In our latest edition of International Investment, Helen Burggraf talks to MBMG’s co-founder about how he remains faithful to his original vision after 22 years of “blood, sweat and tears” as a wealth manager in Thailand.
During the 22 years that Paul Gambles and Graham Macdonald have worked together as wealth managers in Thailand, they have witnessed – and lived through – a lot, even by the standards of expat small-business owners in a volatile, emerging market country in Southeast Asia.
First came the Asian financial crisis in 1997, barely a year after the two Britons, at that time both in their 30s, and two other partners opened the doors of MBMG for business.
(The MBMG name is derived from the surnames of all four founding partners, the other two of whom left the business shortly after its foundation.)
That 1997 financial crisis was followed by a coup d’état in 2006; a Thai political crisis that began in 2008, which coincided with the global financial crisis of that year, ultimately culminating in street riots in Bangkok two years later; this in turn was followed by more political turmoil, another coup d’état in 2014, and, now, yet more political uncertainty, as a ruling junta led by an army general struggles to win the support of the kingdom’s 66 million people.
PERSEVERE AND THRIVE
Through it all, Gambles and Macdonald persevered. From time to time, they updated their business model as needed, periodically introducing new lines of business, for example, as the market moved from a focus on personal international tax planning to one that, Gambles says, encompassed broader corporate, institutional and family office advisory services, including insurance broking, mortgage advice, accounting, legal services and asset management.
Most recently, in 2012, they established MBMG Investment Advisory, which holds investment and derivatives advisory licences from the Thai Securities & Exchange Commission, and which works on a 100% feebased remuneration model. And by all accounts, they’ve thrived.
The latest change to the business model is a big one, though, at least for Gambles.
Because last month, as International Investment reported, Macdonald, an OBE since 2013, announced that he plans to retire at the end of May, as he had been saying all along he was planning to do.
Though Macdonald’s departure leaves Gambles, 52, the last man standing – of MBMG’s original old guard, anyway – in the group’s Bangkok offices, Gambles says that a succession plan has been in place for some time.
Paul Gambles’s alter-ego: CNBC expert commentator
Regular watchers of the CNBC and Bloomberg cable, internet and satellite TV channels will possibly be familiar with a silver-haired, British-sounding commentator, who frequently comments on issues of the day.
Few, though, are likely to realise that this commentator’s day job is running an expatriate- focused wealth management business in Bangkok, Thailand.
It’s not that his being a wealth manager is hidden, exactly, but that in televised news broadcasting, seconds count, and lengthy bios are not considered as important as the points being made, providing the interviewer knows his stuff. And Gambles clearly does.
Gambles says he first appeared on CNBC back in 2010, when the network’s Singapore-based team had flown in to Bangkok for a special report on the country (as he says he now knows that they “intermittently do”).
“They had lined up a number of short interviews, of which I was one. [A mutual acquaintance] had put us together.”
At that time Gambles had already been doing a weekly slot for a Thai TV money channel, which involved “talking on a global topic once a week for about 20 to 25 minutes”.
That experience evidently proved useful, because Gambles was quickly snapped up by CNBC to do more appearances, and today he seems as relaxed in front of the CNBC cameras as many of those who do it for a living.
“Why do I do it? Because it’s a lot of fun to be challenged in these kinds of discussions; it’s also a great way to get a pulse on the markets, and you get to meet some very interesting people on the set, from the investment world as well as all walks of life, from whom I find I learn a great deal,” he says.
“I’m sure that some new clients have watched some of the things that I’ve said on TV, seen how they’ve played out, and then approached me for advice.
“Existing clients are also extremely supportive.
“In fact, I think the only people who tell me that they’ve gotten bored of seeing me on TV so often are my kids.”
“In addition to our chief executive, Jan Sumanus, the senior management team now comprises Usa Suwanchatree, who’s been group CFO for the last six years, and Peter Emblin, who heads up our corporate division,” Gambles says.
As for Macdonald’s ownership stake in the business, Gambles says it is being divided up among the remaining key stake-holders, including himself, with a proportion also being set aside for the company’s other employees.
“It not only seems to be the arrangement that would be best for everyone who works here, but it seemed to be the best way to provide continuity to our clients, as well as to remain faithful to the vision we’ve all been pouring our blood, sweat and tears into for the last 20 years.”
‘SAGE OF BANGKOK’
Still, followers of @PaulGambles2 on Twitter, where he’s a prolific commentator, may be inclined to wonder if, with Macdonald gone, Gambles might have less time for commenting on the day’s economic headlines.
Likewise his regularly appearances as an “expert commentator” on the global CNBC and Bloomberg networks, as well as on local Thai media, talking about everything from oil prices and smart beta ETFs to the latest news in Thailand, could also seem in danger of becoming less frequent. (See box, right)
If so, he will clearly be missed – as one of his followers recently suggested, in passing, when he referred to Gambles, in a tweet, as “[the] Sage of Bangkok and St Paul the Anarchist”.
Last month, with Macdonald’s departure from the business just weeks away, Gambles reflected on their 22 years together, and what decisions they had made that enabled MBMG to succeed when others were less fortunate.
Among their shrewdest moves, Gambles says he now realises, was to diversify early on into areas loosely related to the provision of financial advice, but at the same time, totally different.
“Advisers always preach about diversification being the only free lunch in investment, but how many practise what they preach in their own businesses?” he says.
“If we at MBMG hadn’t done that, though, I don’t think we’d have been able to have reached the point that we’re at today.
“We set up as an individual advisory practice for expats at the end of 1995, but then moved into accounting, audit, legal, tax and property for expat individuals, as well as foreign owned or operated businesses in Thailand, and then, gradually after that, further afield.
“Some foreign institutional work followed, and we then started to deal with expat family office clients.
“The final stage has been a move to also deal increasingly with Thai individuals, Thai businesses, Thai family offices and Thai institutions.”
Changes in Thailand’s investment regulations also forced MBMG to innovate, Gambles says, referring to the earlier-mentioned registration of MBMG Investment Advisory in 2012, which involved obtaining investment and derivatives advisory licences from the Thai Securities & Exchange Commission.
The Thai SEC, Gambles and other advisers in Thailand say, has begun to be much more proactive in regulating Thailand’s investment markets, as well as all forms of investment advice.
“My view now is that we have a powerful regulator here in Thailand, and a clear regulatory framework under which to work.”
But then, much has changed since Gambles and Macdonald first arrived in Thailand.
Back then, Gambles recalls, information was at a premium, and – lacking not just CNBC and Bloomberg but internet service of any kind – he and Macdonald would go considerable lengths just to score a day-old, sometimes second-hand copy of the Financial Times, in order to get the latest fund prices.
These they would forward, by letter, to clients.
“The alternative was to wait for the monthly fund managers’ reports to arrive by post,” Gambles recalls.
“These could take the better part of two months to get to us.”
|MBMG Int’l Advisory Co Ltd (part of the MBMG Group)
AUA: More than £280m (MBMG Group) (doubled over the past two
No. of clients: 50-plus(MBMG Int’l Advisory); 500-plus (MBMG
No. of advisers: 5, including Paul Gambles
No. of employees: 20 (MBMG Int’l Advisory); approx 100 (MBMG Group)
No. of offices: 1 (Bangkok)
Regulated by: The Thai Securities & Exchange Commission
Network affiliations: Geneva Group Int’l (GGI)