An aggressive saver

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 31, 2018 - January 06, 2019.
-A +A

For Bernie Quah, knowledge of wealth preservation was part and parcel of her early education. The know-hows of saving and investing and even difficult concepts such as dividend payouts and stock market performance were staple conversations at family dinners.

Such notions were ingrained so deeply in her from young that despite having taken the risk of starting a unique career as a graphic recorder a few years ago, she remains rather conservative when it comes to managing her wealth.

“I think because I did not grow up rich, I do not really know what to do with money. Even now, when I have money, I do not really know what to do with it. Instead of buying things that I can’t really enjoy, I tend to buy stocks,” says Quah.

“After college, I had some savings from my internships and ang pow money collected over the years, which came to about RM10,000. I passed it to my mother and asked her to buy me some shares.

“My grandma actually managed my shares for five years before she passed away. She was always on the lookout for what was available and cheap. So, like her, I bought super safe stocks such as good property development companies. Although, I do not really know how to track the equities I hold as she did, I understand that when you play safe, you will not lose.”

Sketch Post is an innovative business where she and her team of graphic recorders simplify complex information through visuals. The company has a presence in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Quah is already a sought-after graphic recorder, having done sketches for TED conferences, Khazanah Nasional Bhd and Tenaga Nasional Bhd. She founded Sketch Post when she was 23, barely two years after graduating from college.

The second of three children, Quah grew up in a decidedly middle-class suburb in Petaling Jaya. As China was a rising economic powerhouse, her parents thought it would be wise for their three children to be educated at a Chinese-medium school so that they would be well versed in Mandarin, she says.

“My parents did not speak Mandarin, but they felt that it was a necessary skill, seeing the rise of China. I was not linguistically gifted. I barely scraped through the subjects. But art was my escape. It was a world where I could draw just about anything and there was no judgement at all,” she adds.

That was how Quah developed an affinity for doodling. But it was not until she got to college, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in interior architecture, that she realised she liked turning information into visuals.

And it was not until she pursued an internship at an interior design firm in Singapore that she came to realise her passion for art. “Eventually, I figured out that I was drawn to illustrations more,” says Quah.

“I like drawing information. For example, like in critical thinking classes, you take notes and draw an icon or an illustration next to the sentence. I decided to look it up and found that there are people who actually do such a thing for living and it was called sketch notes.”

It became a serious hobby for her and after graduating, she continued to hone her doodling skills and improve her ability to promptly synthesise information. Still, doodling remained a casual activity that provided freelance opportunities for her.

Then, Quah took up another six-month industrial placement at a creative agency in San Francisco. It was there that she witnessed professional graphic recorders at work. After observing them swiftly recording live talks on stage and deftly translating thoughts into the graphic visuals on paper, she felt confident about turning her passion for doodling into a viable business.

“I decided to polish up my doodling skills. Upon returning to Singapore, I continued working full-time at an interior design firm. But I also started a Facebook page, where I would put up scans of my work and a leave a Dropbox link for people to download the PDFs for free,” says Quah.

Taking up freelance gigs to draw visual content at conferences organised by TEDx in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore also helped to build her network, she adds.

After two years of working full-time, Quah started Sketch Post in Singapore in 2013. At that point, graphic recording was still a novel concept in Malaysia.

“I just had to scale what started as a hobby. Now, the business is registered in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The company has grown from a one-woman show to a team of five — three located in Malaysia and two in Singapore.

“I had my network and they already knew my graphic work, so it wasn’t a totally new thing. It was easy to get jobs from there. It was n’t a hard thing to explain — they understood that when they spoke, I drew.”

Quah also had the insight to register her business in the countries they operate in right from the start, simply because it saves her clients the headache of arranging cross-border payments. “The reason I continue to grow my business in other countries is because multinational corporations have businesses in these countries as well,” she says.

“For example, one of our clients is Accenture and it has offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. We work with all three of them. The first thing we get asked when clients approach us is whether we charge for travel or if they have to get approvals for cross-border transactions.”

