[This is my full interview with Lall Singh, first published in the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship’s Kaizen newsletter.]
Lall Singh is CEO of Capital Instruments based in London, England. Capital Instruments is an investment consulting firm that provides finance, management, and marketing expertise in several European companies as well as projects in Canada and Dubai.
Education and early career
Singh: I was born in England in a little town called Solihull back in 1969. That makes me 47 this year.
Kaizen: Where is Solihull?
Singh: It’s near Birmingham, which is the second largest city after London. It’s between there and Manchester — there is always a competition Birmingham and Manchester about which is the second largest city. But both are growing cities. Solihull is just on the outskirts of Birmingham, which is located in the west midlands. We aren’t too far from Meriden, which marks the center of England.
Kaizen: Your parents came from India?
Singh: That’s right. They emigrated back in 1960 from Punjab, which is north India, from a little town called Jalandhar.
Kaizen: What brought them here?
Singh: Partly it was the farming communities and partly the attraction of increased income, the ability to work and make a living. And with the prospect of returning to India after retiring, which was the case. My parents did indeed decide to retire early and head back to India. You know, you always heard the old record that once you come here, you’re stuck here. This isn’t the case, of course. There’s nothing stopping them from going back. We suggested that they take an early retirement and go back to India. The funny thing is that they stayed there for about nine months and decided that “home” is where the heart is. They decided that they would spend most of their time here in England and perhaps two or three months a year in India.
Kaizen: What was your schooling like?
Singh: My schooling was predominantly here in England — in and around Birmingham, the major city. You start with nursery here, equivalent to your kindergarten; then junior school, and then secondary education.
Kaizen: By the time you were into secondary education,, did you have some career ideas? Or were your parents nudging you in a direction?
Singh: At that stage, I would say about the age of 11, I wasn’t probably thinking about any career or definite decisions about them. But business in general or some money-making aspect were attracting me. We came from a very poor family here in England — general working class. And, obviously, with my parents being immigrants and starting off on the first rung of the ladder, so to speak. My father worked as a dress welder, as it’s called, for one of the aerospace companies here in England. It was really economizing and watching the pennies. So in those days, I suppose, I was attracted more toward business as a means of making good money and living a lifestyle most people cherish.
Kaizen: Were particular types of businesses attractive?
Singh: Originally I was interested in economics. It was essentially looking at current affairs and looking at the micro and macro perspectives.
Kaizen: This would have been when you were a little older?
Singh: A little older, from age 12 and into my teenage years — when you are really trying to decide what it is you really want to do. I suppose the people around me were more interested in the sciences. I was a bit different. I remember that of most of the options that you have when you are about 14, the ones I leaned toward were more of the mathematical type, probably at that stage heading more toward a career in accounting.
Kaizen: You were good at math from a young age?
Singh: That’s right. Yes.
Kaizen: You went to King Edward VI grammar school in Birmingham. What kind of school was that?
Singh: It’s referred to as a select education. So it is endowed with quite generous funds. However, they tend to restrict the number of entrants, and they have an entrance test. In those days, it attracted about 2,000 people, but they could only offer 200 places. So if you were in the top 200, you would get in.
Kaizen: Did you get a good, basic education?
Singh: I was very privileged to have made the place. It was rated something like fourth-top in the U.K. It is still, I believe, one of the top schools in the country.
Kaizen: You went through A-levels, which the equivalent of high school in the U.S.?
Singh: It’s actually the continuation of secondary education, which is referred to here as sixth form college.
Kaizen: College prep years.
Singh: That’s right.
Kaizen: Then you went to Birmingham University. How old were you when you started university?
Singh: About 18.
Kaizen: You mentioned an interest in business and economics in your teens. Did you go in with a firm major in mind?
Singh: I had done economics and accounting at A-level, so at that stage I opted for a broad major in accounting and finance. With the view to perhaps combining with economics at a later stage. But my major was essentially in finance.
Kaizen: Accounting and finance?
Kaizen: What was the attraction of accounting?
Singh: At that stage, it was one way to get into looking at businesses from an accounting perspective. It gives you an appreciation for how businesses function. My attraction was more toward management accounting as opposed to accounting in practice. The difference being that accountants in practice tend to compile numbers in order to fulfill statutory obligations of compliance; whereas management accounting has more to do with management decisions, where you are looking at investments, ways to reduce costs, and it is essentially looking at a business and how better it can function in terms of productivity, operations, how it can utilize its own funds better.
Kaizen: So using the accounting as a set of tools for management decisions?
Singh: Accounting as a feedback tool as well as looking at what options are available given to you given the financial restrictions.
Kaizen: The other side was finance. What was the attraction of finance as a major?
Singh: I was interested in capital markets, looking at ways of leveraging different types of gearing ratios, and how businesses can function and grow through the use of finance.
