Hubert Burda Media

Daphne Teo: Exploring New Frontiers

Trading in an investment banking job to develop property in one of Asia’s last frontier markets is her best career move yet.

For Daphne Teo, a memorable lesson in humility came when she was only 10. She had lost first place in a swimming competition and was crushed that the victor turned out to be someone she didn’t even consider as a threat. “My opponent was small in size, didn’t look strong and yet, she won. I broke down,” the former national swimmer says with a laugh, tickled by the recollection. 

Such experiences have only made the chief investment officer at D3 Capital, her family’s privately owned investment company, stronger. “It was humbling. From that incident alone, I not only learnt the meaning of sportsmanship, but also hard work and perseverance. If you fail, pick yourself up. Try again,” she says. “Never underestimate others and always be on your toes.”

An alumna of Stanford University, the 33-year-old applies these values to her daily life and is not one to shy away from hard work, whether as an athlete, in her former role as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs or now at D3 Capital.

“When I was working at the bank, I would get home at 3am and, at one point, didn’t even see my parents for three months. By the time I wake up, they would be out of the house. But I wanted the experience and to face the challenge, so I stayed on,” she shares. After three years in banking, the final straw came when Teo fell ill. In the span of two months, she was prescribed four courses of antibiotics, yet never got any better due to the arduous hours spent at her desk. Her doctor, a family friend, urged her to re-think her choices.

Call it serendipitous but it was also during this period in 2011 that her father, businessman Teo Cheng Kwee, presented her with yet another proposal to join the family firm. But this time, the opportunity was different. He had come across a 362,000-sq-ft site in Yangon, Myanmar and was exploring the idea of developing it into a luxury project.

Instead of declining her father straight out in favour of carving her own independent career path — as she had done on previous occasions — the youngest in the family of three children, gave it due consideration. The fact that Myanmar was and still is, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, piqued her interest.

Visiting Yangon with her father to get the lay of the land, she was immediately taken in by what she saw. The site in question was strategically located along the prime Yankin Road, just a 10-minute drive to the centuries-old Shwedagon Pagoda (one of the country’s most sacred Buddhist shrines) and a five-minute drive to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. It even offered views of the city’s iconic Inya Lake.

“When I first visited, I was expecting a run-down city. Yangon is old but it is clean, you don’t find litter on the streets. Beautiful heritage and colonial buildings also dot the streets. I was taken by its charm,” she says. “Besides, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of such an exciting project in a frontier market also appealed to me.”

And with that, Teo joined her father to help oversee the development of their maiden Myanmar property — Golden City, a mixed used project with a gross development value of US$700 million. Currently well under way, the ten-building development will comprise nine 33-storey residential blocks with 1,439 apartments and a 30-storey commercial block with office space and a hotel when fully completed in 2018.

When the first four residential blocks launched in 2014, 250 units were snapped up within two days and its two-bedroom units sold out within an hour. To date, 80 percent of the apartments have been sold. Phase two saw the launch of another three residential towers in 2015, of which 60 percent of units have been sold. The public reception, Teo says, has been encouraging.

“The older buildings in Myanmar are typically eight to 12 storeys high. There are no lifts and hence the lower units are more expensive. In the beginning, the locals weren’t able to comprehend why the higher floors cost more,” Teo shares. “Once, a potential buyer from the older generation even asked if he had to climb the stairs to the top floor, should he buy a unit there. It was a valid question and we had to explain to them the concept of the development. It’s a constant education exercise for us.”

With the sale of the apartments steadily ongoing, Teo is now turning her attention towards business development. As part of her vision to turn Golden City into a lifestyle destination, she has begun to form strategic partnerships with several firms, one of which has been multilabel luxury retailer Reebonz, which opened a concept shop within the Golden City showroom. In a country where luxury goods is not yet a norm, Teo believes the opening of the store will satiate the Myanmar people’s increasing desire for the finer things in life.

She has also struck a partnership with Colliers International and is in talks with several parties, including a kindergarten and F&B establishments, to open shop at Golden City. Teo also confirms they have secured a five-star operator to run their hotel, but details remain under wraps.

“Myanmar is rapidly developing. The people here want to enjoy international brands. Did you know that KFC just opened and it costs almost twice as it does in Singapore?” she says with disbelief.

While her work has become her passion, what she treasures most about leaving banking to join the family’s investment company, is the chance to work closely with her father in strategy development. “With him, I know I will always have a partner who has my back. That he will tell me the truth, no matter how painful, and that his opinion on certain matters come from years of experience,” she says.

The pair’s working relationship may have only been formalised in recent years, but their mentor-mentee dynamic goes way back. From as early as age five, Teo would accompany her father (then-CEO of Sapphire Corp, a mining company he founded) on his business trips to countries such as China and Indonesia.

Even at a young age, she somehow knew that paying attention to the cultural practices of others, would come in useful someday. When in China, for instance, one should never sit at a dining table until the guest-of-honour arrives, as doing otherwise would be considered impolite. The youngest should also go around the table with a cup of tea and offer a toast, while bearing in mind that their cup should always be lower than the older person. “You might think this is common knowledge but it isn’t. It’s important to know as such factors might influence the impression the other party that you wish to do business with, has of you,” she muses.

Such trips were a way for her father to spend as much time as possible with the family, despite his hectic work schedule. After all, the single most important piece of advice he has always shared with Teo and her two older brothers is: “Family always comes first.” Not once during their growing up years did the siblings even hear dad air his business-related frustrations at the dinner table. “He would never put his business before his family and would say that the one thing in our lives that we have is our family. Treasure that,” she says.

Teo applies this to her own marriage to Jeffrey Lu, an American-Taiwanese who is the co-founder of venture capital firm Goodman Capital. But since Lu also serves as an advisor to D3 Capital, the couple used to find themselves talking about work at all hours of the day, even at 2am in the morning. Realising that it wouldn’t be healthy for any marriage in the long run, they have since put an end to discussing work-related matters after 9pm. The person who breaks the rule pays a fine of $50, which the other party gets to spend, shares Teo with a chuckle. “This has worked quite well for me as Jeff is always the one who forgets!”

Just as her own father did when she was younger, Teo makes time for family no matter how busy she gets. This includes having regular meals with her husband and parents. Some weekends, her young nieces, aged seven and six, also come over to her place to play with her two ragdoll cats: Louie and Hughie. “My furry friends are another way for me to de-stress. They have this sense of calm about them that is therapeutic. Everyone needs an outlet to relax and they are mine.”