Preserving their legacy

February 6, 2023

The Edge Publication

Having built their wealth from a coffee mix empire, the Teo family then formed Apricot
Capital to seize opportunities within the real estate, consumer products, education
and offshore marine spaces.

After many years of building Super Group from the ground up, founder David Teo
welcomed his children — Sharon, Elaine and Darren — to help him grow the company
famous for its coffee and tea mixes. The three children were responsible for sourcing
and procurement; branding, marketing and product development; and strategy and
business development.

“My father empowered us in the business — he set the stage for us to express
ourselves and perform,” Darren tells The Edge Singapore. For some, working with
family members may lead to conflict, but Darren says that the siblings had great
chemistry at Super, complementing one another and putting aside their egos to arrive
at a mutual agreement on any business decisions.

Founded in 1987, Super was listed on the Mainboard of the Singapore Exchange (SGX)
in 1994. It was one of the region’s early instant food and beverage players, having
established itself in key markets such as Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, China and the
Philippines. The company was also accredited with Pioneer status by the Economic
Development Board for spearheading the manufacturing of instant cereals in 1994,
soluble coffee powder in 1998 and non-dairy creamer in 2003.

In 2016, Super was a benchmark component of the FTSE ST Mid-cap index, FTSE ST
All-Share Index and the FTSE Consumer Goods Index. That was before the company
was privatised following a $1.45 billion buyout offer from Dutch beverage giant Jacobs
Douwe Egberts (JDE Peet’s) at $1.30 per share.

Having sold off the business, the Teo family spent some time deciding what to do with
the cash. Eventually, they set up Apricot Capital, seeking to invest in sectors and
entrepreneurs in which they see potential and value. “When we started the family
office in 2017, it was a very steep learning curve,” says Elaine. “All Darren and I knew
back then were how to sell lots of coffee,” she quips.

Despite this, the siblings were eager to learn. Equipped with their extensive business
background, their father’s wisdom and investment ethos, and knowledge imparted by
the people they knew, the duo established a diverse portfolio of different asset classes
and sectors.

The name Apricot came about serendipitously, Elaine recalls. When the family decided
to start the firm, she shortlisted a few names for her siblings. Together, they settled on
“Afflatus”, which means having the ability to aspire to and inspire others. When they
presented the name at a Sunday lunch, however, their father — primarily a Mandarin
speaker — pointed out that it was hard to pronounce.

“Suddenly, as we were eating, he said ‘Apricot Capital’ out of the blue. It was just a
spur-of-the-moment, but I thought it was perfect. Apricots are full of vitamins — a
small fruit that packs a punch. When I checked the dotcom domain, I was surprised to
find it was available. Most importantly, we think it is significant to have the patriarch
name the family office rather than us as the second generation,” says Elaine

Four verticals
Apricot focuses on four verticals. The first is real estate, with properties across
Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Cambodia via partnerships with players such as Lian
Beng Group, Park Hotel Group and Trinity House Investments. In Singapore, Apricot
has stakes in properties, including BreadTalk IHQ, Wilkie Edge and Riverfront at
Hougang.

Darren acknowledges that real estate is not exactly something the siblings get excited
about, treating the asset class as income-generating instruments. The allocations
serve the purpose of wealth preservation for the next generation of the family, given
that he has three children, while Sharon and Elaine have two each.
Meanwhile, the second vertical — consumer products — is where the Teos get more
hands-on, especially considering Super is a consumer-focused solid brand. The firm
invests in digitally-native brands with themes of millennial consumption, the future of
food and sustainability.

“To be honest, at Super, when we were running a much bigger ship at the time, it was
tough to manoeuvre changing consumption trends. Today, we can participate in those
changing trends by backing a lot of emerging and regenerative brands. Through these,
we are seeking to make returns and potentially provide solutions to the problems
within the consumer products industry, such as those related to climate change,” says
Darren.
One example is Cloversoft, a homegrown household essentials manufacturer which
received a “seven-figure sum” from Apricot last year. The company was previously

self-funded by its founders, former HSBC investment bankers Angela Sim and Lynn Yeo.
Apricot likes the company for its push for alternative materials. For instance, unlike
regular tissue rolls and wet wipes made from trees, Cloversoft’s products are made
from bamboo, which proliferates and can regenerate after being harvested, thus
reducing deforestation. Additionally, being a digitally-native brand, the company can
break away from the traditional barrier of advertising and distribution costs, says
Darren.

