OUR Power Lunch session was hosted at a fusion restaurant called Ploy, with the managing directors of Asiasons Capital Ltd as our guests. Asiasons is a Singapore-listed niche boutique private equity firm that has a diverse portfolio that includes Chaswood Resources, Liongold, Nirvana and EMS Holdings. It all seemed like an overwhelming load of topics to discuss.
Ploy is privately-owned by Datuk Jared Lim, one of the managing directors of Asiasons and he promptly informed me that their chefs were sent to Bangkok to learn Thai cuisine. They do not serve any Thai dishes but instead develop a monthly changing menu of Japanese and Italian dishes with a touch of Thai. Since it's still the Chinese New Year season, we ordered Ploy's Japanese inspired Yee Sang, accentuated with pine nuts, to begin our meal. Consumers
To explain the diversity of their portfolio, Ng Teck Wah, joint managing director of Asiasons, says: “It's all focus of finances on the consumer side. Consumers are so diverse. F&B, lifestyle, education and even Nirvana is a consumer play. Reaching out to the consumer is a very big thing in South-East Asia”, both explaining to me that Singapore was selected as an ideal choice for them to list their company as it provides an ideal platform to enable them to have a successful regional reach.
The region is a key focus of their investment strategy, having established offices in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, and having built up partners in China as well.
“How we do it is we invest in a company and rollout their operations into the region. That is really the main strategy of how we grow our business. It's a lot easier than the traditional private equity way in the United States whereby it's so developed and you try to improve margins, cut costs and all that. In Asia, it's really a growing market. There's so much that's untapped,” Lim explains as Ng and I sip on red wine while he enjoys a latte.
Looking at their portfolio, it's clear that Asiasons appears to prefer to hold a controlling stake in the companies they've invested in. When asked if this could be seen to be an aggressive approach, Lim told me that they prefer to look at it as being pro-active.
“There are investors who look at good companies, want to be a part of what they want to do and ride along with what management is doing. I think we're taking a far more pro-active approach to say that I think it's a great-model, but if you do these five other steps, we could grow it much better. This is value-added expertise that we've invested in. One of the main resources that we've invested in is building our own branding and creative design team. That's something we really believe in”.
“This infrastructure that we've built is what makes us different from the other private equity firms. Because of our strong consumer focus, branding and creativity is an integral part in enhancing our private equity business model,” Ng tells me, as they share with me the extent to which they've been involved creatively with the brands within their portfolio.
From billboards to commercials and to social media, Asiasons has put in place a dedicated creative department headed up by Lim's brother who was a multiple award winning creative director during his 20 years in the United States.
As an example of showcasing their brand building capabilities, Ng shares with me their plan to make Chaswood the largest regional multi-brand casual dining restaurant operator in South-East Asia, targeting 100 outlet growth before they consider an exit.
As we were served a dish called five-elements, which Lim described as Japanese misua topped with ebiko, belacan and a poached egg, we went on to discuss how making the move to focus on branding, creativity and social media has significantly impacted the companies and brands that they've been involved in.
One example is growing their Facebook Hi-5 fan page from 2,500 to 67000 fans in less than six months.
“We're able to understand what our fans want and what they're looking for. This enabled us to develop an online app. It'll be launched next month. You can see the touring schedule, we'll develop games, launch songs, etc. It's just an example of the creative elements that we can easily add value to for a consumer brand. We're also very passionate about it, so it's fun,” Lim tells me, while sharing that they are also working to launch a spin-off series called Chats World, and also a Hi-5 cartoon, by the end of 2013.
Before which, they tell me that they have plans to make announcements in March about a new infrastructure that they're putting in place regarding programme sales.
With the growing popularity of Hi-5, Lim explains that he's chosen to take a hands-on approach to the management of that brand, to the point of instigating their first ever movie in 14 years.
“I'm personally involved in it as executive producer. For this movie, it was me telling them, rather than just spending the money for the audition and have nothing to show for it. Spend a little bit more, get a crew in and do the script. Now we have something to show something Hi-5 in their 14 years never did. And, it only cost us something like A$80,000 to do it.
“We can recoup it if we sell it through Hoyts. We can sell it to broadcasters around the world as a special. It's a very simple idea that just takes thinking out of the box. You come from a different angle and have the right management to take it through. It's fun”. The Hi-5 movie is set to launch in March, nationwide in Australia through Hoyt, as for Malaysia, Lim reveals that they're hoping this may be a possibility as they are currently in talks with GSC. Exhibitions
With regards to EMS, Lim says they have big plans too for the exhibitions that they have within the group. “Very much like the restaurant side, we're going to expand it throughout Asia. The first thing we did was hire the MD for Disney Live! He has been running the company for 26 years”.
Their key focus is to bring interactivity to their exhibitions while also expanding on their merchandise range.
Ng explains: “Merchandise is one of the key revenue drivers. People normally spend more money on merchandise and opportunities rather than the price of tickets. That's why our creative team can enhance the merchandise that we bring to the respective brands”.
The arrival of a dish called Sunrise Tuna that came accompanied with a blowtorch, which Lim excitedly armed himself with to prepare our meal, brought amusement and a more light-hearted focus to the topic of exhibitions. Such as the photo opportunities available at their ongoing Star Trek exhibition, and Lim's Klingon language abilities. After our food was delicately seared, I replaced my non-flame retardant voice recorder onto the table, and continued our interview. As Dinosaurs has wrapped, Star Trek is ongoing and Barbie's Dream House is set to arrive, I wondered about a permanent event space as they had mentioned having over a dozen exhibit brands within EMS.
Lim says: “We don't have our own space in Asia. We have two in the United States and two in Europe. We'll have a permanent venue. We'll be signing and announcing soon (in March). I just had a meeting with one of the venue owners. I can't tell you which on yet until we sign it. We're in the contract stage”.
As everything that we've discussed seems to soon be announced, including a soon-to-be-announced venture into an ultra luxury space with products such as HK$2mil to HK$4mil watches, high-end writing instruments and wine chillers, it seems that Asiasons is expanding its portfolio and involvements with zest. To this, Ng laughs and admits that it's true that Asiasons does not waste time.
“We're in the business of doing deals. We eat and breathe deals. Deals are very time critical and if a deal fits our profile, criteria and where we intend for it to be in the next five years, then we quickly move with it”. With that, Ng excuses himself to dash-off to another meeting, while Lim orders us durian panna-cottas as the final part of our fusion meal.
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