Industry Insights

Beyond the Balance Sheet: A Dialogue with David Chong

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For David Chong, success isn't just about numbers on a balance sheet. It's about building a legacy that spans generations, one that is rooted in family values and unwavering integrity. In this interview, we delve into the heart and mind of this industry titan, exploring his journey, his family's involvement in his business ventures, and the principles that guide his every decision.

David is the Founder and President of the Portcullis Group, a leading trust company in Asia. He has been described by the Singapore Academy of Law as “the Guru of Asian Family Offices". David Chong and his family also owns Fusang Exchange Ltd, the first fully-regulated stock exchange in Asia providing end-to-end infrastructure to support Digital Securities.

If you are interested in learning more about David Chong and his unique perspective on the world of finance, then this interview is a must-read.

What sparked your 40-year dream of building an Asian family office powerhouse?

I had a dream some 40 years ago about being an Asian Bessemer Trust. At that time I was working with Baker & McKenzie in Singapore. Because I had studied ‘A’ Level Spanish, I could read the constitution of Panamanian companies. In those days, the bulk of offshore companies were Panamanian. In fact, after the Noriega Crisis in 1989, the Panamanian lawyers went to the BVI and started using BVI companies in lieu of Panamanian companies. And so I serendipitously became a tax and trust lawyer. I became a BVI lawyer because we were litigating what at that time was the biggest case in the BVI.

I set up the Portcullis Group after working with Baker & McKenzie; and I still remember John Connor fondly; and I still refer work to Baker & McKenzie.

How do you balance the dynamics of family relationships with professional responsibilities?

My son Henry runs Fusang Exchange, which is a digital stock exchange in Labuan. I own 51% of the Fusang Group; and he owns 49%. Fusang was our family’s foray into blockchain; and I am delighted that Fusang listed the world’s first institutional tokenised sukuk backed by a sovereign-linked instrument. Fusang sponsors the Digital Assets Project at Oxford University, which is Henry’s alma mater.

My eldest daughter Anja studied law at Nottingham University. She led me to believe that Nottingham was the UK’s 4th ranked law school; but the truth why she went there was because the UK National Ice-Skating Team trains there; and she wanted to train with them. She won a clean sweep of three gold medals at the SEA Games in 2017 for Malaysia in Ice Skating. She is dubbed: ‘The Ice Queen of Malaysia’.

It has taken her a long time to be admitted as a lawyer; because in between her pupillage, she qualified for a Master’s Degree in Wealth Management at the Singapore Management University. She now works in Portcullis.

My youngest daughter Nadja works in economics research at NTU. Her siblings reckon she is the smartest of them all. She took a first at University of Edinburgh. She refuses to work with me, because she thinks she is too much like me.

I always joke that my kids inherited their brains from their mother; but their good looks from me. But people who have met my wife, retort that they inherited everything from my wife.

I’m lucky I don’t have dumb children; otherwise it would be very difficult to justify bringing them into the family business. On the other hand, I have very strong-willed children. The motto for our own family office is: ‘Strong Chongs’. Hopefully, because we get to see so many other family squabbles, we can avoid our own.

How do you leverage collaboration and partnerships to drive positive change and innovation within the financial sector?

I started Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners ("STEP") in Singapore; and I wanted to introduce my daughter Anja, at the STEP Conference 2023 in HK, to the grandees of the trust industry. Anja and I had lunch during the conference with Frank Mullens and Suzanne Callister. Suzanne had been the go-between when I tried to buy Frank’s business in 2004. Frank turned me down because my offer was USD 5 million short. He still keeps a copy of the cheque, as do I. The big one that got away. I told my daughter, if you want to learn kung fu, learn from a Kung Fu Master; and the Kung Fu Master still goes to STEP conferences, even though he had sold his trust company business many years ago to what has become Vistra.

I also run the Family Office Association in Singapore. Recently, we have had some gurus in PE come and share their insights with the families.

Public companies think in quarters; whereas family businesses think in generations. So even if I fail, the next generation can carry on.

It is also a myth that wealth does not last more than 3 generations: we believe in 三代同堂、五世其昌 ‘San Dai Tong Tang, Wu Shi Qi Chang’ (which means 3 generations under one roof, 5 generations of prosperity).

How has the trust industry evolved over the past 40 years, and how has Portcullis adapted?

When I started 40 years ago, there were little or no regulations. The Vienna Convention against drugs was in 1988. The Palermo Convention against organised crime was in 2000. It was only in 2013 that tax evasion in Singapore became a money laundering offence. It was a cowboy industry then; now saddle makers are going out of business; hopefully we end up being like Gucci.

We had a data theft in 2013. What I call an ‘annus horribilis’. The only good thing that came out from our data theft was these journalists went through about 30 years of all our internal records and all our emails. And if they cannot find a single thing which I have done wrong; then I say it is not a bad internal audit.

What leadership advice do you offer aspiring professionals in the ever-evolving financial landscape?

The only advice I have for aspiring leaders in finance is to be squeaky clean. I tell my children that they don’t need to be the smartest; but if they are squeaky clean, they’ll make a good living in the trust industry. Trust is hard to come by.

I’m forever grateful to my Chairman Tee Tua Ba. He comes into the office every day and keeps everyone on the straight and narrow. I tell everyone, if you are a crook, don’t come to us, because my Chairman was the former Chief of Police in Singapore.

I also tell my children, if they have any moral issues, they should go and have a chat with Uncle Geoffrey, who was the former Chief Justice of HK. His wife Maria was also on the Court of Final Appeal in HK. They are the most upright people I know.

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