Andy Lim strides into the boardroom and sits in the only chair there that’s placed at the head of the table. Barely a heartbeat passes before he jumps up like he has accidentally sat on a hot potato and scoots over to the right.
“That is the boss chair,” he jokingly exclaims. It is the seat his father, John Lim, who is the co-founder and group chief executive of ARA Asset Management, takes when the board convenes, and the 35-year-old Lim seems self-conscious in the hallowed spot. And this despite the fact that the scion has been the chief executive officer of JL Family Office, the holding company for the family’s wealth, since 2019.
However, there is a distinction to be made here. ARA Asset Management, which has a presence in 28 countries – and whose most recognisable landmark is Suntec City – manages about $87 billion in assets and is estimated to be worth about $5 billion.
The JL Family Office holds a 19.85 per cent stake in ARA and this comprises a significant portion of the Lim family’s fortune. It also holds a 10.5 per cent stake in Straits Real Estate, which is co-owned by The Straits Trading Company.
“The office takes care of 100 per cent of the family’s wealth,” he says. “The beauty of the family office concept is that I have the ability to run my own thing away from the core business. There is a latitude that allows me to do things I feel are right for the family.”
TAKING THE LEAP
By his own admission, Lim originally had no intention of getting involved in the family business. “I enjoyed my practice as a commercial real estate lawyer. I enjoyed the rigours of law and was involved in a lot of negotiations and contracts. I loved that every day I would be doing deals,” says Lim, who holds a law degree from the University of Liverpool and spent four years at Allen & Gledhill till 2014.
Along the way, his father would occasionally seek his advice on various opportunities. “They were not entirely to do with this business, and he didn’t have time to look at them so he would pass them to me. Through that, I slowly started to learn.”
In 2014, when The Straits Trading Company approached the Lims about a joint venture, John Lim asked his son to consider taking a full-time role in the JL Family Office. “I didn’t necessarily have to join the main family business to work, but I would get the chance to come into my own,” says Lim. With this life-changing negotiation concluded, he took the plunge.
THE DEALS GUY
Since he came on board, Lim has been steering the company against the grain of what traditional family offices typically do. “A common misconception for the longest time is that family offices are about passive income – you sit there and manage your trust. That is not entirely accurate. The main goals are to try to grow the family’s ecosystem and wealth, and to see what we can do to give back to society.”
To grow the pot, the self-professed “deals guy” has been “edging the family office away from its core business of real estate”. This is the part where he lights up. “I love cutting deals. I get a rush from this,” he says. “I’ve done so many in my life and every one is different. I really love the part where you focus on problem solving. Every deal has a certain complication that you have to solve and that is the part that gets me.”
The latest investment he’s mulling over – subject to approval from the Monetary Authority of Singapore – is the start-up Minterest marketplace for small businesses to obtain crowdfunding from accredited investors. This deal would mark the family office’s first foray into fintech, he says.
“This is our way of pushing our core business into the digital age while not totally eliminating our core competency, which is fund management in real estate. I think it is only natural for families to expose themselves to different sectors,” he says.
He is already sniffing around for his next big venture, which he reveals could be in the health sector. More specifically, Lim is looking into wellness retreats, one of the most popular travel trends of the moment. “Not everything about health has to do with medicine. I’ve made my due diligence trip to Chiang Mai to learn what travellers do on wellness holidays,” he says. “At retreats, you learn to calm down and learn meditation techniques to tweak yourself back to base level. Then you return to work.”
Such getaways, he muses, are “scalable” as they can be launched at different destinations. That was what caught his eye. But first, he needs to take more trips to check out other wellness retreats. At this announcement, the two ARA staff sitting in on this interview half-jokingly offer to help with the task.
His team knows him well. It turns out that Lim is not one to sit and meditate. Instead, he finds his flow in long-distance running, a sport he picked up last August. “Our lives are so busy that it’s sometimes hard to switch off. I find that when I run, I do get meditative. That’s when you focus on your next step and sort of zone out.”
