Steven Zwaan has his finger on the PULS when it comes to property in the Philippines.
What’s your story?
Steven Zwaan is a Dutch investor and entrepreneur based in Manila. He is Managing Partner of Liger Capital Management and cofounded Philippines Urban Living Solutions (“PULS”) in 2012 with Mark Kooijman. PULS specializes in the development of rental housing communities under the “MyTown” brand at walking distance from the central business districts in Metro Manila.
In December 2015, a consortium with Franklin Templeton as lead-investor and BPI Capital Corporation, made an investment in PULS in what was one of the first private equity fundraisings in the Philippines.
PULS with its investors (L-R): BPI Capital Corporation Managing Director Reggie Cariaso, Templeton Emerging Markets Group Head Mark Mobius, PULS Chief Executive Officer Mark Kooijman and PULS Directors Steven Zwaan and Jelmer Ikink.
What excites you most about your industry?
With Liger Capital Management we focus on emerging property trends in the Philippines and in 2011 were the first to provide dedicated housing for young professionals as quality for-rent housing close to the Manila CBDs didn’t exist.
Young professionals as a demographic group were under targeted and relegated to living a long commute away from their employers. By now a number of other developers have started to focus on the young professional market and better quality affordable housing options are becoming available. We are happy we could act as a catalyst for this to happen.
It is exciting to be focused on Metro Manila real estate where change is rapid and abundant.
What’s your connection to Asia?
I worked as an investment banker in Europe and transferred to Hong Kong in 2003. The idea was, for me to stay for 3 years but I never left. I fell in love with the dynamism of Asia offering great opportunities to people with a ‘can do’ attitude.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Manila of course. To be honest, doing business in Manila is both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, it is hard to get started as the environment is not geared towards newbies. Banks prefer to finance established companies; the venture capital industry is in its nascency; there is an incredible amount of red tape and infrastructure is lagging.
On the other hand, the dynamics here are very solid and there is still so much that can be done! So when you have found your way it’s a very exciting market for doing business.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Running your own business is all about cash, cash and cash. You can have the greatest prospects but if you are not able to pay creditors, salaries or rent; you will be out of business before you know it. Many great businesses go bust just because of inadequate cash management.
We decided to build PULS without any bank financing, which goes against the common logic for a real estate business. However we didn’t want to run the risk of losing our projects to the banks until we had sufficient cash flows to service the loans.
Who inspires you?
I get inspiration from people who innovate with respect for the planet like Elon Musk. But also from people like Ranulph Fiennes, who at the age of 72 is the world’s greatest living explorer.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Following president Duterte’s state visit to China in October, China pledged to commit $24bn to the Philippines. Late last year the hotels in Manila were full with Chinese investors and corporates looking for exposure to the Philippines. They have been given the nod from Beijing and they want in.
Of course it remains to be seen how this will be implemented, but this could generate a lot of opportunities in a wide range of sectors such as agriculture, (renewable) energy, tourism, food, manufacturing, telecom and infrastructure.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started life as an entrepreneur at 38 and would start a little earlier if I could do it again. Investment banking provides comprehensive all round training and it’s a great way to start a career, but over time the banker life becomes too comfortable. It’s when you feel exposed, challenged and at risk that you are at your best.
How do you unwind?
I like the outdoors. I ski, surf and when I lived in Hong Kong I did a lot of trail running. With my business partners I will participate in the 2017 RacingThePlanet event, a 250 kilometer, seven-day footrace through Patagonia.
I love challenges like this and when my brother in law approached me to swim from Asia to Europe in 2013 I was game. This probably sounds more spectacular than it is, as it was a 6.5km swim across the Bosphorus in Istanbul with a strong current pushing you towards the finish line. The biggest challenge was not to overshoot the landing pontoon as swimming against the current was almost impossible.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Bali to surf, Tokyo to eat and Bhutan for outdoors
Everyone in business should read this book:
Mr. China by Tim Clissold. This book tells the story of a young English guy who goes to China in the early 1990s when China opened for business. It’s a fascinating account of how Tim and his financiers planned to bring China into the modern world and at the same time make a fortune in investments, only to be schooled by China’s resourceful and creative operators and lose it all in the end.
The Wild West days of early foreign investment in China, with its intractable bureaucracy and often the difficulty in getting the most simple tasks done, bear relevance for any future businessman planning on making his fortunes in Asia.
Shameless plug for your business:
We take pride that, through PULS, we are elevating the lives of the Filipino workforce by providing a new, high quality lifestyle concept and creating savings on transportation time and cost. We believe we have found a commercially and socially attractive business model, which is in our view the most structural way to solve social and economic issues.
How can people connect with you?
By inviting me for a good meal!
This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:
Callum Laing invests and buys small businesses in a range of industries around Asia. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is the founder & owner of Fitness-Buffet a company delivering employee wellness solutions in 12 countries. He is a Director of, amongst others, Key Person of Influence. A 40 week training program for business owners and executives.
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