Ex-banker builds on father’s property business

Yoma’s new CEO eyes diversified plate of projects in Myanmar

Taking over the reins of his father’s business was not a move Mr Melvyn Pun had envisioned.

“It was totally unexpected,” says Mr Pun, 37, now chief executive at Singapore-listed property and construction group Yoma Strategic Holdings.

The former Goldman Sachs investment banker was appointed to the position earlier, in July, while his father, Mr Serge Pun, still sits on the board as executive chairman.

Yoma Strategic Holdings, which listed on the Singapore Exchange in 2006, is the name behind projects in Myanmar such as Thanlyin Star City, The Landmark Development and FMI City, the first gated community in Myanmar.

The group – which drew $28.1 million in net profits for the 2015 financial year, up on the $16.4 million from the year before – holds a portfolio of other businesses in the country as well, from consumer goods to agriculture to automotive.

“When I was growing up, I had a lot of interest in business, probably because of my family background,” recalls the younger Mr Pun, in a recent interview with The Straits Times.

“I liked talking about business with my father and hearing his views, but I had never, for one second, imagined that I would work for him.”

Initially adamant against being drafted into the family business, Mr Pun’s plan was to stay with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong – where he had been running the corporate solutions team for Asia excluding Japan – for “many more years”, before starting his own company as an entrepreneur.

But the opening up of Myanmar in the past few years proved impossible to say “no” to. “Honestly, Myanmar was just too exciting at the right time – be it for the country or my career,” he says. “I felt that I would really regret it if I don’t do this.”

At the age of four, he was sent to a boarding school in Britain, where he continued schooling until his later years, graduating from the University of Cambridge in 2000 with a master’s in engineering.

He then took up the job with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, staying with the firm for 12 years, before taking up the role of chief executive at Serge Pun & Associates (Myanmar), where he helped the group grow ties with corporate players, including those with Mitsubishi Corp, International Finance Corp, the Asian Development Bank and Yum!Brands.

While Mr Pun lived overseas for most of his life, he regularly returned to Myanmar to visit relatives and friends. “My family are all here, so I have a lot of emotional ties with Myanmar, despite the fact that I was not living here.”

He adds: “Everything was great at Goldman, but the funny thing is, I don’t miss it one bit. Being back in Myanmar and being involved with its development is just a whole new level of excitement.”

Adding to that, Mr Pun has big plans lined up for the company.

He spearheaded the diversification efforts for Yoma about three years ago, which included opening the first KFC outlet in Myanmar last July.

“We’re going to have a more balanced mix between real estate and non-real estate,” he says, stressing that the firm will have to do this carefully without compromising its core property business.

For Yoma, the next stepping stone would be to open 50 KFC outlets within a number of years, says Mr Pun, although he expects the eventual number to amount to one that is much more “sizeable”.

“Building just 10 or 20 stores, even if they are very profitable, is not that material to us,” he says.

“If you look at Indonesia or Thailand, they have some 500 stores – that’s a very sizeable business, and that’s what we want to build.”

He adds: “We’re trying to build ourselves up to become one of the premier blue-chip companies in the country, and there should be a huge amount of growth ahead of us.

“We are already a blue-chip company, but it’s just that the economy is still small. In five years’ time, we would be in a much clearer position.”

Mr Pun says that the experience gleaned from his previous job comes in very handy in his new role, given that he has had the opportunity to “have conversations with some of the biggest companies on how they succeed”.

But the senior Mr Pun remains his biggest inspiration.

The senior Mr Pun, who fled Myanmar after a military coup in 1962, had returned to the country in the 1990s. He has since built a sprawling business empire and was ranked 45th on Forbes’ list of Singapore’s 50 Richest last year, with a net worth of over US$500 million (S$710 million).

“My father is a good businessman. More than that, the way he built the business is an inspiration to many people,” says Mr Pun, noting that his father held on to his principles even at a time when corruption was rampant in Myanmar.

He also recalls: “In my first year with the company, I was working non-stop… I would start at 6 or 7am, double-book myself for dinner with different groups of people every night.

“And when I went home at midnight, I would discuss things over with my father until 3am, and start the day again in just a few hours. It was just not sustainable.”

It was then that Mr Pun’s father offered him a piece of advice, which has stuck with him since: Running the business is a marathon, not a sprint.

“That was quite insightful,” says Mr Pun, who is married with a son and a daughter, aged five and three.

“In a bank, you’re always sprinting, you’re always chasing after that last deal. Whereas in Yoma, it’s not always about closing any deal you get. It’s about growing the company for multiple decades.

“So I’m a lot more selective about what I do now, how I spend my time. It’s about putting things in perspective, and keeping your eye on the future.”

Source: Straits Times

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