Kaizen: Is “gearing ratio” a technical term?
Singh: It’s the debt-to-equity ratio. You look at your own capital you are putting into the business, or shareholders are putting in, in proportion to what sort of debts the businesses are taking on. And over the years, you find different gearing ratios tend to be better given high interest rates — you want to have high debt with low equity; given low economic times, such as now, you tend to have a high gearing ratio, which is easily at one or two percent.
Kaizen: At university, did you take courses in the science, arts, or humanities? Or was it a more narrow education?
Singh: When you are in England, up until the age of about 14, you take a very broad range of subjects, which tend to cover what is called O-levels, which is the precursor to A-levels. Across those, in fact, I took a lot of the sciences: chemistry, physics, math, English, of course, and geography. After that, with the A-levels you can start specializing. So at A-level I went for more of a math, accounting, economics route. But we also do a general studies course as well at that stage. So that was my combination. I suppose it gave me the platform to look towards specializing further in accounting and finance. At that stage, I chose accounting and finance, but later on I decided to undertake an MBA where I got more interested on the marketing side. And that’s once you actually work for companies, you get an appreciation for it.
Kaizen: What was your first job after graduating from Birmingham?
Singh: My first job was actually for a publishing company. In fact, before then, I did work for an accountancy practice, Coopers and Lybrand, which is now part of PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers). I had shied away from that, knowing that practice accounting would meant laborious three-year contract, looking at mainly statute reporting. Instead, I looked to publishing as a training accountant, and I specialized in management accounting as opposed to practice accounting.
Kaizen: Then you decided to go for an MBA?
Singh: That’s correct. I worked for a few years and then I opted to go for an MBA at Aston Business School. Given that I had already experienced accounting and finance, I decided — I was self-funding at this stage — I was going to make the most of the whole course and decided to specialize in marketing, which was something I didn’t have that much exposure to. I became particularly interested in market segmentation.
Kaizen: What was interesting about marketing to you?
Singh: I have always felt that accountants are shielded from looking at ways to moving business forward in terms of how to innovate and how to generate more business. Yet they’re more in-tune with costs and how to reduce costs. And I think accountants sometimes get blinkered, but combine it with a marketing approach, where you know it is essential for a company to breathe and grow by looking at different markets, how to nurture them, how to grow them, how to invest money in order to get returns on your capital. I think that’s a skill where you find that any company with corporate governors you have a board, you find that the accountants and the marketers are always at loggerheads given that accountants want to reduce costs and keep everything contained and marketers want to spend more and have a marketing campaign in order to generate business. I think what that gave me was a unique insight into both areas where you could actually have a cross between knowing the accounting function as well as the marketing function.
Kaizen: At this point, still in your twenties, were you thinking that you would be working independently or within existing firms?
Singh: I couldn’t imagine myself, at least at that stage, working independently. I was really trying to build a career and to align myself with better qualifications so I could offer that little bit more in general management for some of the larger corporations.
After my MBA, I ended up working for a conglomerate, which was looking to create companies from the old East European block where, for instance, in Romania they were privatizing a lot of the state-owned assets. Some of them were quite large: pharmaceutical companies, aviation companies, engineering companies, etc. We looked to acquire these companies and put Western-style management in there. For instance, we looked to bring a pharmaceuticals company we bought up to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) status. That allowed us to subcontract to some of the majors like SmithKline Beecham, producing some drugs in a very cost-effective way.
Kaizen: What years were you working in Romania?
Singh: That was from about 1998 onward. I worked for a company called Litchfield Continental. Eventually it was reversed into a shell company on NASDAQ, and we floated the whole structure. That gave us access to capital markets and a shareholder structure with institutional investors, which allowed us to expand and continue to the next stage.
Singh: I originally was the head of finance, but then it became more of a strategic role as the Chief Financial Officer. I oversaw all of the subsidiaries and I was responsible for raising the financing in order to continue to acquire other companies. Also, we were restructuring a lot of those companies in terms of making them more efficient and making sure that we could produce goods, such as aircraft, at a price that was quite competitive.
Kaizen: That requires a number of skills, including finance and management. How did you acquire the management skills?
Singh: With Energy Publishing, once I qualified, I moved as an accountant to general management. That’s when I felt that I needed to sort of prop up my skills with an MBA to get more broad experience in operations. It was after the exposure to a lot of the conglomerates and looking at turning around some of those companies that I actually learned some general management. In fact, I also studied a qualification we have here in England, which is an economic chartered director, which is mainly corporate governance. It was quite a new qualification in those days, but now it is quite popular here in the U.K. as a means of showing that you have the corporate governance skills that is required to govern from a private to a public company. I was one of the first handful of chartered directors in the U.K.
Kaizen: What is a chartered director?
