The art and science of balancing people, planet and profits

16 June 2020 — At 65, Dr Kim Tan is riding on the third wind of his career. Having started out as a biochemist before becoming a biotech venture capitalist, he had thought retirement in 2003 would slow things down for him. But it was not to be. “Retirement is hard work!” he declared when I met him at the Royal Society of Medicine in London where he’s a Fellow. He welcomes me warmly, offsetting the mad-professor image that he cuts with his tousled salt and pepper hair. I was mindful that I had about an hour with him before he had to scoot off to a talk he was giving at the British Malaysian Society.

Impact investor Kim Tan
Kim Tan (right) chatting with my husband and me at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Marathon runners would understand the significance of the third wind – that last burst of energy that surges through the body just when they think they’ve all but burnt it out. Ask him how busy he is today and Dr Tan answers in specifics – he has an average of 80 emails in his inbox daily, he travels for board meetings, meets with his multiple investees, gives talks and teaches in bible schools. Everyone wants a piece of him as he sits as chairman of Springhill Management (UK), Inqo (SA), Garden Impact Investments (Singapore), partner of Novastar Ventures (Kenya) – companies that manage funds for social impact investing, some of which include the sovereign funds of Norway and UK that lead investments alongside foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. He is also an advisor the the Johnson and Johnson social venture fund and the leading proponent of the impact investment group, Transformational Business Network, that has garnered over 2000 members from around the world.

Social impact investing is an asset class that looks to support businesses with the aim of reaping social and financial dividends. These businesses provide goods or services and employment for the disadvantaged and returns will typically be lower and take a longer period than other investments.


Modus operandi

For Dr Tan, it’s crucial to know his investees personally and the environment they work in. That would entail visits to the slums of cities to witness the poverty and dire needs there. “When we come out of the slums,” Dr Tan revealed, “our shoes always need cleaning!”

Through capital, leading in most instances to equity, and mentoring, Dr Tan and his various funds have invested in about 30 businesses in Africa and Asia with very clear outcomes. Investee companies must reap economic benefits and have the capacity to scale up while producing products or services for the poor and providing employment for them. Your proverbial do good and do well equation. Novastar in Kenya, where he is a partner manages a fund of US$160 million.

One of the star investments of the fund is the largest chain of low cost schools in Africa and India, Bridge International Academies, an investment Dr Tan made with other angel investors before Novastar was set up. He speaks of it like a proud father citing the higher than average results of the students, all 500,000 of them. The institutions which started in 2009 provide primary education. “We think for a country to develop, the masses need to be literate,” Dr Tan asserts.

Other impact investment organisation making inroads into various parts of the world include Acumen Fund, Vital Capital and Alphamundi. And traction is gaining as more investors realise there now exists an asset class that not only produces decent profits but has explicit social returns. Impact investment in Southeast Asia has seen a spike by private impact investors (PIIs), like fund managers, family offices, banks and foundations, since 2013. In total US$904 million was invested by PIIs in the region during that time in the area Environment, Social and Governance (ESG). Furthermore, financial institutions like Singapore’s state bank DBS has tailored an ESG portfolio for their next generation of private banking customers who are as concerned about growing the value of their investments as they do about doing good. Observers note that millennials, the next cohort of leaders, are more in tune with social causes than their parents’ generation and see impact investing becoming more prominent in time to come.


Damascus Road

Kim Tan’s conviction to fight poverty is personal, growing up poor himself. Being one of 10 children of an immigrant father from China who’d settled in a small town in Malaysia, running a provision shop, Dr Tan is mindful of living simply (he travels coach across the continents, just so you know).  Dr Tan and seven other siblings received scholarships to study abroad. His took him to the University of Surrey where he completed his doctorate in molecular biology. He made his millions investing in biotechnology as a fund manager and was ready to go into retirement at the ripe old age of 45 when a family holiday to Cape Town changed the course and cause for him.

Even as he marveled at the beauty of the city, he was also not one to shy away from its privation. Dr Tan insisted the family visit a slum to see the other side of life. And it wasn’t so much the poverty and the unsanitary conditions that shocked him but it was the work done by the non-government organisations there that confounded him.

“What I saw just disillusioned me,” Dr Tan revealed. “These were good-hearted people, good intentions, really sacrificial people but they were teaching people to make clothes by hand – furniture, craft, shoes – by hand! Quality wasn’t there, quantity wasn’t there. And I thought, nothing’s going to change. We can give them as much charity money as we can each year, but nothing’s going to change.”

