The Pivot Point
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Fulcrum, as the name suggests, means a pivot, without inhibitions,” Deepak Mishra, the founder of the aptly-named Fulcrum Ventures tells me as we sit down in his Bangkok-based office for an exclusive interview in the middle of his peripatetic itinerary. “Your business can rest on our platform, and through us, do whatever you want to do: for example, if you want to do manufacturing, we will facilitate that in terms of bringing the capital. Although we are predominantly a real estate development company with interests in hospitality, and a few other areas, we continue to support businesses from a variety of industries across the board.”
Born and raised in a self-described “regular, large, middle-class family in a small town in India, where my father was a government employee and my mum was a homemaker,” Deepak is candid about the expectations for his path in life from a young age; expectations that he eventually broke free of once he’d found the right mindset. “I grew up before the liberalisation of India, so everyone used to believe that private enterprises sucked you dry, and there were no employment benefits with them,” he revealed. “My father always wanted me to study hard and get a government job. Academically, I was good but I was not the best, but the expectation at the time was also that you had to score superlatively. My parents never questioned my intelligence or my abilities, but I didn’t like studying so much, and I didn’t want to sit behind a desk from 9 to 5 every day. Fighting that mindset was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced.”
And it is through this continuous improvement of his mindset, and with the right support and the right teams, Deepak reveals, that he is where he is today. After an undergraduate in the science stream, he took up a Master’s in finance in India. “I got the opportunity to work for Citibank in India, in the corporate banking side,” he tells me. But even then, he recalls with a laugh, his parents weren’t convinced with his corporate direction until he got his first company car. “Managing their expectations of me made me a good manager in the end,” he says ruefully.
“I moved up the curve swiftly in terms of my understanding and learning. It was good timing in India, and businesses were growing.” Soon after, he received – and took – an opportunity to move to Dubai to work for a European institution. Again, he reveals, “time and God were very kind, and I did well. That is when I got that exposure that was very multi-cultural in nature.”
And this, he reveals, was where his second biggest challenge revealed itself: leaving a secure, highly-lucrative, and senior role in a tax-free jurisdiction to taking the plunge and becoming an entrepreneur. “It was tough,” he reveals. “Going from doing what I understood and loved, which was financial services, and transitioning into a brick-and-mortar business, putting in my own capital, sitting with institutions to borrow on my balance sheet, which I used to do for other people – the entire mindset shift was a challenge. When I sat for my first loan, I remember thinking, ‘I used to write USD 150 million checks to institutions and now here I am, on my knees, for a USD 5 million loan!’ Your ego gets bruised.”
Nevertheless, after his perseverance and investing in the right people, Deepak now heads a business that has a presence around the world: from Switzerland to the UK, Dubai, India, Singapore, Thailand, and soon, Vietnam and Indonesia. “In fact, in the next month or so in Thailand alone, we will have close to 18 live housing projects,” he confides with no small amount of pride and excitement. “In the end, my biggest achievements have stemmed from my biggest challenges. They made me who I am.”
He talked to Masala further about how he built his various businesses from the ground up as an entrepreneur, what his corporate background has taught him in life and business, and how he’s continued to overcome challenges over the years with the right attitude and perspective.
Tell us a little more about how your decades of experience in the corporate financial services space shaped who you are today.
Although I had done some internships and even ran a business in my late teens, starting my career with Citibank after my Master’s was a very different environment. The training was totally different and very process-driven; it changed me as an individual in terms of how to approach everything. You were basically in a pressure cooker all the time, but the fact of the matter is, it trained me very well to understand the processes, abide by those processes, and learn to be an industry leader.
After 4-5 years there, I’d built distribution streams, reasonably-sized businesses for the institution, and even created noteworthy managers under me. With that skill set, I decided to look for something a little more exciting. The fact of the matter is, within financial services, while you are evaluating a company, meeting the key stakeholders of a business, there is a lot of grey matter enhancement that you can do when learning about each of those industries. When you meet mid-tier industry guys, who have walked the tightrope to get to where they are, there is a lot of learning involved that is outside of their balance sheets. You are able to extract through the quantitative and qualitative aspects of their business, and this gives you access. And obviously, that broadens the horizons.
Because I’d proved to myself and to the institution that I’d grown a lot, I got an opportunity to move to Dubai and work for a European institution, where I was able to work with many large families from Europe and elsewhere. It helped me network myself and present my ability and skill sets to a larger audience. While no one is perfect, what I offered was my commitment and hard work, and being on the ball 24/7. It helped me network well with future clients.
And how did those corporate experiences eventually push you to take, as you mentioned, one of the biggest risks of your life and start your own ventures?