Apricot does not stop at investing in different companies, it also runs its own. Working
with their former colleagues at Super, the Teos also run Fundamental Foods and Listen
Up, both plant-based dairy alternative companies within the food vertical. Listen Up is
the company behind oat milk sachet brand Oatbedient.

The third vertical is education, explicitly leveraging digitalisation to remove the barrier
of quality enrichment to consumers. Darren says this is especially true as the Covid-19
pandemic has shown that remote learning is possible. “The purpose of investing in this
vertical is that Singapore is generally not a fair playing field — the more affluent a
family is, the better access they get from enrichment centres. Digitalisation can make
quality education more affordable and accessible, uplifting the general population,”
says Darren.
One such investment that Apricot is particularly proud of is Geniebook, Singapore’s
largest online learning platform for the English, Mathematics and Science syllabi. Its
founder, Neo Zhizhong, is Darren’s college friend whom he has known since he was 17.
“For some reason, I always knew he would be an educator, and he is. He tutored,
opened tuition centres, and in 2010 already believed that digitalisation can help kids
to learn faster and more efficiently,” adds Darren. Geniebook says it has achieved over
2,000% revenue growth and a user base of over 220,000 throughout the region since
the start of 2019.

Light at the end of the tunnel
Apricot’s fourth vertical — offshore marine — may be an anomaly when compared to
the rest. Yet, its investment in this sector, specifically Marco Polo Marine, indicates that
the family office does not just put their money in solely for maximising returns. Instead,
the investment was made to help Darren’s longtime friend Sean Lee, the CEO of the
previously financially troubled firm.

Lee spent years keeping Marco Polo afloat as oil prices plummeted from around
US$120 per barrel in 2015 to about US$40 per barrel in 2017, eventually triggering a
protracted downturn in the oil and gas industry.
Apricot was one of the nine investors that provided restructuring financing to Marco
Polo in 2017. The company injected $20 million into the company, emerging as the
largest shareholder with a 19.28% stake.
“The oil and gas sector was hot from 2010 to 2012. But a few years later, one big wave
wiped out a lot of players. At the time, we took a contrarian view that the sector would
be under-invested for a long period. If oil is still relevant as an energy source in time to
come, there will be an inflexion point where investors can make super returns. That
was the initial idea that we had,” says Darren.
But it has not been sunshine and rainbows. During the 2020 oil crisis, Marco Polo’s
shares tanked to as low as 1.2 cents per share. “I think that was when we thought to
ourselves — where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” says Darren.
Yet, Darren believes that the investment in Marco Polo goes beyond helping a friend
and reaping monetary returns. The way he sees it, there are positive multiplier effects
to the investment, such as providing the sector players with a boost of confidence;
helping Marco Polo’s staff members retain their jobs; and providing some comfort to
its retail investors.
Additionally, there is long-term market potential to capture. Darren reasons that
Marco Polo is transitioning towards offshore renewable energy, providing offshore
wind farm support services. He adds that this creates a positive multiplier effect in
terms of the transition towards green energy, which is an element of helping the future
generation live better.
Thus far, Marco Polo has made big strides in the area, supporting offshore wind farms
in Taiwan and Japan. Most recently, the company announced that it had made a
“milestone entry” into another primary offshore wind market in Asia by signing an
agreement with Namsung Shipping and HA Energy to pursue synergistic offshore wind
vessel operations in South Korea jointly.
The company has also gradually recovered from the 2020 oil crisis. For its 2HFY2022
ended Sept 30 last year, Marco Polo reported earnings of $10.5 million, up 19.3% y-o-y.
Revenue in the same period was up 133.9% to $58.5 million as the company booked
more chartering income.
For FY2022, Marco Polo reported earnings of $21.3 million, up 44.4%, while revenue
was up 86.7% y-o-y to $86.1 million. In its outlook, the company says it will continue to
improve its operational efficiency to enhance its competitiveness and accelerate its
expansion into the renewable energy sector. For the ship chartering business, Marco
Polo will continue to explore opportunities to support the booming offshore wind farm
market.
“Today, we feel like we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We think they have done
well as a company with a strong net cash position of $50.3 million. We are proud of
Sean because his team put their heart and soul into repaying the investors’ faith,” says
Darren.
So far, Marco Polo is the only listed company that Apricot has invested in. Will other
investments be made in the capacity of the family office? While both Darren and
Elaine did not rule out the possibility, they also point out that the firm considers itself
“patient capital”.