Apart from onsite sketching jobs, the company also gets asked to work on digital infographics, which are done offline. Quah says she gets a lot of work done in Hong Kong and Singapore, simply because a lot of international events take place in these countries.

She has been able to generate a stable income as she maintains a lean operation. But personally, she is a big saver. This quality, she says, was inherited from her maternal grandmother, who was fondly known as Madam Lip.

Lip, who became a widow at a very young age, raised six children on income from running a small flower shop in Ipoh, Perak. Seeing the hardship she faced, a good Samaritan shared with her lessons on the stock market and taught her how to invest.

“My grandpa died when my mum was seven years old. My grandma was a florist and she was not highly educated.

“But she was a huge influence in terms of how to manage money, not only to my mum’s generation but to mine as well. Despite her circumstances, she was quite entrepreneurial — she ran a flower shop to support the family. Someone took pity on her situation and taught her how to buy shares in the 1960s. That person taught her how to check the performance of her stocks on the radio and television,” she says.

Her grandmother, who died three years ago, continued to keep track of her investments until the day she fell ill. “She died at the age of 92. On her deathbed, she was still checking on her investments. She was pretty good at it and it worked out for her. She invested actively in the 1960s because she amassed a good amount of money and bought houses and other properties. She gave generously to charities as well,” says Quah.

“That really helped her children. Whenever, my relatives on my mother’s side gathered for dinner, they discussed their investments. My grandma used to ask my mother for updates on her shares and what kind of interest the fixed deposits were giving.

“That was the culture passed on to my mother’s generation. But I wouldn’t say I adopted much of it.”

While Quah is familiar with the concepts of buying and selling shares, she does not actively commit to it. “My family says my grandmother did not work for a long time, but she was still making money until the end because she had shares. She even had blue chips such as Public Bank from 50 years ago. Those stocks are worth so much more now and they pay super high dividends,” says Quah.

Despite her investment gains, her grandmother maintained a frugal lifestyle, something Quah tries to emulate. “My grandmother had a lot of money saved up, but she lived a simple life, which was how my mother was raised. And they passed it on us,” she says.

“For us, being extravagant is to go out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Even now, although I have made enough money to spend on something I like or go on a holiday I have been dreaming about, I tend to be frugal with my expenses because I too grew up in a single-income household.

She attributes the success of her business over the last five years to these experiences. “I think I have managed to achieve all that I have because of the way I run the business. You always have a choice, whether to spend, keep or reinvest in the company,” she says.

“For now, I have chosen to reinvest most of the money in Sketch Post so that I can grow the business and maybe even employ more people. I am curious to see how far I can take my business and make it big enough for us to serve our clients better.”

Quah also puts her money in several asset classes. As equities are familiar terrain, she continues to invest in Malaysian and Singaporean stocks online. And she occasionally taps into the exchange-traded fund (ETF) market.

“So far, I made some money here and there from investing in high-quality stocks. But I do not buy enough for it to make a huge difference and I am invested for the long term,” says Quah.

She adds that she has invested in the Straits Times Index ETF, which has a portfolio of more than 500 stocks. “In Singapore, where the banks’ interest rates are about 0.5%, an index ETF could give you a return of 2% to 3% a year. Since the Singapore dollar is strong, it makes more sense to invest than to save all of your money.”

In Malaysia, Quah prefers to keep a large portion of her funds in fixed deposits and properties. “From the very beginning, I saved pretty much of everything I had. One of the goals I had after two years of working overseas, was to buy a house in Malaysia. I worked enough that I could afford a down payment, which was pretty good,” she says.

“But I am trying to invest more in fixed deposits and stocks when they have good value. Fixed deposit interest rates are about 4%, which barely covers inflation.”

As she maintains a frugal lifestyle, Quah is aiming for an investment portfolio that generates 3% in real returns. “That means I need about RM2 million to generate a real monthly income of RM5,000. To me, wealth is having a margin of safety and freedom. A high-income person who also has high expenditure is not wealthy,” she points out.