As it turned out, that experience became his turning point. “That was my Damascus Road moment,” said Dr Tan, referring to conversion experience of the biblical apostle, Paul. The futility of his giving until that moment hit him hard. “When you have some money the easiest thing to do is to write a cheque and feel good about yourself. What’s really hard is to give your time. That was really the beginning of a call to change career.

“I felt very clearly I was not to do anymore charity. I was to invest in the poor, in helping to build businesses among the poor that are sustainable and scalable. I fell in love with South Africa and thought, ‘I need to come back and build my first business here.’” said Dr Tan.

Two years of research and meetings led him to Addo Elephant National Park, the third largest national park in South Africa. Working with the local government, he bought up land and began to build a safari park with a luxury accommodation in it. Kuzuko Lodge was built with guests footing US$400 for a night’s stay. 39,000 acres of land was fenced up, the Big 5 –  lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants, and buffaloes – were reintroduced for the first time in 150 years. It was a painstaking process but one whose results Dr Tan is able to be proud of. Not for the financial rewards, which would only come 15 years later, but for the social and economic benefit to the community.

Kuzuko Lodge

“We genuinely wanted to come to help this very poor community. Several thousand population, 85% unemployment, 30% HIV AIDS.” Today, Dr Tan says, Kuzuko is the largest employer in the district, intentionally hiring disadvantaged youths and AIDS orphans and training them to be chefs, hotel staff and rangers.

The journey growing the business hasn’t been easy. “You’ve got to be really patient. They can let you down. They’ll fail you. They’re going to be drunk. They’re going to be stealing from you,” revealed Dr Tan, but it seems to be all in a day’s work for him. “This is what patient capital is about,” he shrugged, his eyes still on the goal. “In the end, you have to be profitable. Otherwise you become a charity.”

On what he learnt through the arduous process: “I learnt not to do it again. If you knew what was going to be involved you wouldn’t start,” he said, half-jokingly.


Looking East

While many are recognising impact investments as an increasingly attractive asset class, it is still low on the take-up. A Barclays survey, for instance, has shown that while 54% of investors in the UK are interested in the idea of their money making a positive social impact, a mere 9% actually put their money where their mouths are. It isn’t for the lack of returns. One group of VCs have cited a 9.5% return while Dr Tan’s Novastar fund aims to return  up to 12% particularly for their investors. For some high net worth individuals in Dr Tan’s ambit, they would be happy with a 5% gain, still an edge over bonds with benchmark yields of 2-3%.

Then there’s the other category of investors who don’t ask for much “We have people who are donors from family offices who say they can’t take any returns,” he revealed. “We just give them their capital back. They’re the easiest. Zero return rate. It’s still a 100% return for them because if they give their money to charity, it’s zero return. You give them their capital back, they can recycle and reuse that capital.” Some funds seek an exit in seven years while others, those in the early stages, have a 10-12 year horizon.

While financial returns await investors at the finish line, the starting for Dr Tan is always with the right objectives – serving the underserved. Start with the right objectives, look for the opportunities, work at the business and it seems, profits will follow. “We almost make money by accident!” said Dr Tan.

Much of Dr Tan’s investments figure around Africa. It was only in 2013 that he began to look east. But it wasn’t as if he was a newbie to the business scene in Asia then. Back in 1999 Dr Tan had founded a cancer hospital in his home state of Negri Sembilian, bordering the capital Kuala Lumpur. The hospital has since been acquired by another company.

Dr Tan’s focus on Africa was purely out of need. “There is very little interest from these sovereign wealth funds to look at Asia,” he revealed. “The focus is very much Africa because they, like me, have the sense the economic engine in Asia is so powerful that it’s going to solve its poverty issue. It wasn’t’ until I went back to Indonesia maybe about five years ago and saw the 300 slums in Jakarta and thought, ‘Wow! The same kind of problems here as we have in Africa!’’

“The economic engine is powerful but the development is very uneven,” explained Dr Tan. “If anything, our GINI indexes are just growing wider and wider by the year. So that was when I then felt I should come back to Asia and do something.”

A chance meeting in Jakarta with some Singaporeans “who were in their mid life crisis” led to long conversations and the eventual setting up of Garden Impact Investments in the island state with a pilot fund of US$5 million to help companies in the region.