Singh: It’s a qualification. Anyone can start their own company as director of the company; but to standardize the qualification, they put together the program. We have a well-established institution here in the U.K. called the Institute of Directors. They decided to produce a qualification very much like being a chartered accountant or chartered engineer. To be chartered means you have your own set of by-laws.
Kaizen: This would be like a managing director’s position — acquiring the skills and knowledge to do that?
Singh: Yes. It gives you the whole breadth of skills. There is also a panel interview where they assess whether you have the skills.
Kaizen: How does that compare to being a company president in the United States? Or a CEO?
Singh: A company president or CEO would give you the basic skills in corporate governance required for people management, managing a board, finance, operations, and marketing. This would bring them together in coordinating activities.
Kaizen: To go back to the Romanian operation — in addition to the management and finance skills, there were also cultural issues.
Singh: Yes. Also language barriers.
Kaizen: Also political issues: dealing with people who have been trained under a communist regime and trying to change their culture to be more market-friendly. How did you handle that?
Singh: In fact, we had nuclear scientists who were working on the shop floor because hard currency was hard to get in those days in Romania. We had a surplus of skilled labor. To manage that, we had our own operations people. Most were from London and some of our own people in Bucharest. We had translators to assist with the cultural differences.
In terms of dealing with the politicians, at that stage, Romania wanted to become part of the EU, so it was obligated to privatize a number of their industries. In fact, that is one time where the state was actually trying to help us. [Laughs] They helped us with introducing Western-style management and practices, making the companies competitive, and embracing Europe as an open-market. It was really introducing a capitalistic extension into Romania, which helped the economic circumstances by employing a lot of people.
One of the engineering companies we took over had something like 4,000 employees. It was almost a town in itself with its own little railway station. They made clutch parts for Mercedes-Benz and, obviously, Mercedes-Benz controlled the quality. They rubber-stamped them as Mercedes parts, but they were actually manufactured in Romania. So we were quite impressed with the quality they were bringing out.
It was essentially turning that from a communist regime to where they have the normal more profit-oriented objectives: generating profits, keeping business goals in sight, having a vision of the company in terms of quality, where they position themselves in the market, and looking at values that they deliver and how they are going to deliver that. The people are a huge aspect, and for them it was quite a privilege working for a Western company — and one of the forefront companies, especially in the pharmaceutical buyer’s market. It was one of the more prestigious pharmaceuticals that had been long-established. We also bought Romero, which is part of the aerospace company and that was part of Bucharest Airport at that time. That brought in a lot of joint-ventures. For instance, we had an Israeli company that was interested in importing MiGs from the Russians, putting in an electronic platform, and then selling them off to the Romanian Air Force.
Kaizen: Did you say Russian MiG airplanes?
Singh: Yes. Obviously, putting in a lot more technology. And they sort of bought in to Bucharest Airport and some of the hangars there in order to process the orders.
Kaizen: So the British conglomerate that you are working for is running a number of operations in Romania: pharmaceuticals, some biological enterprises, Mercedes parts, and so forth.
Singh: That’s correct. It was also a U.K. operation that was mainly insurance-oriented. Lloyd’s of London, a subsidiary we bought called McCall’s, and also biotechnology, which was more in Manchester and included looking at different ways to use innovative biotechnology.
Kaizen: And the overall company was Litchfield?
Singh: It was originally Litchfield that bought the assets; but once it was floated, we used a NASDAQ shell, which essentially is a company that was called — in those days — Global. You can buy a shell on NASDAQ where you can actually clean up and then you can get that to take over your company, which was Litchfield. And what Litchfield would do in exchange is to have a convertible debentures over the stock of the company and eventually it buys out. The debenture is converted into stock. So we had a controlling stake in the shell company, which is a little easier to list on NASDAQ than having to go to the traditional IPO structure, which means you have extensive up-front costs in terms of producing the prospectives and complying with all of that.
Kaizen: How many years were you with this organization?
Singh: A good four years.
Kaizen: In the late 1990s?
Singh: That’s correct. Into 2000.
Kaizen: At some point you left there. Is that because the Romanian operations were finished? Did other opportunities come along?
Singh: There were a lot of opportunities that I was faced with, and a lot of them were smaller projects that got me really interested. Many of my colleagues left to look at financing different projects, and I saw their success mushroom. I thought that I should try a hand at it. So I left that company to move on to Capital Instruments.
Kaizen: In 2001?
Singh: That’s correct.
Kaizen: Is this an entrepreneurial firm?
Singh: Yes. We specialized in raising funds for small-to-medium size companies looking to grow. We have a number of investors that we have who are looking for investing into small-to-medium size enterprises with the prospect of growth. We essentially marry the two.
Kaizen: Who is the “we” early on?
