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A passionate investment

Magazine

A passionate investment

Published 15 December 2022 in Magazine • 8 min read

Gaw Capital, a real estate investment firm, was set up by two brothers and a friend from university in 2005. Three years later, their banker sister Christina Gaw accepted an offer to join them. She explains how she used her expertise to raise capital and structure the business, which now has $34bn of assets under management.

My family is a business family. Born in Myanmar (then known as Burma) and educated in the US, my father Anthony Gaw set up and ran a textile business in Thailand and Indonesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s before moving to Hong Kong to start Pioneer Global, a real estate investment firm. He died in 1999, but that business, which has a Hong Kong Stock Exchange listing, is still run by my mother Rosanna.

My two elder brothers, Goodwin and Kenneth, along with Humbert Pang, a friend of Goodwin’s from high school, started Gaw Capital, a real estate investment firm, in 2005. Humbert was appointed as advisory consultant to Gaw Capital Partners in July 2005 and joined as Managing Principal and Head of China in 2006.

This was Goodwin’s second venture. Earlier, in the mid-1990s, he had set up his first real estate business in the US straight after graduating from university. Returning to Hong Kong in the early 2000s, he launched Gaw Capital with Kenneth and Humbert to take advantage of the collapse in property prices that followed the Asian financial crisis.

I was slower entering the business. After graduating from the University of San Francisco with a degree in business administration in 1993, I spent 15 years working in investment banking, first for nine years at Goldman Sachs, then for six years at UBS. That career took me first to New York, then to Hong Kong and Singapore.

One of the reasons Goodwin and Kenneth launched Gaw was to see whether they could grow faster by getting third party capital instead of relying principally on family funds. Their first vehicle was put together with $200 million. In real estate, however, that doesn’t go far, and they soon found themselves having to raise money again.

Knowing they were mainly deal guys, my brothers realized they needed to bring in someone to handle capital raising – the trade their sister was in

They first approached me in 2007. The following year, as financial markets collapsed around the world, I decided the time was right to join them.

The four of us are very different. Goodwin is very much the entrepreneur, through-and-through. He’s an out-of-the-box thinker who likes traveling, hanging out with other entrepreneurs, and creating new projects. He’s always had an intuitive understanding of real estate. When he sees something, he knows exactly what should be changed to improve it. He loves doing deals and finding the right people to work with us.

That’s where Kenneth comes in. He also works on the deal side, but he’s far more than a day-to-day guy. One of his strengths is numbers. Another is having the eye for detail for going through contract terms. Humbert is our China-based partner taking care of relationships and on-the-ground management of our China teams from Shanghai.

Strengthening the firm’s DNA

Alongside capital raising, my first job at Gaw was adding structure to the firm. When I first came in, it was very much run as a startup, with everyone running around doing deals and finding new business to grow its assets under management. For the next three years, I spent my time making our vetting and approval processes more rigorous, strengthening our risk and compliance procedures, and putting in place all the other mechanisms we needed to expand our investor base from family offices and high-net-worth individuals to include institutional investors such as sovereign wealth and pension funds.

At the same time, I had to make sure we didn’t lose the many benefits of being flexible, nimble, and creative that had enabled the firm to get off the ground in the first place and would allow it to snap up major deals faster than those bigger fund managers that we were now competing with.

To do this, I set to work strengthening the firm’s DNA. After working in two institutions with hugely powerful cultures – very American in Goldman Sachs’s case, very European at UBS – I knew that culture was key to making people proud to be associated with a firm, which in turn made it easier to help us find, train, and retain the talent we needed.

Close colleagues: (from the left) Goodwin Gaw, Humbert Pang and Kenny Gaw

After a process that also took around three years, we evolved a set of values defined around three words: passion, responsibility, and creativity. Passion – that belief in the importance of what it was we were doing – was the easiest of the three. We take on every project with enthusiasm because it is our firm belief that exceptional work can only come from a passionate heart. After all, it had been passion that launched the firm.

Responsibility reflected how we wanted to be a firm that always left its assets in a better condition than when we had acquired them. And creativity was about how, from day one, we had always done everything with an entrepreneurial spirit as we looked for new projects, new ways of doing things, and new areas to venture into.

Family constraints

Gaw Capital wasn’t a business that was handed down to us. For sure, we used family capital to start investing in real estate, but from the start we never wanted to define it as a family business. Instead, we’ve always insisted that the goal was to make the firm as sustainable as possible for the long term.

