Bank on his heart

Top financier and NTU alumnus Tan Chin Hwee, who is in his 40s, has enough to retire. But all the NTU Board member wants to do is pay it forward, as Tan Yo-Hinn finds out


They say failure is the mother of success.

Leading hedge fund investor Tan Chin Hwee discovered this two decades ago when a poor investment move as an accountancy undergraduate left him on the brink of bankruptcy.

He had taken a student loan from a bank to trade options without fully understanding how the Black-Scholes model of financial theory worked.

This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“If I hadn’t gone bankrupt, I probably wouldn’t have landed my first job!”

It was 1995. Keppel Corporation’s then-Chief Financial Officer Teo Soon Hoe heard about his fiscal misadventure, but felt the fire in his belly and offered him his first job as a treasury analyst when he graduated.

Looking around his plush office, it is clear that the Adjunct Associate Professor at NTU and the youngest member on its Board of Trustees is a go-getter. Yet, the MRT is still his main mode of transport, and talking to him, there’s little sign of a life of luxe living although he became a millionaire in his early 30s.

He has the stripes to prove his worth in the corporate world, such as being voted by The Hedge Fund Journal as one of the top 40 emerging absolute return investors globally, and being named Best Asia Credit Hedge Fund Manager by Hong Kong-based publication The Asset. He has also been named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a World Cities Summit Young Leader.

Apollo Global Management, the alternative investment house he built up in Asia as a founding partner, manages more than US$185 billion in global assets. Having closed his 100th big money deal last year, he can comfortably retire, but he has just taken on another big role, this time as the Asia-Pacific CEO of Trafigura, the world's second-largest metals and independent oil trader.

When asked for money-growing tips, all this investment guru would say is “save”.

He doesn’t think any student should take the kind of calculated risks he took in school. If you have $5,000 in the bank, save most of it and invest in yourself, he advises.

“You might need it for a rainy day or medical and other emergency expenses. But it won’t hurt to spend on self-improvement courses that widen your perspective,” he adds. “You won’t regret it.”

His eyes light up when the topic turns to his long-time passion – social work and giving back to society.

“My philosophy is – I won’t hand you the fish. Instead, I will teach you how to fish. I don’t believe in handouts.”

Growing up in a one-room Toa Payoh flat as the eldest of three children of former Nanyang Siang Pau journalist Tan Chio Lin and his homemaker wife, Adj Assoc Prof Tan worked hard to make his own future, winning scholarships to Hwa Chong Junior College, NTU and Yale University.

“If I hadn’t gone bankrupt, I probably wouldn’t have landed my first job!”
Blessed with the same work ethic, his siblings are equally accomplished – younger brother Philip is a Young Artist Award recipient and the creative mind behind acts like the opening of Gardens by the Bay and the closing ceremony of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, while sister Kai Syng is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, curator and consultant.

He reflects: “My siblings and I received a lot of help to get to where we are and we remember these opportunities we have been given. I was also lucky to have made the right decisions at key moments in my life, and to have the discipline to work hard for what I wanted.”

With gratitude comes grace and humility, and Adj Assoc Prof Tan is a firm believer in paying it forward so that others with a less-privileged start like him can rise above their circumstances.

His do-gooder influence has rubbed off on his wife, Michelle, and their three children aged 11, 6 and 5, who, like him, help out at welfare organisations such as Willing Hearts. Even the 20 members of his extended family pitch in at these big-hearted family outings.

“I also encourage my staff to spend at least 20 percent of their work time outside of the office, because the skills they pick up away from their desks are exactly what voluntary welfare organisations need, like the ability to solve problems on the fly and speak coherently and convincingly,” he adds.

A long-time board member of the Youth Volunteer Corps, he enjoys mentoring NTU students and his previous firm, Apollo Global Management, has groomed about 30 NTU interns over the last nine years.

His alma mater remains close to his heart for another reason – it is where he met Michelle.

Recalling his varsity days, he says learning how to lead was one of the best takeaways that has served him well throughout his career as an investment honcho.

“I was heading the Mensa and Photo-Videographic Society student clubs, which had about 700 members altogether, and I had to motivate them despite having nothing to offer,” he says.

As much as he believes in the value of social and community work, he acknowledges that the spark that lights the fire can only come from within.

“Even if you grow up in conditions like mine, it doesn’t mean you’ll turn out like me, because everyone’s life experiences are different.”

But it’s a fire he hopes to see in more NTU students, because he would like them to experience the joy that helping others can bring.

“But don’t take it from me. Hear about it from your friends who are already doing it. It isn’t happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.”