Singh: A network of financiers I work with. They all have their specific expertises. If there is a project, for instance, a biofuel plant or a harbor project or an aviation project, we can assemble a team and relative expertise and look to champion either raising finance or find certain investments.
For example, one of my earlier projects when I started off as a financier was to look at insurance assessors. This was a small-size English company, which had insurance assessors up and down the country who would go out and value your vehicle after you’ve had an accident. This was very early on when we had in England the third party loss-recovery market beginning to take hold. What we did was develop that company and combine it with in-house assessors that the insurance company was wanting to off-load to reduce their costs. So we created a national, insurance assessing business, which in itself was quite innovative in those days.
We could quite easily use IT and technology. Our team had a certain number of people who were more IT-literate. The way we grew the company was the insurance assessors had in those days what would probably be equivalent to an iPad. A gadget with its own cradle in his car. They would do off their report when they would see a vehicle. It was similar to the internet in that the cradle sent a signal through the phone back to the mainframe; it would turn around the reports quite quickly. We combined that for what we called the litigation departments and with the insurance companies as well; so we could actually cover both markets. Before it was bought out, it became a key player in the British insurance market.
Kaizen: At Capital Instruments, you came in as CEO in 2001 and put together financing for small-to-medium size companies. Your value-added is your network of people who have the financing available and how to structure finance for these organizations. In some cases, you implemented the management practices — putting together a team of people to make the company better-financed and better-operated.
Singh: That’s correct.
Kaizen: So it’s actually a combination of financial and management consulting.
Singh: Yes. And the marketing aspect as well because in order to attract investment, investors are really looking to companies that are in the growth phase; they are looking to grow. So it is essentially marrying the two. You have a very good project; you have management in place; you’re overseeing their investment; they are looking to grow their investment. So it was quite a mutually-beneficial relationship that we were brokering.
Kaizen: How would the compensation work? Would it be a percentage of the overall financing deal? Or are you taking investment positions yourself?
Singh: Sometimes a combination. Sometimes we could negotiate a private placement ourselves and sometimes we would get paid in equity as well as cash compensation. And sometimes it was a case that we would see two or three companies in the same field and see ways that we could create synergy by combining the companies. So we would look to approach venture capitalists and banking relationships ourselves to put together a financing package to buy two or three companies. Then we would be the nominees to the board to oversee the company. Once it was where we wanted it, we would spin it off for sale or continue having some sort of a stake in it.
Kaizen: A small-to-medium size company — can you put some numbers to that?
Singh: Anything from a £2 million turnover to £10-15 million.
Those were the initial-sized companies; later on the numbers got a lot bigger. We had hotel developments, such as the Brussels Sheraton. That was getting the investors to finance a purpose-built structure for the likes of Sheraton or the CORE Group, which do InterContinental Hotels, and then lease it back.
Kaizen: How do deals come along? You did insurance-adjusting in Britain and then a hotel in Belgium. How do you find projects as diverse as that?
Singh: Essentially, we built up good relationships with lawyers, bankers, venture capitalists, and private equity. And there were a lot of opportunities — like one of the key developments in Brussels in the Prince Royal area, which was essentially a strategic plot of land; it was a sale on a bankruptcy where we identified the site. It was in the right location where we thought this could actually be built. It was a case of us putting together the deal. This came to us by way of one of the bankers looking to refinance the site because they were struggling. We took the problem away from the bank and made it profitable ourselves.
Kaizen: So through the grapevine?
Singh: Yes. Through the bankers who made the referral to us. In early 2000 a lot of companies had over-expanded and the banks were looking to foreclose; so it gave us opportunities to go in with our management and successful track record. That was quite unusual because while the banks were willing to foreclose on existing proprietors, they were willing to lend to you to make that a success operation. It was really quite interesting in that a lot of deals could be picked up like that.
Kaizen: So the banks are making a judgment about your management and business skills. They don’t think that the existing people can pull it off. Fresh ideas and so on.
Singh: That’s right.
Kaizen: So even though you have no hotel experience per se, it’s the general business experience that is important.
Singh: Yes. Absolutely. Also, certain expertise can be brought in. Like in this case with the hotel experience.
Kaizen: That can be a commodity that you bring in.
Singh: There was a colleague I worked for who was part of a property development company that had already done small-size hotels, so he had the mechanics already in place as an expertise. Once we brought him onto the property, he was looking to create a purpose-built hotel, but the problem was financing. In fact, we got Kuwaiti funds. They were willing to finance the structure of the hotels, then this leads obviously to an operator, in which case he would share in some of that.
Since then we’ve acquired, as well, hotels back in Nottingham, leased to CORE Group, which again has very successful operations. We have other recent developments that are revolving structures — 55-story skyscrapers in Dubai. We also have an Indian company interested in doing something similar in India; that is an exciting type of project.
Kaizen: So the first decade of this century, what other projects were you involved in?
