Teacher said he had no future, now he has 7 shops

The moment that could have ruined businessman Mark Lim for life turned into a catalytic force.

"When I received my O-level results, my form teacher said, 'I see no future in your eyes.' I was 17 and in the Normal (Academic) route. I wondered if that was really true.

"But I soon learnt being book-smart is not the key to everything. We should take calculated risks and venture out. This became a huge motivation to me, and I always remind myself of what my form teacher said."

Mr Lim, 32, who studied multimedia and infocomm technology at Nanyang Polytechnic, worked as a sales manager in a bank, and later set up fashion business Memories with a partner. The business has seven outlets in neighbourhoods here.

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A It was quite comfortable. My father built up a business from scratch selling second-hand cars. Since I was young, I was taught that whatever we wanted in life, we had to fight for it. I've an elder brother and sister. We lived in a three-room flat before moving to a terraced house in Kembangan but sold the place due to mortgage issues.

I started taking on odd jobs, such as conducting surveys, when I was 12. I've been a waiter and worked in a warehouse.

When I was 19 and doing outdoor sales, which my parents discouraged, during my polytechnic days, sales were terrible and I had only $20 left in my pocket. I ended up donating blood for "a free meal". It was for the wrong cause but I've donated blood 18 times since.

After I lost money in a failed business at 21, I was broke, and went into the banking industry during the Lehman Brothers crisis in 2008.

My good friend introduced me to Standard Chartered, which was on a headcount freeze. During the interview, I grabbed the sales manager's hand and said: "Boss, give me a chance, I'll work hard and do whatever you tell me." I got the job.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A It was partly influenced by my dad who used to be a businessman. My latest venture, Savvy and Co, which will assist with mortgages and provide advisory services, was inspired by my family's experiences.

My family used to live on a landed property but as my dad was busy working, he did not pay attention to the mortgage. A banker had advised my dad to get an overdraft for working capital, and he ended up servicing the interest for over 10 years.

When my dad wanted to close the business, he was left with no choice but to sell the house. If we knew to convert the overdraft to an equity loan, we wouldn't have needed to.

I learnt that just buying and selling property is not enough, and we need to understand the financial instruments we can use. So I want Savvy and Co to help others.

I got to know corporate customers in my banking days who taught me a lot, such as investing if I've spare cash. I learnt high risks don't always necessarily mean high returns and vice versa. This was also when I started investing in stocks.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I make mid- to long-term investments. Business is the key to generating my wealth, and stocks and property are side instruments to hedge against inflation.

With property, I check out the amenities, and whether new projects are being built around it. For instance, I bought a unit at Nin Residence in Potong Pasir. Before it came up, there was only one condominium, which was next door and being sold at a higher price. The price of my condo is likely to mirror it. It's next to the MRT station.

I invest mostly in defensive stocks because I prefer capital appreciation over dividends. Some of my stocks are from the healthcare industry as they have relatively stable earnings.

I study the profile of the company and its history, find out its future plans, and if the firm's vision is in line with what the Government wants.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A My business Memories that I invested $35,000 in. With the money we earn from the shop, we pump it back into the business, and sales have grown about 30 per cent a year. I've also invested about $50,000 in Savvy and Co.

I've the 592 sq ft unit in Potong Pasir which I bought in 2013 for about $650,000, and it has a rental yield of about 4 per cent. I've my 1,357 sq ft condo in the north-east that I bought in 2012 for $950,000. My stocks make up a six-figure sum and about 20 per cent of my portfolio. I get a yield of about 10 per cent a year.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A To quit my job to start a business from scratch, even though I was doing okay and in the top five in my team (at Standard Chartered).

People have this perception that a banking job is cool. I moved from wearing shirts and ties every day to T-shirts and slippers and many looked down on me when I entered the business scene. They'd ask, "Why did you want to give up a stable income?" Some of my friends called me Hawker Lim, and this was the situation for the first two years.

I'm not a spender; I spend only on business and family. I give my parents opportunities to travel every year, like to Europe two years ago, and I haven't even been there myself.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I'll focus on the new mortgage broking business where I see potential.

For Memories, we plan to open another two to three shops in neighbourhood malls in three to five years' time. I still feel there's space to grow in retail. We'll also continue building our brand and are creating another label as we are looking to target executives. The investment in Memories will probably require at least $300,000.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I've not thought of retirement at the moment. It's about how I can maximise my wealth when I'm still able to fight for it.

Q Home is now...

A The condo in the north-east.

Q I drive...

A A BMW 325i convertible.

Worst and best bets

Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

A When I was 21, one of my good friends asked me to be part of a joint venture and I borrowed $40,000 from family members to do so. It was doing direct-selling schemes, and guaranteed capital protection with a return of 30 per cent.

One year later, the company went bust and I lost everything. I approached my good friend, and at the end of the day, he gave me only one sentence: "Do you think you're the only one who has lost money?" I feel if he'd treated me as a good friend, he shouldn't have spoken like that.

It's good to understand what industry you're in and trust friends but you do need to find out all the facts about the company first and study the profile. That's the best lesson I've learnt from it.

Q And what has been your best investment move?

A My partner asked me to join her in setting up Memories and I left the bank in November 2011. I had nothing and started with $35,000. I had stock but needed to sell my products, which I did, at pasar malams and flea markets for two years. My car became my van, and the house became a warehouse; I worked 14 to 16 hours every day.

We opened our first shop in Clementi, and brought young and fast-forward fashion to Housing Board shophouses. I wanted to bring the latest and most affordable fashion to the mass market. I've seven outlets now. It's not a massive business but it's one of my best investments.

This article was first published on Nov 06, 2016.
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