By his own admission the amount is a drop in the bucket compared to the other funds he manages. “It’s very small but we don’t need a lot of money. Convert it to rupiah, it goes a heck of a long way.” And investors have been more generous. “We’ve returned money but they don’t want it. They want to recycle. Fine!” said Dr Tan.

Indonesia has been the recipient of much of Garden’s funds. The companies there include a catalogue distribution business that engages about 250,000 agents, mainly single mothers outside of the main island of Java. For every sale the agent makes, they keep 25% of the receipts. The company, Paloma, has since been acquired by one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates, Salim Group. There’s also a green technology company, Greenhope, that’s looking to provide employment for 2000 cassava farmers. In such an expansive archipelago as Indonesia is, access to educational materials is extremely uneven. Mahoni, a Garden-backed company, has been leveling the playing field by providing e-books and online resources to teachers and students, making it the leader in the digital education sector in Indonesia.

“So it just shows you,” Dr Tan concluded. “You can build these kinds of businesses that impact the poor specifically and intentionally, and yet be profitable.”

In Singapore, investments have gone into a call centre manned by prison inmates and ex-convicts. Agape Call Centre employs prisoners and pays them the minimum wage of US$430. Plus commissions and bonuses income can go up to US$1500.

Agape call centre
Agape Call Centre

“What we’re seeing there is it restores their self-esteem,” explained Dr Tan. “They have money to send back to their families. Families start to visit them. When they come out we rehire them in the call centre outside. Outside we’ve got 60 people currently and the great thing is they don’t have to hide their background because the founder is an ex-con, the former CFO is an ex-con. They feel that this is family, there’s a sense of belonging, they can support one another.”


Screening the investees

Dr Tan claims a near perfect success rate in his investment record save for two ventures in Asia. One was a fish farm among a tribal people in Malaysia. A year and half into the partnership with about US$70,000 invested, Dr Tan called it quits after attempts to get regular updates on the financials from the entrepreneur failed. “That’s the one lever that we have in a lot of the businesses,” Dr Tan explained. “We need to control the finances. In all our businesses we get them to have a projected cash flow that needs to be updated on a weekly basis. If we want to we can go in and do an audit and say ‘Are these invoices real?’ And we need to know when the next funding round needs to happen so there’re no surprises.”

Dr Tan is matter-of-fact about the failure: “The principle is very simple – fail cheap, fail early.”

In screening investees, the priority rests on the financials. Dr Tan unapologetically puts on his VC hat and assesses the business for its potential to scale. “If they can’t be profitable, they’ll just become charities,” he said objectively.

The second screen is to examine the company’s pitch book. “What problem are you trying to solve? Who are you trying to serve? What kind of product or service are you trying to provide for the poor?” down the wire he went. “We’re very intentional about tackling poverty. Everything has to be how are we serving the bottom of the pyramid.”

From here, the decision-making becomes more visceral. Having seen enough business plans fail, Dr Tan is adamant that the success of the partnership rests on the people he invests in. “We’re investing in people, not investing in the business plan, not investing in technology. Business plans fail. They’re always wrong, usually wrong on the negative side. Technology will fail. So, we’re investing in people.

“It’s got to be about integrity, honesty, hard work and, most important of all, for us, a sense of modesty because for us this is a long-term marriage. We’ve got to like the people,”

Beyond just chemistry, Dr Tan is clear about the reasons for this stringent list of personal qualities. “Running a business and employing three people is very different from running a business and employing 300 people. Unless they have a sense of humility and modesty about them, they will not be teachable. They will not be willing to employ people smarter than them,” he insisted.

“So we spend a lot of time with them – do we like them, do we trust them, are they teachable, is she responsive.”

With such intense scrutiny, it’s inevitable that Dr Tan’s travel schedule is packed. He spends 60% of his time away from home and this has been with a cost. “When James was going to school at 11 years old,” he recalled of his younger of two sons, “Every time I’m away he’d go to school crying and the teachers will know. It’s involved sacrifice.”  His wife, Sally, has had to hold the fort and he calls her his “rock”. Today, with two grown-up children (one of them has joined him at Springhill) she travels with him when his itinerary is not packed back to back.

Dr Kim Tan is a rare combination of George Soros and Mother Teresa. He has a nose for good businesses and an eye for growth potential (and, of course, the coffers to boot) yet he also has a heart for the disenfranchised and the underserved. This can only be summed up by a special dispensation offered to the few who have the onerous task of great responsibility with great power.

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