Singh: Some of the larger ones included a biofuels plant in Canada that was producing ethanol from biomass, which is very innovative.
Kaizen: In northern Ontario?
Singh: That’s correct.
Kaizen: How did that one come across your horizon from all the way across the Atlantic?
Singh: We built a lot of relationships in New York, having had a listed company on the NASDAQ exchange. We knew a lot of the banks and consultants there. I also had to be familiar with the federal security laws and the SEC practices. So we came across the project in Canada by way of a referral. At that stage, you in the U.S. had started feeling the pinch in 2006 and 2007. Capital was drying up. So they were looking towards European banks and they saw me as someone they already had a relationship with who had an established relationship with European banks. They signed me on a retainer to say that if I was able to finance this project in Europe, then they would be willing to compensate us. However, we actually felt that the engineering company that had actually designed it wasn’t actually capable of seeing the plans come to fruition.
Kaizen: So Americans were financing this project in Ontario, but American funds were drying up in the lead-up to the financial crisis. So they came to you in Europe.
You mentioned the engineering expertise. You need to get other consultants who have the engineering expertise because you don’t know biofuels personally, right? Although, you can read up on it.
Singh: Absolutely. I was quite fortunate that one of my colleagues had a Ph.D. She was an expert in sustainability. She went on tour for one of the major fuel companies. They were very interested in the project. I have another colleague of mine from a capital fund, who were interested in the project itself given that it was a sustainable project.
We had U.S. and European banks because they saw this as a way of legislation, because at one stage 10 percent of ethanol formed a part of the fuel pumps — most Americans don’t know that, but they actually pump 10 percent ethanol and they were looking to increase that to 20 percent. So they knew that there was a huge market for it. Corn prices — ethanol being from corn — were going through the roof in the Corn Belt. So that was very unpopular. But here we had innovation and technology, and we had Foster Wheeler at the forefront of developing commercial processes in order to convert biomass into ethanol, which is a tricky process.
Kaizen: What do you mean by “biomass”? Tree bark and whatever is left over from lumbering operations?
Singh: That’s right. Whatever is left from lumbering operations or from natural waste in the forest that needs to be cleaned up. Also some woodchip derivative parts. In Canada there are huge sites accumulated over years and years. We inspected one site that was something like 100 hectares. They were seen as dump sites and they didn’t understand why we were interested in them. [Laughs]:
Kaizen: Free raw materials.
Singh: Yes. Free raw materials. That’s one of the reasons the pension funds were interested: we were getting our raw materials free and producing a product.
Kaizen: Were these U.S. or British pension funds?
Singh: Canadian. And we had one of the Netherlands banks.
Kaizen: What dollar value is this operation?
Singh: That was about :$:320 million (USD).
Kaizen: Much larger. What years were you working on this one?
Kaizen: Was it an R&D project primarily, or was the R&D done and it was more an engineering issue to make it happen?
Singh: The R&D was completed. However, upscaling to mass production was a problem that needed specific expertise. That came from a British company, in fact, Foster Wheeler. Wheeler is known more in the petroleum industry for resolving problems using mass furnaces.
Kaizen: When did this project come to completion?
Singh: It’s still partly financed because we had a project that was taken over by a drawback of Scotland. Things pretty much came to a halt at that stage. Now with financing again becoming more available, we are hoping to move again.
Kaizen: You are working on a project in Ireland involving a port?
Singh: Yes. That’s correct.
Kaizen: How did you hear about this one?
Singh: This came from one of my clients who looked to finance this development and thought that it was far too large for them in Ireland — he’s based in Dublin himself. He asked whether this would interest me; it was a marine project at that stage. While I was in London, I floated the idea to the banks, one of the banks being the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. It was quite fascinating because it qualified in the European Union grants for an infrastructure project since we were developing a port. But the scale of it didn’t actually allow it to qualify for some of the larger grants; I was told at that stage that it was probably easier to procure larger numbers from European investment as opposed to going for something smaller.
Kaizen: Is this Euros? Sterling?
Singh: Sterling. So instead of trying to finance something for about :£:25 million, they were asking us to look to upscale the project.
Kaizen: So they can loan you more money. [Laughs]:
Singh: That’s right. And here in Europe it qualifies as a sort of private-public partnership, where private money is being matched by public grants and loan financing. This was essentially driven by EU legislation: mandated fishing vessels — mainly Spanish fishing vessels — shipping in the Irish waters have to dock for a certain number of hours after each fishing trip, which meant that they would have to travel all the way back to Spain; but here they could put a facility that was localized. On top of that, we had a wind farm and rigs off-shore, near the facility, without having to go to Dublin or Cork. This would justify having a base there. Also, on the West Coast there is a lot of tourism, which attracts cruise liners and so on. So it mushroomed into a much larger project.