Usually, the founders of a business generation have shared goals, which is certainly true in our case. But passing the business down to our children isn’t one of them. Now, we have more than 400 people working for Gaw Capital, and apart from the four of us, our senior management team are all non-family members. These are people hired from investment banks or other similar institutions. Now, we want all of them to grow with us and eventually be candidates to succeed us.

We take on every project with enthusiasm because it's our firm belief that exceptional work can only come from a passionate heart

Our assets are still a fraction of those managed by some of the bigger investment firms. But we have studied how the best of those partnerships operate, and put in place systems like theirs where, if you do something valuable, then you can progress up the ladder. So far, those institutionalizing measures have worked well. It’s because of them that we’ve managed to take the firm from being totally Greater China focused when it launched to being a global business with highly diversified Asia-Pacific operations today.

Our first phase – what we now refer to as Gaw 1.0 – was centered largely on single-asset deals. In Gaw 2.0, starting around 10 years ago, we moved into thematic platform investing, first developing retail outlet malls and entertainment complexes with a European partner, then adding logistics developments, internet and data centers, hospitality, and other commercial real-estate related developments.

Those schemes laid the foundations for Gaw 3.0 – taking thematic platform building a step further to set up businesses which combine a real estate arm with another business that owns and operates revenue-generating businesses within the industry – so-called “operating company/property company (opco/propco)” deals.

In 2021, Gaw Capital completed the final close of our first commingled growth equity fund, Gaw Growth Equity Fund I, which targets investing in prop-tech (property technology) and real-estate operating companies that are high growth and highly scalable with a primary focus on Asia. We have been embracing prop-tech investment by not only deploying capital, but also offering our in-depth expertise in management and global presence to help these real estate technology companies grow and thrive. 

This has opened the way for us to develop and run businesses such as renewable energy battery storage facilities and to supplement our real estate expertise with prop-tech businesses that extend our reach into new economy property investment, management, and marketing platforms.

We’ve changed a lot over the years. We started off looking for investors asset by asset as we discovered one real estate opportunity after another. Now we’re always looking for ways of assembling collections of assets that can always be further expanded as new investors come on board.

Of course, we still like to take advantage of single asset opportunities when we spot them, but we focus a lot more of our senior management time on how we should be building these thematic platforms because of their huge scalability potential. This approach seems to be working. Institutionalizing our business allowed us to increase our assets under management to $12 billion five years ago. The steps we’ve taken since then have seen that total rise to more than $34 billion.

Looking ahead

Today, the challenge is maintaining and growing our position in what looks certain to be a tougher business environment in the coming few years.

On Hong Kong, our home, we are optimists. It’s survived tough times in the past – the riots of 1967, the immigration wave in the late 1980s ahead of the 1997 handover – and today investors are concerned about the direction China is taking.

But we think China will continue to maintain Hong Kong’s separate position under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. From everything we hear, Hong Kong will retain its position as China’s main window to the rest of the world up to and beyond 2047, the year when Beijing will have to decide whether to renew the current system under which Hong Kong is run.

Usually, the founders of a business generation have shared goals, which is certainly true in our case. But passing the business down to our children isn’t one of them

In China, residential real estate is heading towards more government control. But there are many other property sectors where capital will be needed to help growth – data centers, for example, or environmentally sustainable projects. Identifying such opportunities, along with exit strategies that the government will favor, will be a major focus of ours.

As for the rest of the world, everywhere has issues. But from our perspective, Asia continues to have intrinsically strong fundamentals. We’re already seeing some interesting buying opportunities in the region. The weakness of the Korean won and the Japanese yen, for example, makes investing in those countries super attractive. In the longer run, we expect to find further opportunities across the region.

For sure, geopolitics and war are creating a tougher business environment ahead, but we’re confident we can handle things. Goodwin’s travels and conversations give us a macro-overview of how countries are faring and what sectors we should be looking at. Kenneth and Humbert, who are on the ground managing our assets every day, are in touch with local markets. And with my access to the global investors’ viewpoint, I keep track of where capital is being allocated. It’s a great team.

Authors

Christina Gaw

Managing Principal and Global Head of Capital Markets at Gaw Capital Partners

Christina Gaw has been the Managing Principal and Global Head of Capital Markets at Gaw Capital Partners since 2008. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of San Francisco. Before joining Gaw Capital Partners, she worked in investment banking for nine years at Goldman Sachs and six years at UBS.

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