Calvin Lo did many things for the first time during the pandemic. He picked up crocheting, encouraged by his 11-year-old daughter. He went out to the city streets to give out blankets and rice boxes to the less privileged at the height of lockdown. Oh, and he also established financial ties with Formula One (F1) team Williams Racing through his private investment company RE Lee Octagon.
Lo, 46, is the head of Hong Kong-based broker RE Lee International, which specialises in complex life insurance arrangements for the ultra-wealthy. The pandemic has been a boon for business, as crisis always is.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, has elicited little movement from his clients.
Lo has an explanation. “In 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, there was a surge of Russian business. Many of these deals have concluded.” He notes that brokers who are receiving more business enquiries now might be dealing with unsavoury characters, and Lo prefers not to.
Morality is important to the billionaire, and he understands that he has a duty to give back. When I first spoke to Lo a year ago, we discussed his new initiative, The 195 Project. Named after the total number of countries in the world, the global think tank welcomes experts to submit ideas to improve philanthropy and giving in a post-Covid-19 world.
Lo had planned to take a step back and let those with more knowledge guide discussions and efforts. Unfortunately, in the past year, he has had to lead from the front — not that he is complaining.
“The more chaotic the situation became, the more I wanted to get stuck in. I have learnt a lot about the inefficiencies of society. The pandemic has opened my eyes to the tremendous gaps that need to be filled,” says Lo.
He recounts how the charity ordered 150,000 antigen rapid test kits for Hong Kong that he “naively thought would be distributed to locations that needed them”, such as elderly homes. To his horror, when he did a routine check, he discovered all the kits had been sent to just one place. “There aren’t even 150,000 people in that building,” Lo says.
He believes the problem does not stem from incompetence, but an inability to operate under unsettled conditions.
“Perhaps our governments have overly protected us. We have not learnt how to go through tough times,” says Lo, referring to the paternalistic attitude of the Hong Kong and Singapore administrations.
The Investment Spectrum
Still, Lo remains optimistic. He is also confident that Hong Kong, which has seen an exodus of money and talent in the past year, will bounce back. He is staying put and notes that the city’s hinterland — China — is a country with over a billion people. “There are still many opportunities,” Lo remarks.
One such opportunity has been in real estate. When the pandemic raged unabated, many brick and mortar businesses had to close their shop fronts. Others could not sustain their properties and put them up for sale.
Lo had never heard of the term “en bloc” — “Singaporeans throw around the phrase a lot, I’ve realised!” — before 2020, but is now intimately familiar with it after receiving multiple pitches from property developers here. He is now in the final stages of two proposals in the central districts.
Beyond Singapore and Hong Kong, Lo also has his eye on Indonesia.
Famous 19th-century banker Nathan Rothschild famously said that the time to buy is when there is blood, even if it’s your own, on the streets. Lo is taking this contrarian maxim to heart. He believes that property prices in small cities with high population densities will never spiral downwards.
He’s also dipped his toes into F1. Beyond the Williams Racing team, Lo is studying other investment ideas. Perhaps another team?
“There are still gems,” he says with a smile. While glamorous, it is an incredibly expensive venture. Annual costs can reach US$500 million ($680 million). Many teams have folded under the financial burden.
Lo, a huge fan of motor sport and Lewis Hamilton, is looking beyond the track. He recently discovered that a small group of people in Williams Racing design golf sticks based on F1 technology. Another subsidiary within the Mercedes-AMG team engineers and builds road bicycles. “There are lots of opportunities. You’ll be surprised at how good some of them are,” he says.
One asset class he remains pensive about is cryptocurrency. “It’s too fancy for me!” Lo laughs, alluding to its volatility. He has first-hand experience. Five years ago, he was in Dubai for business when his friend asked if he had bought Bitcoin; Lo had not.
“I thought it was still just a few dollars, but my friend told me it had already gone up to US$3,000 or so,” says Lo.
A few days later, “on October 3, I still remember”, when he left Dubai, the price of Bitcoin had shot up to US$6,000. Lo got swept up in the whirlwind and took the plunge, buying the digital coin. The price continued its rapid ascent. When it hit US$26,000, Lo sold his Bitcoin holdings. He hasn’t gone back in since.
“To me, there is no basis in cryptocurrency. It’s all based on a whim,” says Lo. “Buying it was one of the boldest things I’ve done.”
The Next Generation
The boldest decision he’s made, however, is not in business. It’s having his daughter, Isabella. He professes that he used to think taking care of a child would be easy — and had to eat his words.
“Something as simple as putting on clothes can become a 30-minute ordeal,” Lo laughs. His relationship with Isabella made him realise that he, too, did the same thing to his parents. Yet, they remained patient and showered him with love, just like what he’s doing with his daughter.
With Hong Kong’s schools remaining closed due to Covid-19, Lo has also had to oversee his daughter’s online lessons occasionally. He tells me how amazed he was that she could sit through four hours of Zoom without kicking up a fuss. “It’s tiring. Even I can’t sit through an hour of calls without my voice cracking and needing a break,” Lo says.
Isabella’s patience has taught Lo that humans are adaptable and resilient. He started looking at his own flaws to see where he came up short. One, in particular, is confidence. Lo doesn’t lack it, but he’s realised that he might have it in excess. “As the saying goes, if you go into a room and you’re the smartest person in it, you need to find another room.”
Now, Lo is constantly finding more rooms he can learn from. Once a brash, young man who thought he could manage all aspects of his business, Lo has mellowed considerably. He seeks counsel from those with deep knowledge, especially in overseas markets whose cultures are foreign to him.
When he’s interviewing possible hires, Lo also looks for those with heightened self-awareness and a desire to empower those around them.
“I want to see if you have gratitude and humility. Ambition is important, but recognising how the people around you have helped you get to where you are is even more so,” he says.
Lo is also reflecting on his legacy. He doesn’t care about the achievements he has racked up or the zeroes in his bank account. He tells his daughter every day to be a “kind and useful person” because that’s what he too wants to ultimately be remembered for. It’s one reason he set up The 195 Project.
“It’s important that the next generation, like my daughter, understands that we are lucky. There are those who are not as fortunate. We need to help pull them up,” he says.
After our video interview, Lo tells me he has to take another call. It’s about The 195 Project and he’s neck-deep in another initiative. Then, he might continue crocheting with his daughter, just like a regular father.
“Oh wait, I wanted to say. If travel restrictions are lifted and I can come to Singapore for the F1 race, I would love for you to be my guest,” Lo says. Like an old friend.