can be tapped to boost tourist arrivals from China to Penang.

Cheah: ‘We are now exploring tourism and healthcare-related projects.’ 
“We are now exploring tourism and healthcare-related projects that can attract Southern China tourists to come over.

“These would be sizeable projects, as we would not be interested in small undertakings,” he said.

Founded by Cheah in 1993, Value Partners manages about US$8bil worth of funds, with investments in China, the Asia-Pacific, Japan and Australia.

Cheah, 57, a former student of Penang Free School, worked as a journalist for The Star in Penang from 1971-1974.

He was speaking at the investPenang one-day seminar jointly organised by investPenang and ECM Libra Financial Group Bhd.

Also present was Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng who delivered the keynote address.

ECM Libra chairman Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan said the seminar had attracted fund managers from India, the Philippines and Hong Kong, among other countries, who managed funds worth US$2bil (RM6.2bil) and above.

“They are exploring investment (opportunities) in healthcare, business process outsourcing (BPO), infrastructure, and tourism sectors.

“BPO (which) supports the legal and medical care business has the potential to grow in Penang, as the state has a pool of educated workforce to support BPO enterprises,” he said.

The companies that took part in investPenang included Religare Enterprises Ltd, an India-based financial services company with operations around the globe; Alliance Global, which is involved in the food and beverage, real estate, and quick service restaurants in the Philippines; and local companies such as YTL Corp Bhd, Multi-Purpose Holdings Bhd and SP Setia Bhd

Gamble that paid off


He took a chance leaving one island for another to seek his fortune but the dividends are paying off handsomely for Cheah Cheng Hye, one of Asia’s top fund managers.

WHEN he arrived at the Hong Kong harbour on a cargo steamship 37 years ago, Cheah Cheng Hye was almost broke, having scraped all his savings to pay for space to sleep in the cargo compartment.

He did not anticipate a long stay – all he wanted was to work, save money and return home to Penang. But the 20-year-old soon found a world of opportunities in the then British colony.

Today, Cheah, 57, is chairman and co-chief investment officer of Value Partners Limited, an investment company he co-founded in Hong Kong that manages global funds worth RM28.7bil. Last year, the company launched its Value Gold ETF (exchange-traded fund), the first and only gold ETF backed by physical gold bullion stored in Hong Kong.

In an exclusive interview with Sunday Star, Cheah talks about the turbulent global money market, growing up in old George Town and his affinity for two islands – one where he was born and the other where he now resides.

Q: You have been dubbed the Warren Buffet of the East. How do you feel about the tag? 

A: It is actually not an appropriate tag. Warren Buffett is much, much bigger than me. Anyway, the opportunities and challenges we have here in Asia are so different.

> Given the current global economic climate, what is your advice for fund investors? 

I think global financial markets have entered a very turbulent and difficult time. This difficulty may drag on for years. There is no easy solution because if you put money in the bank on deposit, you suffer from a negative real interest rate (i.e. inflation higher than the deposit rate).

My own solution is to have a highly diversified investment portfolio that is, however, over-weighted in certain sectors like China stocks, precious metals, energy, agriculture and companies with major brands or franchises.

>What made you decide to launch a gold ETF on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? How is Value Gold ETF faring today?

I’ve been recommending gold and investing in it since the 1990s, because of my fear that governments around the world would end up printing too much money. After a year in operation, our gold ETF is now US$135mil (RM430mil) in size.

This is considered a huge success for a new fund. Our clients are from all over the world. We think inflows from clients in mainland China will grow significantly.

> How did you get into hedge funds? Do you have sleepless nights worrying about whether your funds are performing?

I was a financial journalist in Far East Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal. In the late 1980s, I was offered a research position in a stock brokerage firm in Hong Kong and made a successful transition to investment analyst through self-learning.

Even during good times, my job is extremely stressful and I’ve been doing meditation for many years to reduce stress. I believe successful people must have a strong commitment to being mentally and physically fit, otherwise they would let down their clients and partners.

In the near future, the whole financial industry, including hedge funds, will face a difficult period. But over the mid- to long-term, the better quality funds will emerge stronger and bigger than now because there are lots of savings in the world to be managed.

It should be noted that people are less willing to leave their savings as simple bank deposits and are actually quite keen to try out high-performance investment products provided by fund management companies as an alternative.

> What do you hope to achieve?

We hope to transform Value Partners Group into a leading world-class asset management company. We don’t want people to think that Asian firms will always occupy a lower position than Western ones. Over the next 20 years, several world-class Asian fund managers will emerge because of the superior growth in our region.