To keep himself motivated, the man has set what he calls incremental goals. “When I first started, I couldn’t even complete 5km in 30 minutes; now I can run 10km in under an hour,” he says. Up next is a half-marathon and then a full marathon by the end of the year.
Like golf, his other sport of choice, it is the slog that keeps him hooked. “You work at it but in the long run, your gains are limited. This keeps you humble. Eighty per cent of the time, it’s going to be bad shots. You’re always chasing the good shot. It forces you to slow down and not expect immediate success.”
The depth of experience that can only be garnered over years of practice is something he values in his business partners, too. “Steve Jobs created a world where people are very good in the art of the pitch, but they forget that he was actually a computer scientist and no slouch. The guy had a certain level of technical skills as well,” he points out.
With the Minterest investment, Lim says what sealed that deal was the co-founders’ vast experience as former credit bankers. “We look for partners with a skill set, ability and market edge whom we can work with and help push to another level.”
The self-professed cheonghei (Cantonese for long-winded) is also executive director of Lim Hoon Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the family office, which gives bursaries and scholarships to underprivileged students (primary to tertiary levels). This includes a $4 million endowment with Singapore Management University (including a dollarto-dollar match by the government) to award up to 12 bond-free scholarships annually.
Also a mentor for university students, he clearly has a soft spot for those at SMU. He often attends their scholarship events, hosts fireside chats and sometimes offers them the option to apply for internships with ARA’s portfolio companies. Lim, whose business card doesn’t include his mobile number, even chats with the students on Whatsapp.
“I’m always telling them: ‘Don’t be in a rush to go out there and start a business idea. Take some time to gain a certain level of skills. Then work in a multinational company for a few years to learn what the big boys do. You’re also making contacts at the same time. These are the things that build up over the years’.”
As the bond-free scholarships come with no strings attached, Lim personally tries to inspire them to pay it forward in meaningful ways. “Help your juniors or when you do well, make sure you give back,” he says. “The dream is that this group grows larger, so it can become an ecosystem where the older alumni can help the younger ones.”
“I am proud of them,” Lim says, his face softening as he looks back on a decade of scholarships. “You can see the progression from young kids, who were so shy, into confident individuals earning an income. That is the reason we do these things.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
To protect their privacy, he is reticent to speak about his family, but Lim is happy to discuss the people who have played a pivotal role in his and his father’s careers. On a sideboard in the ARA boardroom are five framed photographs of his father with key stakeholders such as Victor Li, chairman and co-managing director of CK Hutchison Holdings, and whose father, Li Ka-Shing, partnered John Lim to start ARA. Others include Justin Chiu, board chairman of ARA, and Chew Gek Khim, executive chairman of The Straits Trading Company. “So far, they are our biggest partners. This is a reminder that we’ve got to do our best for them,” says Lim, who worked closely with the latter to set up Straits Real Estate.
Chew left a deep impression on him. “When she has a conviction about a certain decision, she’s always been able to say, ‘Let’s do it’,” he observes, noting this is unusual in most multigenerational family businesses.
This is a lesson he has taken to heart. “Second-generation business leaders like myself always get judged, no matter what we do. [We just need to] do our best, make balanced decisions and not be concerned about being judged. ”
Still, while he may have carved out his own place in the world, there are certainly perks to being his father’s son. “I’m quite blessed. Who else can have John Lim as a mentor? There is nothing more fun than doing a deal and knowing the person who has your back is your dad.”
Even more essential to Lim is the responsibility he carries as a steward of his family’s wealth. “When my kids or theirs want to get involved, we hope this office will serve as a guide to how the family prefers to deal with other people, businesses and society. With a family office, there is a base philosophy and they can see their legacy.”
“Second-generation business leaders like myself always get judged, no matter what we do. [We just need to] do our best, make balanced decisions and not be concerned about judgement.”
“A common misconception for the longest time is that family offices are about passive income – you sit there and manage your trust. That is not entirely accurate. The main goals are to try to grow the family’s ecosystem and wealth, and to see what we can do to give back to society.”
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