Kaizen: The projects you’ve worked on are quite geographically diverse: Romania, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, and even Canada.
Singh: [Laughs] There are a few developments in France as well.
Kaizen: Fair enough. [Laughs] There doesn’t seem to be a pattern there. It seems it is more of the matter of when and where a deal comes up.
Singh: That’s right.
Kaizen: The projects are also in all sorts of different areas: insurance, hotels, biomass, and so on. Of all of the deals that are possible, what makes one attractive to you? It doesn’t seem to be geography or industry specific. What are the features that interest you?
Singh: I’m quite privileged to receive more projects than I could possibly allocate my time to. The projects that attract my interest … it really is about the people I’m working with. I have a great admiration for our management; it’s really the people who make the projects happen. I tend to pick and choose projects with people I can really work with and see their passion. Also, I even find that even though it’s across different industries, the mechanics of making a project work are quite fundamental. The mechanics distill down to good marketing, good numbers, an eye on the numbers, good productivity, a business plan that is realistic, and so on.
Kaizen: That is more abstract than the particular product or place.
Singh: Yes. I’ve developed those fundamentals having come from a management background, combined with marketing and corporate governance. It’s about how to oversee a project and how to take that “pilot” or strategic view. You can make it happen from start to finish and you have the people and elements in place.
Kaizen: The first thing you mentioned was the people that you get to work with. You deal with a wide range of people in many different countries. It’s not always the same financiers from private equity and venture capitalists. Is it people that you know and you’ve worked with before?
Singh: Actually, you look at the merits of the project and you know your own resources of people. Also, with some projects you look at the existing management already in place. What’s their passion? Where are things going wrong? Where do they lack the skills to do it themselves? And where can we make it a mutually-beneficial relationship? So I’m very interested in who actually spearheads the project itself.
For instance, we were quite fortunate in the Ireland project. We have someone who has 25 years of experience in the industry. He’s built up a family business, which has gone pretty much as far as it can go, because you can’t break the threshold of a family business into a more corporate structure, which takes structured financing and attracting the likes of what we would call “merging capital.” It would be highly capital-intensive and then dealing with a lot of the blue chips to get relationships to make a support development work. It’s beyond their agreement. But you have the people on the ground at the local level who are there and willing to see it through with you at the end of the day.
Kaizen: How much of this can you do from your home office? How much of it requires you to travel — boots on the ground?
Singh: In the early days, I used to travel a lot. But now I try to manage remotely, being a family man. [Laughs] But it is difficult; I’m still traveling.
Kaizen: Do you have more junior people whom you can farm the travel out to in order to do the leg work?
Singh: Yes, we do. We have a lot of junior people who’ve come through the ranks who have worked with us on several projects. Also, technologies such as Skype and so on make it so much easier.
Kaizen: The company is still Capital Instruments?
Singh: It certainly is, yes.
Kaizen: How many people work at Capital Instruments?
Singh: About 25 people.
Kaizen: You’re CEO of the organization?
Kaizen: With 25 people, how many projects in an average year?
Singh: We take on a variety of projects. Some years it may be like 12 projects, which might be fairly small. And some years we may take as little as two or three projects in a year because they take a lot of time and are a lot more involved. It really depends. Some of the companies may be in high-growth fields, like biotechnology, which doesn’t really need too much key-input, but they do want the ability to raise financing. We’re pretty much putting together their business plan and pitching for them to banks and helping them in an almost hand-holding approach that isn’t so resource intensive. Whereas if you are developing a completely new project, like with the port development, for instance, we have to sort of scrap the original plan to look at something far bigger that involves some key players that we have to resource or to incentivize to work with us in order to bring to fruition.
Kaizen: So the 25 people who are part of your staff, how many of those people would be finance? How many would be marketing? How many would be management? Or does that breakdown even make sense?
Singh: Most of us are all-rounders. Either we have a financial background or a marketing background, and sometimes an operations background. We come from a particular industry where we’ve managed either to grow a company or projects within a larger company where we’ve had hands-on experience. We’ve been through the “mill,” as we say, having experienced capital-rationing problems, problems with not having enough resources — human resources and so on. So most of the people are quite experienced.
Kaizen: You mostly hire people who’ve been through the fire.
Kaizen: Do you recruit out of universities for junior people?
Singh: We do recruit from universities. A lot of the younger chaps are post-graduates. Some of the research, especially the desk-based research, we do resort to Ph.D.-level students who we can contract.
Kaizen: Speaking of a Ph.D., you spent some time at Warwick Business School pursuing a Ph.D. while you were also doing your full-time career. What was your motivation for pursuing the Ph.D.?
Singh: I had a professor who was very interested in my MBA dissertation who convinced me that I should develop it more and make a dissertation that would be worthy of a Ph.D.
Kaizen: What was your thesis?