I loved financial risk management and investment advisory because of the excitement inherent in it. The opportunity changes every six hours. You are agnostic – you look at the auto industry, FMCGs; you’re free to walk in any direction. It’s very exciting, and challenging to learn new things within various industries. At that time, 20 years back, not all information was at your fingertips, so you had to really go and dig, and that entire process helped you incubate a lot of ideas. You’re constantly thinking, at some point in time when I have the opportunity, the cash flow, the back-up, and the time, I’ll put these ideas into practice.
But I couldn’t have done it without that initial push to get me to the right mindset. My wife has been my biggest support. We’d met in India, and she also had a great, high-powered career in a large manufacturing set up, and she gave it up to move to Dubai with me. One day, I remember coming back from a business trip and telling my wife, “I’m tired of working for someone else, but I’m scared to start something on my own.” She said, “You’re good enough to find another job if it doesn’t work out. But this is the time to give it a shot.” And thus, it happened.
How did your first entrepreneurial venture start out?
This was in 2009, and I started with financial services again, because that was what I knew. I did a lot of activity in buying distressed debt, a lot of capital market business, IPO and pre-IPO transactions. This was my first company, Greenfield Advisory, which had a capital market license from the monetary authority of Singapore, but incubated in Dubai. That was the transition phase when I moved from Dubai to Singapore.
However, I’d always fancied entering into real estate, and I was inspired by everyone I saw entering new industries that weren’t in their field of expertise in Dubai. I didn’t have the wherewithal to enter manufacturing, so I bought some land back in India in 2010, and started building an apartment. I figured, in the worst-case scenario, I’ll fail. Nevertheless,
I believed in my ability to sell something and build the right team. We started the first apartment building in Lucknow, my home town, and that’s when I started my real
estate company, which now has numerous investments outside of India – in Thailand, and beyond.
I first came to Thailand looking for opportunities in 2011, and in 2012, I started investing in real estate here. I was building a PNL-driven business, where I’d invest in projects, and make a good return on equity. However, by 2012, I realised that not everything I touched was going to turn into gold. I needed to create value for myself, and everyone associated with me. That is when the idea of curating brands came from. In 2012, we began to have a separate brand in every country for the kind of business that we would like to be in. For instance, here in Thailand, we’ve invested in affordable housing; around THB 2 million town houses in the Bang Na area. We’re building 950 of those right now, 190 villas are already built and 100 already sold. It’s different in each country.
How did you decide what the unique opportunities are in each country?
When I wanted to get into housing, here in Thailand, we looked at the entire landscape.
In 2013-2014, the market was crowded with condominiums and prices were going through
the roof. A lot of foreigners were coming here and pumping money like there was no tomorrow. This was not the play for me; I was not so deep-pocketed. I wanted to run a low debt on the balance sheet, as I didn’t want to run high leverage to run the business. Looking at the entire product spectrum in the Thai real estate market, we decided to enter at the bottom of the pyramid: town houses, semi-detached and detached houses, which you call low-cost villas.
Firstly, I had to evaluate, how stable is the business? The answer is, very stable because a foreigner cannot buy this – so you’re playing with local supply and demand. I think we are the only foreign company that is in this space. While the COVID-19 pandemic delayed a lot of processes in Southeast Asia, everything has been reactivated in the last 6-9 months, which is very exciting. We’ve curated a brand called Panara here in Thailand, for homes THB 6.5 million and above; and another called Anona which is for houses from THB 1.5 million to THB 5 million. We currently have numerous projects in Bang Na, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Ekkamai, Sukhumvit Soi 11, Samui, and Phuket, and we are in the approval stage for two community malls in the Bang Na area, with a third one entering the approval stage soon.
Meanwhile, in India, we are continuing to focus on high-rise condominiums across cities. We’ve curated a brand called One Oak (one of a kind) for low-rise and high-rise condominiums in India, and the low-rise projects that are currently under discussion in Thailand will also be developed under One Oak.
We’re also developing a myriad of projects around the world: we’ve just greenlit a 117-key hotel in the UK, and Dubai has been an active churn, while in Singapore, we’ve bought a lot of real estate, commercial and residential, although we’re not developing them there. We’re currently focused on higher-growth markets: Thailand, India, soon Indonesia and Vietnam, and we’re hoping to explore Nepal soon.
What unites all these properties? What is your core vision?
I want to create a business which creates value for our stakeholders, which builds a reputation of not being the largest or top-tier player, but being a boutique, need-driven provider. I don’t want a cookie-cutter model; each one is very unique. Everyone loves a Ferrari, but a 70-year-old man with back problems will never be able to get up if he sits in one! One size doesn’t fit all. We do a lot of research – for example, in Thailand, it took us about two months of research to fill up around 500 questionnaires in one area, asking people what they need in a house, to customise our product accordingly. The end goal is to always deliver quality over quantity, and to treat people the same whether you’re buying a THB 2 million home or a THB 12 million home.
