AirAsia Group Bhd is no ordinary bet but one where he has factored in calculated risks just like he would in any of his poker games.PETALING JAYA: Stanley Choi’s increased stake in low-cost carrier
The professional poker player and investor from Hong Kong started looking at the aviation industry when it bottomed out between June and July last year and just as how Covid-19 was an unprecedented pandemic, Choi viewed it as an investment opportunity of a lifetime.
And as he hunted for companies to invest in, he realised that AirAsia appealed to him the most in terms of its fundamentals and management style.
He is now the substantial shareholder of the airline with a 8.96% stake.
“The fundamentals of a company and its management are most critical when it comes to my investment decisions.
“I have to make sure that the company I invest in has to be surviving when the economic situation improves. Some may not even survive after the pandemic because of their fundamentals.
“In terms of management efficiency, AirAsia is being run by the top notch in the industry and it has an excellent track record in terms of management, operations and the support of the local community, ” he told StarBiz.
Choi, whose first experience with AirAsia was on a flight from Kaohsiung to Manila two years ago, believed AirAsia would be among the first to bounce back as the economy recovers.
While it is undeniable that the pandemic has placed a dent on the airline, he said other airlines were in a similar predicament but where AirAsia differs is its business model and leading position in the region.
“Its cash outflow has been manageable. Of course, there is a need to pump in some cash for its operations but the management seems very competent, they run the airline well and I am quite confident about that.
“The interest rates are also at a comfortably low level as now and that has saved a lot of airlines’ lives.
“I think there won’t be any substantial interest rate hikes in the near future. I would say 50 to 100 basis points at most in the next two years, ” he said.
On his involvement in AirAsia, Choi said he would remain a passive investor but contribute his thoughts and expertise on mergers and acquisitions (M&As) as well as expanding the airline’s network to China, Hong Kong and Macau.
He pointed out that China remained one of the vital markets for AirAsia, both for its airline and digital businesses as it transforms from an airline to travel and lifestyle tech company.
“This is where AirAsia comes in to play a strategic role to build an alliance and bridge the people and businesses of Asia to create great synergies.
“I hope I can help AirAsia in securing and expanding its foothold in China with my experience, know-how and network with leading digital players in the country, ” he said, adding that if there is anything aimed at the mass market, that is where his investment will go.
While Choi is ultimately looking for the royal flush from his investment in AirAsia, he is aware that it all depends on how the economic recovery comes along.
Just a month after Choi’s private vehicle Positive Boom Ltd bought a further 167.1 million shares in AirAsia, raising his stake to 8.96%, Choi said the “flop” is now quite clear and he believes he is holding the upper hand.
A flop is the dealing of the first three of five cards in a poker game where players may use them to construct their winning hands.
He equated the three cards to the positive signs of improving economic conditions, the growing frequency of flights compared with its worst period last year and also the positive response from the investment community, which has seen AirAsia’s share price rising 44.3% since the time he participated in the group’s private placement on Feb 18.
In this, Choi said his investment in AirAsia is akin to him holding pocket queens or jacks, which are among the strongest pairs in the game.
“The cards seem to be playing out to be how I want it to play. I have no crystal ball to see what the turn or river cards are but it seems like I have a fair chance at this point, ” he said.
Asked if the odds were in his favour at this juncture, Choi agreed, saying that it can be felt from the AirAsia’s current share price.
“It seems like this time, it’s not bad for me to increase my stake. I will keep that option open. See how it goes, ” he said.
Choi is the chairman of Head & Shoulders Financial Group, as well as the chairman and executive director of International Entertainment Corp (IEC), a company listed on the main board of Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
He is also the only co-founding member from Hong Kong for YunFeng Capital - a private equity fund started in 2010 by a group of successful entrepreneurs and influential industry leaders, named after its co-founder Jack Ma Yun, founder of Alibaba Group, and David Yu Feng, founder of Target Media.