Singh: I was looking at specific market segmentation in the leisure industry. In order to motivate myself, the subject had to be marketing, some aspect of segmentation, and it would also have to involve an area that I really haven’t looked at, but interested me. It ended up being the leisure segment. I went through the academic side of it, but I was still very much working and I was pulled away by certain projects. Unfortunately, that has been shelved for the time being. I would love to go back to that.
Later Career and Advice:
Singh: Yes. That’s right.
Kaizen: You are in a good situation now. You are in your middle 40s; you have a prosperous company; you have more deals in front of you than you can handle, so you can be choosy. What do you see yourself working on for the next few years?
Singh: I think the mix of projects at the moment with the port development, the new, revolving skyscraper …:
Kaizen: Yes, we do need to come back to the revolving skyscraper. [Laughs]:
Singh: [Laughs] That’s kind of interesting, yes.
Kaizen: So the port project in Ireland, a revolving skyscraper in Dubai, and a project in India, is that right?
Kaizen: Those will keep you busy for a couple of years.
Singh: Yes. Those are the immediate projects. The biofuel project is also coming back on-stream. So those will keep me busy for a while. I’ll have to light a candle to try to fit my Ph.D. in between.
Kaizen: Let’s talk about Dubai, where all kinds of engineering marvels are happening. How did you get involved in this project?
Singh: This was from an old business associate who went out to Dubai. He had been there for a number of years and sold something to the tune of $200-$300 million in property there; so he became quite a significant property dealer there in Dubai. He was involved in Jumeirah Beach Resorts, which is one of the prime lands in Dubai. We had a very good relationship there. He based himself in Dubai and is looking at a way of presenting something at the height of the highest structure in Dubai at the moment, Burj Khalifa.
Dubai was priming itself to be one of the major hubs that you can actually stopover when you are flying from, for example, Birmingham to the East. So when I take a trip to India, I have a chance to stop off in Dubai and have a chance to enjoy a lot of the 5-star and even 6-star and 7-star hotels they have there. As well as some of the water parks — they even have a ski resort there. It is a very exciting place. Obviously, they took a battering during the financial crisis and everything almost came to a halt. My business colleague there is struggling, having had a lot of boom years in property sales.
However, there is still a niche market of those interested in innovative property ideas. He’s working with Atkins Engineering to develop a revolving structure. What became popular is what is called “villas in the sky,” where people buy whole floors of a building in order to have an apartment that stretched across a whole floor.
Kaizen: So the idea for this one is that the entire building rotates?
Singh: It rotates, yes. He got the technology and wants to build on prime land as its first prototype. He approached me for the financing aspect because we have the hotel experience and the type of investors who may be interested being that it is at the forefront of innovation — that’s always a risky venture. He was having a difficult time financing, which is why he approached me.
Kaizen: How much is it to finance this project?
Singh: About $200 million. It’s a 55-story skyscraper.
Kaizen: Part hotel and part villas in the sky?
Singh: His idea initially was to have all residential. We changed to thinking that you are perhaps better off selling the first 15 or 20 floors to a hotel. At the moment we are working with the Core Group, who are quite interested in the first 15 floors.
Kaizen: This project is still relatively early and you are still working on the financing?
Singh: Yes. We have a Swiss group and an Indian group interested. We’ve acquired the land where it is going to be built, so we can put those stages together to satisfy both of the criteria and maybe bridge debt to finance the difference.
Kaizen: The engineering is a “go?”:
Singh: Yes. Apparently the technology has been patented as a joint patent between Atkins and my business colleague.
Kaizen: Does the property have a name so we can keep our ears open for it?
Singh: Yes. You can look at the website; it’s Time 55. It’s very exciting. I can very easily imagine somewhere like Las Vegas having a revolving structure like that. It would be quite unique. Perhaps New York as well. In fact, the company itself, Time 55, wants to put a building on each timeline. I think that’s quite ambitious; at this stage we are focusing on getting the initial one off of the ground.
Kaizen: It could serve as a prototype for lots of others.
Singh: That’s right. So we are trying to get the prototype off of the ground, and once we know that’s done, to replicate it will be easier. Right now it’s about getting the prototype financed and workable and to make it a worthwhile hotel — to make it successful by having full sale on the residential as well.
Kaizen: So your major projects currently are a revolving skyscraper in Dubai, the biomass case in Canada, and a large port structure in Ireland. Your plate is quite full.
Singh: Yes. [Laughs] Of course, I’m not the only one working on these. We have a number of people involved.
Kaizen: Yes, a whole team of people. Of your 25 permanent people, are they divided among these three projects? Or is everybody doing a little bit on each?
Singh: They are pretty much divided. Each of them has their expertise.
Kaizen: And there would be a smaller group of you who are in a general oversight position — or perhaps just you?
