“So, what do you do?”

In the company of strangers, my friend would say that he “works in a hospital” when asked that all important question – “So, what do you do?”  

He will then proceed to nail that well-practised game face all evening. That blur look which gives the impression that he is anything but a doctor. 

He tells me that it was the best lesson learnt from early in his career because if he were to reveal that he is a medical doctor, he would have to spend all evening listening to folks relating their long list of ailments – imagined or otherwise – in the hope of getting free specialist advice over dinner.

“I can’t dish medical advice without proper diagnosis, you should know that,” he would complain later. I would obediently agree.  I mean, what else can I say? 

Hence, whenever I am caught in similar situation, I frequently say “I am a broker” in a nonplussed way with my shark-like smile for added effect. Somehow, the word “broker” inevitably conjures images of hungry rent-seeking scheming agents. 

Like my doctor friend, I have learnt the hard way that to hold oneself out as an private equity investor is like being doused with honey before entering a roomful of bees. You’ll be swarmed. Transformed instantly into the life of the party. A minor celebrity. Suddenly, everyone has a business proposal or knows a friend of a friend who has one. The more opportunistic ones will persuade you to take a we-fie, before asking for your personal phone number so that they can sent you the photo (of course!) and shortly after, their business proposals.

Ideally, a person is not defined by his job title nor judged by it because work is just one of the subsets that makes up a whole personality.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in that ideal world. Rant all you want and philosophize till you turn blue, the bottom line is this:  your answer to that seemingly casual question -“So, what do you do?” – is like the key  the real world uses to plug you on their food chain pyramid.

Occasionally, I would answer, “I am a retiree.”  It would certainly guarantee a quick dismissal – after all who wants to hear about a has-been.  But it is an efficient way to get rid of pushy social climbers and aggressive self-promoters.  Yup, those ones who hand out business cards like Santa before dominating the conversation for the next hour; telling you how great they are, how qualified, how awesome his business is. 

So, what do you do?



Calling the bluff

Yesterday, I met the owner of a manufacturing company in which we are private equity investor. 

Between mouthfuls of scalding Teochew congee, my business partner informed me that he intends to “sacrifice profit margins to continue fulfilling the value proposition that he has always held out for his customers.”  

“I think we should absorb the higher costs of production so that we can remain competitive,” he continued. I stared at him glass-eyed and all my brain could hear was yadda yadda yadda 

“Does this mean that we are going to lose money?” I finally asked

“Little bit,” he smiled; making a mini-gap between thumb and first finger for emphasis.

“How much?” 

He pulled a deep breath and said, “I think we will be down by only 80%.”

“O-n-l-y 80%?” I flinched, feeling my blood pressure hit stratosphere. “What is causing the higher production costs? Labour? Raw Materials? Machines?”

He cocked his head to one side and started rubbing his forefinger against his lips. “I should say it’s labour. Ya, definitely labour. We increased our headcount in January.”

“How many new staff and in which department?” I probed.

“Three new managers.”

“Let me get this straight. Are you saying that because of these three new managers, the company is going to shave its margins significantly? Who are these three managers? Your children? Relatives?”

“Actually, I should also say that higher costs because of more expensive raw materials. And our machines are old. We need to upgrade,” he continued, ignoring my question. 

I scrunched my nose. I could smell bullshit coming.

“How about sales? Is the company coming up with new products or getting new customers?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Sales, you don’t worry. We know what to do.”

“How much have you sold this year?” I pressed.

“Maybe $2 million or $3 million. Very competitive market. But since you are here, I might as well tell you. Actually I am thinking that maybe we should diversify into property.  My son..I mean, one of our new managers, showed me this property development project recently.” He reached for a piece of paper in his shirt pocket and unfolded a site map of the property.

I leaned back and laughed harshly. “How are you going to pay for this project?”

“You don’t worry. We will issue new shares to finance the construction. I will cover you. 20% stake, free of charge. I hold it for you. You don’t have to declare to your Board. Trust me.”

I did a quick mental calculation. 20% stake is alot of money.  

I shook my head, incredulous that his audacity. No. 

His eyes narrowed. “People like you don’t understand business.  Investors, fund managers, analysts.. they want more, more, more. They don’t understand why we have to sacrifice something in the short term to grow better, bigger, stronger in the long term. They never run businesses before. They are not entrepreneur like me.” He ranted, jabbing himself repeatedly in the chest with his forefinger.

I waited for him to cool off and said calmly,  “We invested in your company because we believe in its prospects and your ability to deliver your profit targets within three years. So far, you have delivered 60% of the total. Let’s focus to deliver the remaining 40% on this 3rd year. After that, we will reconsider your property project idea.”

“You don’t have worry. I will not only hit the profit target this year, I will get someone to buy you out. I don’t think you understand how I run my business. I don’t want you as my investor anymore.” He glared at me.

I smiled tightly. Nothing gets a man all fired up like a good old confrontation with his ego.   Over the years, I have learnt three hard rules about private equity investing: (1) Always stay cool. Emotions sink ships. (2) Trust no one. It is harder to trust than be trusted. (3) The first offer is never the best offer.

I have no doubt he will deliver on his profit targets. But buying me out? I am calling his bluff. 



Queen of wishful thinking

I was lounging on the lazy chair playing time-wasting games on my phone when my husband returned from his morning jog. It was a sweltering 37deg C in Kuala Lumpur.

“Isn’t that like too hot to be outside, trying to outrun your equally unfit buddy around the jogging track?” I asked, eyes fixed at the screen while my fingers tapped frantically to save the wobbly avatar.

Instead of giving me some smart-assed quip, he leaned forward and wrapped his sweaty body over me. Then, he rubbed his oily stubble against my cheek. EEEEeeeooowwwww! So gross!

Attempting to move away, I misjudged the space between me and the edge of the lazy chair, rolled over and promptly fell clumsily onto the floor; with the chair tipping precariously.

Unfortunately, my husband thought that was the most hilarious sight in the world and he has not stopped reminding me of it since.

“Hey! just that frigging one time and you make it sound as though I fall all over the place all the time”, I protested, only to have him re-enact my fall by twirling his index finger in a downward spiral. Totally juvenile!

After lunch, he asked me what I would like to do for the rest of the day —apart from falling off chairs? I pretended not to hear the last part of his question. To be honest, I wished we could what other families would normally do on weekends: Drive some place off the beaten track for interesting foods. Catch a movie. Go window shopping… instead of catching up on sleep/work/emails which was our weekend routine.

“Let’s go to the pasar malam,” I proposed, referring to the night market at the town square where one can get everything from fresh vegetables and local delicacies to clothes and fake branded handbags to traditional medicinal herbs sellers guaranteeing “the ultimate in conjugal bliss.”

I can picture him going to the pasar malam. He would probably spend his time training his eyes on the floor, trying to avoid puddles of water formed by melting ice dripping off the makeshift fish stalls; or covering his nose at the rancid smell of food rotting in the nearby stagnant drains; or shielding his eyes against the burning diesel fumes coming from generators used to light up the stalls at night. And the crowds…shoulder to shoulder … intruding into his personal space. Arrrgghhhh! I know how much he hates that. LOL

“Sure,” he grinned.

“Seriously?” This was too good to be true.

“This evening?” I asked again, making sure that I was hearing the right thing.

“Yup. But first, you must do that roll-from-the-chair-onto-the-floor trick for me again”

“And I am the queen of wishful thinking,” I sighed.