Meet the investment team: Q&A with Esther Chan

In Perspective caught up with Esther Chan, Investment Specialist in our 4Factor team, on her career journey, travels through developing countries, views on diversity, domestic politics and what inspires her the most.

May 26, 2021

7 minutes

In Perspective caught up with Esther Chan, Investment Specialist in our 4Factor team, on her career journey, travels through developing countries, views on diversity, domestic politics and what inspires her the most.
QYou began your career focusing on Asian corporate bonds in Singapore. How did your journey evolve to South Africa? What have been career highlights thus far?

Strangely, I first did an undergraduate law degree in the UK, but decided not to practice law. Upon returning to Singapore I began an internship in an investment bank, which started me down the path of finance. Once I started doing credit analysis, I realised that investment management was for me. I loved learning about companies, how businesses were run, the differences between different Asian cultures and their attitude towards debt. I loved connecting the dots between financial statements and the reality of businesses.

I moved to London in 2007, at a time when the emerging market corporate bond market was just taking off as an asset class. Back then, emerging market fixed income teams were focused only on sovereign debt and so my skillset in understanding and pricing credit was very useful. As the market grew, I had the opportunity to build an emerging market corporate product, as well as an investment process and team. I still remember the thrill when we raised the first dollar from clients for the fund and the sense of responsibility in managing such a niche product through different market cycles. However, all good things must come to an end for better things to come. In 2016, I met my South African husband. The promises of braais, mountains and wine in Cape Town were irresistible, so we left London, travelled the globe and eventually returned to Cape Town at the end of 2018. I am grateful that Ninety One has given me the opportunity to use my experience here in South Africa.

QYou joined Ninety One in 2019 within our Fixed Income team covering the emerging markets corporate sector. Currently, you are responsible for asset allocation within our SA Equity and Balanced strategies. What do you enjoy about your role?

As much as I loved emerging market corporate bonds, I was keen to explore a role where I could put roots down within the domestic market within a South African team. I love feeling stretched in my role, and this is certainly the case, since it straddles different asset classes and requires me to bring in both my global and historical experience and apply it in a domestic context. Having worked in a niche product most of my career, it is so refreshing to be able now to have a broader perspective in investments.

Secondly, I do love the interaction that I have with teams across the globe and feel like I am truly part of the Ninety One network. There are many teams and people who have been so generous with their time and knowledge. In the past year, where we have spent so much time working from home, it has been wonderful to have conversations, especially with people from Singapore and London where I spent the majority of my life.

QWe’re more than one year on since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been your experience through the uncertainty of markets?

It is a crisis unlike any other we have had to navigate in the 16 years I have been in the market. But the approach is always the same: think through the facts and decide which are relevant and how to prioritise them, understand the asset class you are investing in, have humility and a strong stomach to weather the volatility, and importantly, stick to your investment process as a lodestar.

QPortfolio management remains a very male-dominated world. What has been your experience?

I believe that we have to encourage diversity and different styles within investment management. Being a female investment professional, I have had to take care not to emulate some of the unhelpful traits of aggressiveness and posturing I had seen in both male and female colleagues. The important thing is to be genuine, and work to dismantle any unhelpful hurdles. I believe it is important to set a good example and encourage younger female investment professionals, because their paths are not easy. Having started by career in Singapore, my own experience has been that my gender was less of an issue, and thankfully, I gained enough experience and confidence in my area of expertise for this factor to be less of a hurdle once I moved countries.

Teams that are willing to work through teething issues become more resilient - Esther Chan

QYou’ve worked in major financial centres in the world such as Singapore and London. What does diversity mean to you from a local and international perspective?

Different countries have different blind spots, and it is human nature everywhere to feel more comfortable with people with whom we have the most in common. Being fairly new to South Africa, I am thankful that I do not have any base assumptions about anyone based on their ethnicity and backgrounds. I think it is important in the first instance to learn about a person by listening to their story, and also to recognise that every story has an internal narrative that could be based on their own perception and history.

We should welcome and make space for diversity at work and in our team and embrace differences in background, culture, value system, personality, communication style or education. There can be issues though: paying lip service to the concept of diversity can mean that people end up feeling like their voice is not truly important as they are just making up a quota. Furthermore, sometimes having so many voices means that it is more difficult to make decisions or, if not handled properly, it could disrupt team dynamics.

Teams that are willing to work through teething issues become more resilient; they are forged through time and patience and anchored by a common goal and investment ethos. I believe such a team culture of acceptance and confidence provides an environment to extract the best out of each individual. It is so encouraging for me to be part of a team which is super-diverse and I love that I work with three female portfolio managers who have very different stories from me.

QWho has been an inspiration to you?

Lee Kwan Yew and the Singapore story has been an inspiration to me. Singapore’s independence in 1965 was fraught with difficulties and was initially seen as a huge failure by Lee Kwan Yew. Through hard work, and discipline, he instilled a culture of meritocracy and diversity tolerance within the country and now this little island is very well known globally and stands out from its neighbours in Southeast Asia in terms of wealth and safety.

QWhat would you tell your teenage self?

I would tell my teenage self that it will work out wonderfully, that one day she would be a person who takes changes and adventures in her stride. I would also tell her to enjoy the journey, smell the roses, and that the destination will keep changing as she gets older! (Maybe on a different continent!)

QWhat are you passionate about?

Travel and food. I took two years off to explore the world with a backpack, but I couldn’t tell you how many countries I have been to – that’s not the point. I love learning about new cultures, seeing and trying new things. I particularly love snowboarding and diving and hiking up and through mountains; I love the adrenaline and pure joy that uplifts my spirits. These are my happy places.

Like all Singaporeans, food is my hobby. I eat it and try to cook it. And since being in Cape Town, I have less access to my favourite foods, so with my willing, greedy husband, I have learnt to cook up a storm and even braai Asian style!

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