CEO with a hunger for entrepreneurship

It is about leaving a legacy and not just getting rich, says Deelish Brands boss Mohamed Ibrahim

Behind the juicy treats at the Fatburger restaurants is an entrepreneur who has been taking big bites of the businessman pie for the last two decades.

Mr Mohamed "Moe" Ibrahim, 45, said entrepreneurship is a wild adventure and he never wants it to end, even after 20 years.

The American, who grew up in New Jersey and is a permanent resident in Singapore, is the chief executive of Deelish Brands, a franchise management company that brings restaurant chains, including Fatburger, to South-east Asia.

There are two outlets - at Velocity@Novena Square and Kinex in Tanjong Katong Road - and both are now halal-certified.

The chain, which started here in September last year, has around 200 restaurants in 25 countries, including the United States, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Its offerings range from burgers and chicken wings to sandwiches and milkshakes, as well as a variety of fries in flavours such as sweet potato and chilli.

Mr Ibrahim said: "I'm focusing on businesses that have franchise potential. Deelish Brands exists to promote entrepreneurship through franchising. The franchise model excites me. It's a tremendous amount of front-end work that entails a huge amount of documentation, meticulous creation of standard operating procedures and an enormous emphasis on training.

"But once the basic infrastructure is in place, the businesses have potential to scale rapidly and profitably."

  • Worst and best bets

    Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A I spent 15 years as a professional manager and made thousands of investments and many mistakes. Some are painful from a dollar perspective, some from a time perspective, and others from a legal perspective.

    There are different mistakes that take a toll that are not necessarily monetary.

    The worst are those that end in legal battles that drag on forever, rather than those that end in losing a bit of money, from which one can move on quickly.

    I launched an online travel agency as a competitor to platforms like Expedia and Agoda.

    My main mistake was underestimating the power of the incumbents in the market. Never enter a market where you don't have a reasonable chance of being No. 1.

    The brand was new, so even though my prices were better, it was difficult (to attract customers). To build awareness and brand value would have taken a billion dollars of marketing funds.

    It was not just monetary loss to me, but also four to five years of time.

    I'm glad that I had that experience but it was painful. It shows that having a better product doesn't mean you can succeed. There are lots of good concepts that fail. Awareness is key.

    Q And your best investment?

    A My best investment is yet to come and it's my team.

    But so far the product market fit and the speed with which we hit the market as Fatburger have been above our expectations. This includes the market awareness of the brand, revenue and the demand for it.

    Fatburger opened here in September last year and it was going through 1,000 burgers a day after a month. I thought it would be doing 500 to 600.

    Sue-Ann Tan

Mr Ibrahim is also the founder and chief executive of The Mozaic, which is the sole shareholder of Deelish Brands in Singapore. It also owns real estate and other projects around the world, such as a laundromat in Indonesia.

He said his entrepreneurial journey is not just about becoming rich. "It is not about adding zeroes to my bank account, but leaving a legacy of entrepreneurship. It is not about owning restaurants, but (building) a business model that can succeed in this food and beverage industry."

But while Mr Ibrahim, whose wife is a Singaporean, is an entrepreneur and boss at work, his five-year-old twin sons are the real managers. He said: "I'm really working for them. They are my bosses. I'm growing my business while thinking of their future."

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. I started my career on Wall Street as an IT specialist.

I interviewed for technology jobs and landed my dream job at Lazard, one of the world's premier investment banks. I was the guy on the trading floor fixing computers for traders so they could keep trading and making money.

It was "glamorous" work - most of the time I was just swopping out keyboards as the traders would keep spilling coffee onto them.

But the energy was infectious. I was a sponge and within two years, I joined the distressed debt group as a research analyst, where I spent the next three years learning how to analyse companies from some of the greatest minds on Wall Street.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I look at risk. There are so many types of risk when it comes to investing. There is liquidity risk, default risk, valuation risk, event risk, subordination or capital structure risk, regulatory risk, overall market risk, interest rate risk, fraud, and the list goes on and on. As an investor, it's my job to avoid (risk) as much as possible. So in short, I like to take event risk and eliminate as much of the other risks as possible. This means I sacrifice payment streams and look for a high internal rate of return at payout.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I'm about 30 per cent cash, 50 per cent real estate (which includes hospitality, affordable housing and other real estate projects) and 20 per cent risk (which includes the laundromat and food and beverage portfolio).

I do not invest in the stock market and the only investments I make through private banks are usually fixed income. I like investments that are hands-free and return capital at maturity or event plays that return capital at some future anticipated event.

I do not invest in private equity or venture capital projects as I like to avoid valuation risk and overall market risk whenever possible.

I keep cash in the event markets melt down so I can take advantage of bargains. I am heavy on real estate because I have a long investment horizon and I view real estate as generational plays - I am investing for future "Moes".

Q What else is in your financial plan?

A I am not convinced of trust structures because of counter-party risk. Wouldn't it be a shame if everything I worked so hard for goes up in smoke after I die because some counter-party goes bankrupt and wipes out all of my assets with them along the way?

I believe in holding direct assets whenever possible, or via simple corporate structures. And I buy insurance. Yes, death is an event and when I die, there will be a payout. I have yet to put in any medical directives, but if any artificial devices need to be used to keep me alive, please pull the plug. I live my life to the fullest so I have no regrets. I believe life is tough enough as it is, it should be quality life.

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A My father was a machinist and he passed away in 2008. He was the hardest-working man I have ever met. He was fixing the roof of our house when we suspect he had a stroke and fell. I was in Hong Kong when I received the news. I try and avoid Hong Kong now as it brings back that bad memory.

I have two brothers and a sister. One is a lawyer, one is a doctor, and one is in tech. We are all about four to five years apart and we grew up middle class in America.

My father used to tell me: Don't wish for money. Wish for good fortune for the money you already have. Because you can turn a dollar into a million, or a million into a dollar. I will never forget that lesson.

Q What does money mean to you?

A For me, it comes down to the "why". Why do I do the things that I do, or start the business that I start? The "how" is the path I take to execute the "why". And the money, well, that's the outcome.

If I happen to make money along the way, then I know my "why" and "how" were sound. If not, (go) back to the drawing board. So money is not why I start businesses. It's the outcome of a successful business.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I plan on working until the end, God willing. It's too much fun. I've already travelled the world, and being an entrepreneur is the wildest adventure anyone can take.

I just hope as I get older I will have more time for loved ones. No matter how busy I am, I never stop telling the people I love how much they mean to me.

Q Home is now...

A I don't like to talk about personal assets. I own a landed property but I don't live in it. I don't drive a flashy car. I don't have an expensive watch. I eat at hawker centres. I now wear my Fatburger uniform everywhere I go.

I love working the grill in my restaurants whenever I get a chance. I wear $10 T-shirts and Asics sneakers whenever I can. Home is where I am surrounded by people I love and who love me back.

Q I drive...

A I have a gunmetal grey Lexus but I rarely drive. I let my family drive it instead. I try to drive as little as possible. I have enough stress in my life, so I leave the driving stress to others. I prefer convenience to luxury.