The Incredible Rise of Forrest Li, Modest Founder of Singapore’s Most Valuable Listed Company

2021-04-17     thesmartinvestor
The Incredible Rise of Forrest Li, Modest Founder of Singapore’s Most Valuable Listed Company

Forrest Li will long be adored by video gamers for bringing gaming to the masses in Asia.

What’s more, his rags-to-riches achievements have been nothing short of Singapore folklore proportions, not to mention what an extraordinary entrepreneur he has been.

But for a very long time, Forrest Li had been somewhat of a mysterious figure unless you’re a gaming enthusiast or in the investing and start-up community.

The media-shy innovator certainly appeared, at least in the early days of his entrepreneurship, contented to let his gaming platform, namely, Garena, do the talking.

Even when his shopping channel Shopee sprung onto the scene in 2015, not many people were aware that the brain behind Garena was also responsible for what would become one of Southeast Asia’s most successful e-commerce companies. It was ranked first in the Shopping category by average monthly active users.

He certainly didn’t appear to have the outspokenness of China’s Jack Ma, the media-savviness of Britain’s Richard Branson, the charisma of Malaysia’s Tony Fernandez or the boldness of Canada’s Elon Musk.

His modesty is surprising.

After all, his company Sea Limited (NYSE: SE) is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Not many Singapore-based entrepreneurs have successfully listed their company on the world’s largest stock exchange.

Shares in Sea Limited have jumped sevenfold in the last four years, lifting the valuation of the business to US$120 billion (S$160.8 billion), making it Singapore’s most valuable listed company.

The company’s former public relations head Tan Siwei summed it up when she revealed in a public talk in 2017: “Forrest Li is very soft-spoken and very reserved. He is typically very media-shy and does not like to be in the limelight.”

Humble beginnings with Asian values

When the young Mr Li – a China-born student – first arrived in Singapore 15 years ago, he was reportedly saddled with loans of S$100,000 and only made enough money to rent a room in Braddell.

He has certainly come a long way since, rising to become one of Singapore’s group of influential billionaires.

As a naturalised Singaporean, some say Mr Li has been able to follow in the footsteps of many successful China-born Singaporean immigrants of the past. These include the Ng, the Tang and the Kwek families. But with one big difference.

Unlike many of those early pioneers, though, Mr Li’s rise to billionaire status has come from leveraging asset-light technology and intellectual property rather than asset-heavy bricks and mortar.

Change of tack

But the tide may now be turning when there are signs that Sea and its founder recognise the need to build a large profile and brand identity externally.

These days, Mr Li is a regular face in the media, grabbing attention for his philanthropy, his forays into new ventures and for his business success.

Last year, Sea created headlines when it took over local football club Home United making him the new owner of the rebranded Lion City Sailors.

In January, he made more local sporting history when he splashed a whopping 1.8 million euros (S$2.89 million) to sign Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes – the most expensive football signing in Singapore ever.

In November, Mr Li was named Singapore Businessman of the Year at the 35th Singapore Business Awards.

In December, Sea was awarded a licence to operate a digital full bank in Singapore by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. In March, the group announced that it was setting up a venture fund to finance promising start-ups in the region.

On Mar 24, the 43-year-old was appointed to the National University of Singapore Board of Trustees, which came five days before Sea gave the university its biggest corporate gift ever – a S$50 million donation for research and education in its computing school.

Of course, not all of this media coverage is only because Mr Li seeks more publicity.

Venturing into digital banking and venture capital businesses, for instance, can be attributed to commercial interests as Sea attempts to grow its business even though some observers, like me, question if it will be more strategic for the group to instead focus on the profitability of its existing business lines.

Even sponsoring a football club and donating to the university could have positive spill over commercial effects: Building Sea’s brand identity with a wider customer base and in new markets as well as cultivating future talent for the company.

Yet, one can’t ignore that much of this has been fuelled by a desire for greater public profile.

No wonder then that soon after Ms Tan moved from her position in 2017, Sea created a new strategic communications director role which was intended to be more proactive, forward-looking and integrated. Certainly, different from the routine PR role that Ms Tan was in.

For this new role, the group hired PR business leader Martin Reidy, who came with a strong pedigree of heading communications agencies and enhancing the strategic presence of clients such as Uber (NYSE: UBER), Bytedance, Grab and JD.com (HKSE: 9618).

There was certainly an intent to increase the awareness and branding of Sea and expanding the profile of Forrest Li appears to be a part of that strategy.

The next venture

This strategy has come at the right time for Sea as building Mr Li’s public profile could prove beneficial with its upcoming digital banking business.

With a digital full bank licence, Sea Limited will be allowed to take deposits from, and provide banking services to, retail and non-retail customers. The other full digital bank licence was awarded to a joint bid by Singtel and Grab.

Compared to Singtel (SGX: Z74) and Grab, Sea Limited is less known even if many shoppers may be more familiar with its Shopee platform. The joint winners have the advantage of a trusted brand through Singapore’s largest telecom operator, Singtel, and a ubiquitous brand, Grab.

The latter has exploited the media savviness of its founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling. They have, through their media appearances among other factors, built a trusted logistics company that should translate into the company’s new venture, namely, banking.

Acquiring new customers in banking will entail winning customers’ trust as people need to feel comfortable that their money is safe with a reliable and credible name.

Forrest Li is already moving in the right direction.

All that he is doing to elevate his profile should in turn raise the profile of his latest venture into digital banking.

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Disclaimer: David Kuo does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.

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