Serge Pun goes where others fear to tread

His tourism firm, which starts trading on Catalist today, is the first such Burmese firm to list on a foreign exchange

Singapore

WHERE others see operational and regulatory risks in setting up businesses in Myanmar, Burmese tycoon Serge Pun sees opportunities - openings that he says wouldn't fall into his lap in highly regulated and mature markets like Singapore and Hong Kong.

In an interview with The Business Times on Thursday, the chairman of the Serge Pun & Associates Group, a multinational real estate firm, said: "In a mature market, your opportunities are very limited... Everybody knows every single clause of the laws and regulations; in a country like Myanmar where the latitude (for interpretation of the law) is very wide - I think that's where the attraction of any emerging or frontier market is."

He is also executive chairman of Memories Group, which runs a series of tourism-related businesses and is a spin-off company from Yoma Strategic and two other companies.

Memories Group starts trading on the Catalist board on Friday; Mr Pun said it is the first Burmese tourism-focused company to list on a foreign exchange.

It has completed a placement exercise that raised S$10.65 million and had undertaken a reverse takeover with SHC Capital Asia, a shell company which used to run an insurance business in Singapore and then sold it in 2014.

Last month, the Catalist-listed SHC Capital had completed an acquisition of shares of MM Myanmar from three vendors - a Yoma Strategic subsidiary, Yoma's affiliated company First Myanmar Investment (FMI), and another vendor, Exemplary Ventures.

Mr Pun said Memories decided against doing a public offering because of the lack of time; he did not want the counter to remain suspended after the acquisition for too long, and wanted to restore the public float as soon as possible.

Perhaps retail investors can get in the game after the listing, he joked, especially as the company has ambitious plans to expand the business.

For one thing, it aims to become an end-to-end provider of tourism services - from owning physical hotel assets and organising nature and cultural activities for visitors to providing tour-agency services on an innovative technological platform.

Among companies running tour-agency services, the common practice now is a "small, thin sort of fee-earning exercise", where these agencies book flights and hotels for customers for commissions, he said.

What Mr Pun hopes to build is a more premier company, one with the infrastructure to serve in-bound and out-bound visitors quickly and efficiently.

He said: "Things that people don't serve, we want to serve. Things that people serve in a conventional way and don't take one more step, we will take that one more step. Hopefully, that will bring us market share."

To do this, the group will need to hire talent and buy over certain target companies.

The listing of Memories Group is crucial in granting it exposure to capital markets and bank financing to execute its game plan and to grow exponentially.

The plan is taking shape, he said. "Since word got out that Memories Group was listing in Singapore, we have had a lot of hotel owners approaching us to offer to sell their hotels to us and become partners.

"To them, owning a piece of a publicly-listed company in Singapore is huge. Not only do they lift the branding of their hotels, they are also converting a hard asset into liquid security in a very safe place."

He added that spinning off the tourism business also gives it its own limelight; the segment had been overshadowed by Yoma's and FMI's more prominent businesses for years.

Yoma has three core business segments: automotive, consumer and real estate. FMI's three pillars are real estate (which often enters into joint ventures with Yoma), financial services and healthcare.

The tourism assets, such as the commercial hot-air balloon business in Bagan and hospitality development Bagan Land, were previously jointly held by Yoma and FMI.

"Although they are prized iconic assets, in the context of Yoma or FMI, they are very small, so they never received the deserved attention. Today, we put it under an independent platform and an independent management group, so it's going to be the star, the flagship. Suddenly, it becomes a very different asset."

To those thinking of making a foray into Myanmar for business, Mr Pun had this to say: "You have to be agile, assess your risks, take risks on a calculated basis and not recklessly, and you just have to work harder, but at the end of the day, none of it is negative.

"I see opportunity at least in one sense - that for those people who see it as a risk, they won't come. At least I have a better time capturing the market. In that narrow sense, I'm already ahead."