Ex-swimmer Daphne Teo makes waves in Myanmar real estate

Investing in a new market can be risky business, but former national swimmer Daphne Teo is no stranger to diving into the deep end.

Ms Teo, now chief investment officer of D3 Capital, is overseeing the development of a mixed-use luxury project that boasts some of Myanmar’s tallest skyscrapers.

Called Golden City, the project in Yangon is near the famed Inya Lake and Shwedagon Pagoda and will include residences, offices, a hotel, serviced residences, retail and 100,000 sq ft of gardens. Its gross development value has been estimated at about US$700 million (S$960 million).

When completed in 2018, it will have 10 33-storey towers and one six-storey building. Four of the 33-storey blocks have been topped off so far.

“When we chanced upon this piece of land we realised it was an opportunity of a lifetime,” says Ms Teo, whose firm D3 Capital is a Singapore-based investment company run by her family to invest their own capital.

Mr Teo Cheng Kwee, the chairman of D3 Capital and Ms Teo’s father, is the founder, former chief executive and current non-executive director of rail infrastructure and mining company Sapphire Corporation. D3 Capital founded the Myanmar development company behind Golden City and is a major shareholder in the project.

Ms Teo – who arrives for this interview perfectly coiffed after an early morning hair-and-make-up session – might initially seem an incongruous player in a frontier market like Myanmar. But it was the country’s quiet potential that prompted the 33-year-old to leave a “cushy job” as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs to join the family business in 2012.

“I knew eventually I would help my dad out with some projects, but I thought I would learn more if I went out to do my own thing first,” says Ms Teo, who holds a degree in engineering from Purdue University and a master’s from Stanford University.

“But when I got to know the people and country, I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Ms Teo first visited Myanmar with her father in 2012 – just after the country reopened to foreign investment – as the company was exploring opportunities there.

“The plane was empty and Customs was a breeze. There were no cars on the road,” she recalls.

Myanmar has developed at a breakneck pace since, and when Golden City was launched in March 2014, it was met with strong demand.

“People were lining up the night before, which is unheard of in Myanmar,” says Ms Teo, who spends one week every month in Yangon to oversee the project’s development.

“People in Myanmar have a lot of savings and are sleeping on a large amount of cash… There’s barely any real estate to invest in there.”

Units are going for between US$280 and US$320 per sq ft. The first phase, which includes four 33-storey residential towers, is 70 to 80 per cent sold. The second phase – which has three towers – is 50 to 60 per cent sold. The development has 1,400 units in total.

“The country doesn’t have a very good banking system, so people were rolling in luggage with cash… One guy came with a pile of US dollars and asked how many units he could buy in Golden City,” she adds.

Some buyers, however, were initially wary.

“Most buildings there are eight storeys high at most, and the lowest floor would be the most expensive because they had no lifts,” says Ms Teo. “It was a challenge to convince people that higher floors are better.”

To reassure buyers, the company organizes parties on the manicured lawn outside the project’s showflat to showcase the progress of construction. It has also taken buyers who purchased five or more units to Chengdu in China to see 50- to 60-storey skyscrapers constructed by the same contractors building Golden City.

Ms Teo also worked with Singapore online high-end fashion retailer Reebonz, which has set up a physical concept store in Golden City.

“People in Myanmar like luxury goods, but previously they had to fly to Singapore and Thailand to buy them.”

Golden City’s success is only the beginning, Ms Teo says.

The company sees significant potential in Myanmar’s real estate market and has other developments in the pipeline. It is also exploring other sectors.

“When we first went into Myanmar in 2012, a lot of people thought we were crazy. The country had just opened up and everyone thought we were taking a big risk,” she says.

“But I regret that we didn’t take a bigger risk back then. Seeing how Myanmar has grown and progressed, it would have been great if we had started land banking then when land prices were 10 to 15 times cheaper.

“Myanmar has changed a lot and there is a lot of potential and opportunity… There are just so many sectors that I could explore.”

Ms Teo says her swimming career made her a more tenacious person. She started swimming at the age of three and began representing Singapore at age six.

“It was a valuable experience to know what it’s like to lose at such a young age… You start crying, then your parents tell you not to cry, to be a good sportsman, train harder, find another way.”

She competed in the South-east Asia Games – where she won a bronze medal at the age of 14 – as well as the Commonwealth Games and Youth Olympics. Ms Teo eventually stopped swimming around the age of 16 to concentrate on her studies.

“I was travelling all over the world to compete… Swimming has opened a lot of doors for me,” she adds.

Ms Teo is married and has two older brothers.

“I hope to have kids eventually. I’ve been travelling so much especially to Myanmar, so it’s not been too conducive,” she says.

Source: The Straits Times

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