> How do you maintain staff loyalty?

Value Partners has about 120 employees. During good years, we pay generous bonuses but we try to keep our fixed overheads low. Basically, our formula is to keep fixed salaries low and bonuses high. We find that younger people like the formula, because they share the profits of the business. In Hong Kong, we have a reputation for being a generous but demanding employer. Our firm has a strong corporate culture.

> What makes you successful?

To this day, I believe half my success is simply being in the right place at the right time. I consider myself a beneficiary of the Asian Economic Miracle and the opening of mainland China. Like everyone else, I make professional mistakes now and then, but each time the remarkable opportunities brought along by the two phenomena have allowed me to find the resources to overcome my errors and start again.

The other half of being successful comes from several factors. I believe one has to be diligent, humble and willing to learn. I sign my name “Learn” rather than my actual name, so that I always remind myself to keep on learning.

> How has your past shaped your future?

My strong will to succeed is probably due to my poverty-stricken childhood. When I look at pictures of myself taken in the 1960s and early 1970s, I realise I was so skinny because we never had enough food to eat.

My father died of illness when I was 12 and from then until I was 15, I sold pineapples seven days a week at my uncle’s store at the Sia Boey Market (now closed) in Penang. During weekdays, I went to the store after school finished at 1pm.

Our family house was sold after my father died and we lived in rented housing. The condition was very bad, so I avoided staying at home unless I was sick. My family had to keep moving because we couldn’t afford to pay the rent and faced eviction constantly. Our longest stay was in the Carnarvon Street area in old George Town. In the neighbourhood I lived in, drug addiction was a very big problem, but fortunately I stayed away from drugs.

When I was in Form Three, my bicycle was stolen at the Penang Library. It was a big disaster for me – the loss meant I could not go to school which was a 45-minute ride away. Luckily, my uncle gave me an old bicycle. Otherwise, I would have had to stop schooling.

In those days, modern medical care was a luxury that few could afford and people relied on religious charms, herbal medicines and folk remedies, which included eating dead cockroaches and drinking the urine of young boys.

In the 1967 “hartal” race riots in Penang, mobs armed with knives and bamboo poles killed people passing through our streets, and I witnessed those bloody scenes, which remain in my memory.

> What was your childhood ambition?

Find a job, which would allow me to sit in an office and avoid manual work. My mother wanted me to work as a chai hoo (Hokkien for clerk).

>What was it like reporting in the days before computers, mobile phones and traffic jams?
I joined The Star (Penang) in December 1971 right after finishing my last (MCE) exam paper. My first job, however, was not reporting but folding newspapers. Fortunately after three weeks, I was offered a reporter’s job that paid RM120 monthly.

In the early 1970s, every reporter had to own a motorcycle. Mine was a second-hand Honda S90, with a 90cc engine. Since I was a crime reporter, I relied on monitoring the police radio and various other means for news leads. A lot of initiative was required. Almost half our stories were based on self-generated ideas.

Within two years, I was promoted to sub-editor and editorial writer, so it became an office job. The Star’s office, originally in Weld Quay, Penang had moved to Pitt Street by the time I quit to leave for Hong Kong in August 1974.

> What would you have done if you had not become a journalist?

I have never really done any long-term planning for my career development. I just drifted from one situation to another, so I don’t know what might be a possible outcome if I had done things differently. I just responded to each opportunity as it came up.

But I think if I had had the opportunity to go to university, I would have ended up as an academic. My biggest hobby is reading and when I was young, I was very interested in politics and history. My interest in finance and investment was non-existent. I didn’t even bother to open an account in a bank until I lived in Hong Kong from 1974.

> How would you compare Penang and Hong Kong? 

The lifestyles are very different. In Penang, I am very comfortable in my hometown. Unfortunately, there has been a shortage of good career opportunities.

Hong Kong’s efficiency and high-opportunity environment suits me. I find Hong Kong people open-minded, with an admirable “can do” spirit towards life.

But I must admit, sometimes I’m still homesick for Malaysia. I miss the easy-going and good-natured friendliness of Malaysians and, of course, I think the food in Malaysia is the best in the world.

> Do you take time off for holidays?

I’m a workaholic and I work seven days a week.

>Is there anything else you wish for in life? 

I believe that the most basic human right is the right to be free from poverty. The fight against poverty deserves support from all of us. It is very painful for me when I come across children deprived of shelter and education because they come from poor families.

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