He 'had bad grades' yet made it in banking and became a fintech founder

Simon Loong Pui-chi is the founder and group CEO of fintech company WeLab. He reveals how it all began and why his bad grades never stopped him from succeeding.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

I was born in Hong Kong in 1977 and was a sporty, naughty and rebellious kid. My dad was a civil servant, an engineer, and my mum worked in human resources for a bank.

My brother is two-and-a-half years older than me and was the studious one. I hung out with friends and was never really good at school work, I had bad grades.

My brother went to Haileybury, a boarding school in Hertfordshire (England), and when I was 13, I went there, too. I loved the freedom but it was short-lived, because after a term my parents migrated to Australia and the whole family moved to Sydney.

Like most parents, mine wanted to get their kids into the most academically demanding school, which was Sydney Grammar School. At the admissions interview with my parents, I sat at the back while my brother, being the older kid and smart and intellectually curious, had a good conversation about politics.

The admissions officer accepted my brother and then looked over my parents’ shoulder and said, “What about the one at the back? OK, we’ll take him as well.”

Arty and parties

At Sydney Grammar, my housemaster was the head of the art department. He suggested I take art as my elective and I really enjoyed it and took it for three consecutive years. For the university admissions exam, in addition to English, maths and science, we had to choose an elective and I took art.

It turned out that’s the one I got the highest marks in and the one that got me into university. I went to the University of Sydney and, because I didn’t know what to study, I took the most generic degree, a Bachelor of Commerce.

For a year, I was the president of the Chinese student union and organised parties, bowling, soccer and interschool events. It wasn’t a very organised group – we were young, everyone was having their first girlfriend and distracted. The experience gave me a sense of who I was – I knew I wanted to lead – but it was very distracting from my academic work.

Although I enjoyed my university time, I didn’t study enough and continuously underperformed as a student.

False start

By the time I started university, my parents had moved back to Hong Kong. I returned in the summer holidays and my mum always pushed me to take a summer job. One year I sold shoes in Sogo , another year I worked for an accounting firm. In my last year of university, I worked for Citi, a big bank, in the risk management department.

I decided banking was a lot more fun, so after I graduated, in 1998, I joined the bank. I did a year of training on rotation and then got a job in risk management. I started to get bored and talked to some friends about a start-up.

At the time, PCs were expensive, so the idea was to centralise the processing power and build a network of cheaper computers. I worked on it for three or four months, but it never took off because we didn’t have the expertise. The guy with the tech experience disappeared halfway into the project and it turned out he’d broken up with his girlfriend. It was my first failed attempt.

"I worked 9am-9pm and, when I got home, I slept next to my BlackBerry and replied to emails in the night. By the time I was 28, I was vice-president", said Simon.

Citi life

In 2000, I relocated with Citi to Singapore to continue doing what I’d been doing in Hong Kong, rolling out a data warehouse system across the region. I made friends with locals and expats doing silly boys’ things like hanging out in McDonald’s, watching movies and playing tennis.

After a couple of years, I was bored. One of my counterparts, a senior person in the regional risk management department, said he was leaving and recommended me for his role. I got the job and moved back to the risk management side.

Usually in these regional departments everyone is very senior, either a vice-president or senior vice-president. I was just a manager and the most junior. Because I was the most junior, they invited me to sit in on every meeting and I got to see how senior people think, talk and present themselves. I learned a lot.

There was such a big gap between me and everyone else, so I got promoted really fast. I worked 9am-9pm and, when I got home, I slept next to my BlackBerry and replied to emails in the night. By the time I was 28, I was vice-president.

Making connections

In my eighth year with Citi, I was assigned to Taipei, initially on the business side and then as the marketing director. It was there that I met the woman who would become my wife, Frances (Kang Tzu-ping). We were colleagues and were both dating other people; it wasn’t until I left Taipei to return to Hong Kong that we got together.

After 12 years with Citi, I knew everyone and it was easy to manoeuvre around, but I didn’t want to be the guy who worked for the same company for 30 years. An ex-boss who had moved to Standard Chartered in Hong Kong asked if I’d be interested in being their head of unsecured lending.

Back to school

Frances left Citi about the same time as me to do an MBA at Stanford University. I’m not very good at long-distance relationships and decided that if I really liked this girl I should go to the US and be with her.

At the time I felt stuck in my career, I was running out of tools in my toolbox, so I enrolled in a one-year master of science in management at Stanford. I took the classes very seriously and enjoyed it a lot. Frances said I overcompensated because I’d been such a bad student in my earlier days.

I did classes on managerial skills – organisational behaviour, managing growing enterprises and how to do leadership – and I decided to take classes in something I thought I’d never use but would be fun: entrepreneurship.

Starting up

I was in the US for two years and Frances and I had a lot of fun. We travelled to South America and around the US. A week before graduation, we got married in the church at Stanford. It was efficient for the parents – they came for the wedding and then the graduation.

I returned to Standard Chartered in 2012 to be head of digital banking but had to wait for the outgoing head to find a new position before I could take his job. During the four months that I was waiting, I decided it was a good time to start a fintech company, because the older I got the more obligations I’d have.

Frances said, “OK, I have a job. If you want to do something, we could live a pretty frugal life and just see what happens.” We had the advantage of having just lived pretty frugally as students.

We three – Frances, myself and a friend from university – founded WeLab in 2013. We rented a small office in Sheung Wan to launch the first digital lending company in Hong Kong. I wanted to use my skills in technology, risk management and big data to see if we could use technology to do risk management online and have lower fraud loss than meeting the person face to face.

We went into China in 2014, where we did very well. We went when everyone was changing from the old feature phones to the very affordable Xiaomi or Huawei Technologies Co. , so our timing was great. WeLend is the largest moneylender in Hong Kong – one in eight people borrow money from us.

Back to bank

Accepting failure was a core part of my entrepreneurial journey. I fail a lot because we are always trying to do things that are more aspirational. If you aim high you will get rejected sometimes.

Frances and I have two daughters, they are five and eight years old. One of them celebrated her birthday on the same day that we got our first banking licence in Hong Kong, in 2019. I left banking to start a fintech company and now I’ve become a banker again.

We bought a second bank in Indonesia last year, so now the focus is on building our digital banking in Southeast Asia. I always remind myself to keep on learning. My last paper at Stanford was about continuous learning: how I analyse the right decisions and the bad ones; how do I learn from talking to different people; how do I learn to get people to coach me.

The company grows very fast and we need employees to grow faster than the company, so we focus a lot on learning.

ALSO READ: WeLab Bank Launches GoWealth and Becomes Asia's 1st Purely-digital Bank to Launch Digital Wealth Advisory Solution

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.