Having run a listed company before, the duo knew that many companies are
pressured into making short-term decisions to meet shareholders’ expectations. Due to
this, they decided to be patient with the companies they have invested in, giving them
a lot more time to navigate their entrepreneurial journey. This means that Apricot has
no targeted exit timelines, preferring the company to focus on building a solid
foundation and growing at a healthy pace, says Elaine.
Championing Singapore

While Apricot backs several private companies managed by founders they know
personally, Darren and Elaine describe this as a “coincidence”. They clarify that while it
helps to know the person behind the business before investing, Apricot does look at
other aspects before making an investment decision. This includes examining whether
a company’s business model is relevant to current and future macro trends.
Darren highlights that the firm is also passionate about supporting Singapore brands,
which explains that most investments are made in Singapore-created

or Singaporefounded companies.

This is to instill more confidence in Singapore founders, ensuring
they can scale beyond the city-state with the right resources and guidance.
“Super, the brand my father created, has travelled worldwide. When running Super, I
think only 10% of the sales came from Singapore. The rest came from overseas. How
can we help these companies build a Singapore-owned company that grows into a
globally-known brand?” they add.

But Singapore is not the only region Apricot is looking at. The firm does look at
opportunities in other markets and other sectors that the firm does not have a strong
representation of, which is done via venture capital and private equity funds.
Regarding alternative investments, such as fine wine, luxury watches and art pieces,
Darren and Elaine say they prefer to appreciate these assets as collectibles or
consumables instead of investable.

Meanwhile, for riskier assets such as cryptocurrencies, the duo acknowledges that
many family offices, especially those with active younger family members, are
increasing their exposure to the asset. However, the duo would want to continue
investing in assets with purposes and positive multiplier effects — as investing in
cryptocurrencies may not provide these and are highly speculative; the duo avoids
making investments in the digital asset space.

As Apricot reaches its five-year anniversary, Elaine says that she is grateful to have a
father that has nurtured the siblings’ entrepreneurial spirit. She highlights the feeling of
fulfilment they get from helping companies grow at a faster pace with their guidance.
“We are second-generation entrepreneurs, we like building things and seeing them
scale — it brings us a lot of excitement and aligns with our personal aspirations and
goals. I also think it is enriching to have our father on board with us at Apricot, taking
him out of his so-called retirement. He is still very progressive and understands trends
— when we tell him about the problems we face, he would give us very practical
solutions.

“Moving forward, we wish to continue investing in purposeful businesses and continue
the legacy that we are entrusted with,” Elaine concludes.

Money managers for the ultra-wealthy are eschewing traditional private equity funds
and betting directly on upstart companies. According to a new report by Dentons,
63% of family offices use direct investments, and an additional 22% are interested in
doing so. The law firm surveyed 188 family office respondents from 32 countries for the
report.

Direct investing has gained popularity as a way to reduce fees from traditional private
equity funds. That can mean taking a stake in a company directly or participating in
club deals with other family offices.
Edward Marshall, global head of Dentons’s family office and high net-worth sector,
said that such investment firms are especially drawn to opportunities in health care
and disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence. “Many family offices, when
making these types of investments, are going to be long-term thinkers,” he said in an
interview.

Family offices have boomed worldwide over the past two decades, partly because of
surging fortunes across tech, finance and real estate.
The vehicles, which manage the personal capital of the ultra-rich, are lightly regulated,
nimble and as public or private as the founder wants.
At family offices with direct investments, the average allocation is 37% of private
equity assets under management, according to the report. The average investment is
US$19 million ($25 million).

While direct investing can give family offices greater control and more hands-on
involvement in the company, it also “comes with its own set of issues,” Marshall said.
Those surveyed said they often faced difficulty obtaining high-quality deal flow, for
example, and typically require in-house or external expertise to evaluate companies
from highly specialised areas, like biotechnology. “The bottom line is that direct
investing is hard and very resource-intensive,” he said. — Bloomberg