This is how we stand out, and our after-sales service is state of the art. Of course, there are
flawed processes, but you will be heard in this system, and if it gets to that stage, I will personally address any issues that escalate. In order do all of this, what is required is great
people, because we believe that although someone else might have a similar vision, the execution will be different and that all boils down to your people, and trust, discipline, and hard work.
You must have had your fair share of challenges and failures as a self-made man. Can you tell us a little about how you’ve overcome them, and what you attribute your current success to?
Developing a business is a complex job, and we’ve had our share of struggles and challenges. Identifying a problem which needs to be solved, idea generation, is only the beginning. An organisation is built on people – the right people to do the right jobs. For example, I can set up a factory in a Tier-2 town and start manufacturing phones, but for the phone to reach the consumer and for them to be satisfied and make sure the next phone they buy is also yours, it’s a long road.
During the course of building the business, we’ve lost opportunities, money, and good-quality resources, but we’ve been able to incubate brilliant ideas and curate good brands, and we’ve been able to cultivate good leadership. We’ve managed to pick ourselves up because of our fighting spirit. There’s a massive population in India, so it’s very competitive and very cutthroat. That competitive spirit has given us the ability to bounce back.
As I’ve said, mindset is paramount. I was entrepreneurial from the beginning, but I needed a push, which came from my wife. I have a high-risk appetite, and I have the ability to process a lot of information, and multi-task. I’m a workaholic; I can work 24/7 and I love it. I hate getting stuck in problems, but I love solving them. You’ll also need mentors along your journey. I still meet some of my mentors very often; we have a great relationship over 20 years.
An example of how I dealt with issues was during the pandemic. Business was shattered here in 2021, and the management team didn’t know what to do. I came to Bangkok – in
fact, I drove up after flying in for the Phuket sandbox – and my CEO and I used to park ourselves at the site from 7am until the night curfew at the time, and work like a foreman. I was literally in their shoes, walking in the concrete. This was to make sure that they knew that I would support them, and thus encourage them not to drop the ball.
And instead of shying away from situations, or going into debt, we are not afraid to use our own resources so we remain debt-free. Most of our businesses are debt free or have very low debt, and even during tough times, by the grace of God, we didn’t implement any pay cuts, and we didn’t default on any operational creditor or bank.
You’re a self-confessed workaholic who loves to work 24/7, but even so, how do you balance all your entrepreneurial ventures?
I’m out of Singapore almost 24 days, spending around 5-6 days with my family in a month! Because the business is still nascent, I’m currently spending a lot of time on the road, investing time into businesses and with management. I love it, but I know it’s a sacrifice for my family. But I think they appreciate what I do, and they’re very understanding.
I make sure, and my management teams also make sure, that I’m dovetailed into any and every problematic situation to get a bird’s eye view. At the end of the day, I think the beauty is that my India CEO is my senior from Citi, my Singapore CEO is my colleague from Dubai. They consider me to be the ultimate problem-solver for them, because they’ve seen me grow. We have that trust, and that bond.
Tell us about your biggest support and inspirations over the years.
My parents. My father worked 16-17 hours a day, to make sure that we had a roof over our heads, food on the table every day, and that he could pay our school fees. Both my father and mother were my biggest inspirations, and their support is unconditional.
My wife of course, has sacrificed so much over the years – we’re also a big family; I have four kids. While I have a bird’s eye view and provide what I can, she’s doing it all on her own – parent/teacher meetings, and so on. She’s my backbone. Whenever I’m slightly disoriented or lost, she’s the one who tells me, you can do it. Don’t give up. She realises and understands that I’m in love with my work.
What new horizons do you hope to explore in the future, both personally and professionally?
Personally, I would like to spend more time with the family. My older girls have a laundry list of places they want to visit in the next three years before the older one goes to uni, so I want to do at least three holidays with them this year.
On the professional front, I want to be able to retain good talent, continue to have the same ethos that we’ve created so far, and try to open Indonesia and Vietnam before the end of the year. We are looking at some very specialised real-estate development, like software parks, in these countries, and I’ve incubated a few F&B brands in India as well that we’re bringing here. We have plans to get into multi-brand retail, but it’s still in the finalisation stage.
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Never be scared; take the plunge. You don’t have to be Sir Einstein to achieve anything, what’s critical is discipline, hard work and commitment. A lot of people who are not that talented are able to cover the ground with their hard work, and I have done that. Focus on your health – a healthy body and a healthy mind will help you think the way you should as an entrepreneur. And if you fail, it’s ok. I’ve done that too. Pick yourself up, but never give up.