CapitaLand’s Chief Financial Officer Olivier Lim reveals how a mid-life crisis changed his life
Issue: Nov 2009
Chief Financial Officer of CapitaLand Olivier Lim advises young graduates starting out on their careers to focus on building personal brand equity.
Mr Olivier Lim certainly raised eyebrows when he said he rejected the phrase so beloved of organisations here: “work-life balance”.
“Work-life balance is incorrect terminology because it implies that work and life are at two ends of the spectrum. Work is fundamental to the fabric of our lives. I think life balance is a more correct descriptor,” said Mr Lim, Group Chief Financial Officer of CapitaLand.
As clichéd as it sounds, Mr Lim is a firm advocate of enjoying work, and is his own example when he shared that he has been blessed with a job that combines his interest for real estate and financing.
“When people say that they have no work-life balance, what they really mean is that they’re stressed or their work is not aligned with their personal and family goals,” said the father of two. “You can be busy, but it’s okay as long as you are able to manage stress, you enjoy your work, and your family is aligned with the job you have. I know exactly why I’m doing my job, and my wife understands the demands of my work, and it makes a huge difference.”
“By nature, I’m an introvert, and I think one of the challenges for me in the early part of my career was trying to go beyond that natural restriction,” said Mr Lim, who attributed the change to many factors.
As he put it, these were: “Meeting my wife who is my soul mate and who is far more of an extrovert than I am. Career-wise, the interaction with people, even my first boss, who was very much of a go-getter, inspired me to push the boundaries and to not take ‘no’ for an answer. To persevere.”
Mr Lim said that the biggest change occurred after his self-confessed “mid-life crisis” which occurred after 10 years at Citibank.
“I was lucky, because I had an early mid-life crisis. I was 36 years old, wondering what I should be doing for the rest of my life. That’s when I left the bank to do a start-up. I only left for nine months when Citibank offered me my job back.”
Calling that period a turning point, Mr Lim said he took a different tack during his last three years at the bank. “I became a very different person. I started making full use of my experience,” he said, as he paused to mull over the thought.
“It had to do with trusting my instincts a lot more, being a lot more vocal, and having the confidence to communicate my views. I became a lot more comfortable with a variety of people and interactions. In short, my “10 year itch” taught me that it’s a bit less about what type of job one has, and more about how one goes about doing it. Positive attitude and making a difference are key.”
In 2003, Mr Lim left the bank to join CapitaLand, working his way rapidly to the top echelons of the property giant. Compared to his time at the bank when he was just chasing deals, this has been a far more satisfying and exhilarating experience as he is now part of a team that contributes to the actual building of the business.
The CFO’s advice to younger associates in CapitaLand: Focus first on building your personal equity, meaning to say your experience, knowledge, reputation and branding in the first ten years of your career. "You shouldn't just chase the money, you should chase the experience," said Mr Lim. "The wealth will take care of itself."
"Stretch beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone," said Mr Lim, who added that an overseas stint would also be good for these individuals in this day and age.”
One of the lessons that he has learnt from the recent financial meltdown is the need to be flexible. "The difficulty of this downturn is that this is a crisis of confidence. It's not something that you can predict and react to like a normal recession which unfolds more slowly," said Mr Lim.
The worst period, he recalled, was between September 2008 and March 2009, when there was panic in the markets and a very real concern of an economic depression following the near collapse of the financial system.
He said that CapitaLand was well prepared and nimble: at the start of 2008, the Group’s business units went into a cautious mode due to the uncertain outlook, and the Group began improving its financial flexibility by raising liquidity through convertible bonds and rights issues, always trying to stay one step ahead of the markets.
"We were also lucky that our three core markets, China, Singapore and Australia implemented very timely, sizeable and well conceived stimulus packages early this year. This also helped protect our downside," Mr Lim added. "The worst has passed."
For him, the satisfaction of navigating the crisis with the CapitaLand team far outstripped that of receiving the 2007 Chief Financial Officer of the Year Award presented by the Business Times. He said that the crisis was an experience to be shared with his future grandchildren. "The worst financial crisis since the Depression," he mused.
Making it real
On a lighter note, the well-read CFO, who studied civil engineering, shared his views on books, expressing an aversion to fiction. “I dislike novels,” said Mr Lim, who prefers biographies, management books and more recently those which cover behavioural finance.
When asked if he has any favourite quotes, he cited the economist John Maynard Keynes who said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” In a similar vein, he mentions George Soros, one of the world’s most famous investors and philanthropists.
Mr Lim said, “Soros’ starting premise as an investor is that he is fallible. He is able to make billion- dollar bets, and have strong convictions about it on one day, but he will not fool himself and be open-minded and reverse the position if the facts change the next day. He tries to avoid being blinded by his emotions and ‘confirmation bias’, one of the more insidious human weaknesses.”
For recreation he favours tennis, photography, and making home videos of his two children, aged 12 and 15. He said, “Video records are important, because when one sees them change gradually everyday, it is easy to forget how different they were when younger.”
Underscoring the importance of the family, Mr Lim counts his father as one of his role models. “The way my father approached learning and new knowledge about his work and his hobbies influenced me. Whenever he did something new, he would always be reading and trying to understand the topic thoroughly. Even today in retirement, he reads about golf techniques and studies French.”
“His diligence, sense of responsibility and hunger for knowledge have been important guiding principles for me,” said Mr Lim.
It seems following in his father’s footsteps has proved to be a winning strategy.