Singh: The oversight I’m heading on each of those major projects; so I need to coordinate and orchestrate who’s working on those to make sure that we are still on target and things get done.
Kaizen: Over the twenty years or so since you finished schooling, what’s the thing you’ve enjoyed the most about all of the projects you’ve worked on? Is there one element you’ve liked the most?
Singh: The fact of the achievement. You see a very small company that grows. Like Biofarm Conglomerate has grown into something that has become very exciting because we started from a pharmaceutical company and then acquired a whole sequence of opportunistic acquisitions and ended up the life of the group at that stage. It was very fast, in a couple of years. And I enjoyed the bounce in our stock price — we went from $0.20 to $8.00.
Kaizen: Wow. That’s forty times the original price.
Singh: Yes. So the shareholders benefited — it made a lot of money for a lot of people and they were very happy. It was a very exciting time; reflecting back on it is very pleasant. But also seeing some of the smaller projects come to fruition are very good. The insurance assessors — when we became a major player in the market on a very small concern. A $2 million turnover went up to about $40 million. It was quite good. The growth is what I tend to reflect on.
Kaizen: It’s a happy measure.
Singh: That’s right.
Kaizen: Have you had any projects that ended in failure, projects that just didn’t work out?
Singh: Oh yes. I’ve had my fair share of deals that didn’t work out. Sometimes you do reflect on them and think, “Maybe if I had done it differently.” But that is part of the learning process.
Kaizen: Are there any common threads, things you’ve learned from those deals that fall through that inform your decision-making the next time around?
Singh: Sometimes it comes down to negotiations. Sometimes it’s best to try to find a common platform in order to make projects work. I’ve lost out on a fair share of projects where you try to get your shareholders the best deal, but it wasn’t quite right for everyone.
Kaizen: Over-extended? Too pushy?
Kaizen: So it has to be win-win. Though, going into negotiations, you’re both in a separate ballpark.
Singh: It’s usually very complicated and difficult to keep all of the connections.
I’ll give you an example. We owned an aviation subsidiary in the Isle of Wight and that was one of three manufacturers of aircraft here in the U.K. What we wanted to do was to take over a small concern in Yorkshire, where they produced single-pilot, two-seater aircraft. So you get these ex-military pilots to buy the fuselage first … this is a very nice plane where you can detach the wings, put them on the back of a trailer and reverse it into your garage. That really interested me.
Given that we had the production line in Romania and the Isle of Wight, we could actually put those into full production. And we had the usual federal licenses and CAA licenses for production. But in negotiations, it meant buying the company outright; we had some very tough negotiations there. Obviously, you are concerned about the risks you are taking. But upon reflection, I often think perhaps that would have come around. And those aircraft are still around, but not manufactured and not as popular if they were in full production, which would have lowered the price quite drastically. At that time we were looking at something like $10 million for the company, which was a lot of money at that time. But I wish we had acquired it at that time. That would have been a different story. So there are always difficult negotiations because you have lawyers there to represent your interests and you are almost negotiating with a whole team across the board. It’s very difficult. You wonder sometimes if maybe you could orchestrate a board that would do a little better. But it depends on timing and a lot of other issues as well.
Kaizen: Juggling a lot of balls.
Singh: And blades at that time, yes. [Laughs]:
Kaizen: Thinking about younger people still in school. How important was your formal education was in enabling you to do what you have done? If someone has smarts and ambition but not the formal schooling, can he do what you did? Or is the formal schooling important?
Singh: You know, I think I ride the learning curve a lot faster. Formal education is the way to go. You have to load yourself with the key thinking. I found that originally — and this was having qualified as an accountant — you’ll still find yourself blinkered in the market because you don’t understand the marketing aspects; you don’t understand the operations; you’ll also get pigeon-holed in a specialization that is self-restricted. I broadened my horizons and tried to get better perspectives by looking at other areas and I became interested by accident in marketing; it wasn’t a subject that really appealed to me.
Kaizen: And that wasn’t until your MBA level.
Singh: Right. Nowadays in business to get ahead of the game, you need to be more of a generalist, but see the woods from the trees by having enough knowledge in the various aspects: numbers, accounting, managing operations, managing people, as well as being able to see a vision for the company in terms of goal setting and where you are positioning your company relative to the competition.
Kaizen: Two other things come to mind here. You regularly mentioned knowing people — having people bring things to you and having your own network of people you can call on. What goes into being the kind of person who can be a part of a network like that? Are personality and character important? And can they be taught?
Singh: I think in business your reputation is extremely important as well as your ability to deliver. And more importantly, as we say in England, an old phrase that is, unfortunately, being emptied of meaning: “Your word is your bond.” Integrity. Loyalty to your principles.
Kaizen: Developing a reputation as being someone who can deliver but also being a person who delivers what he says he’s going to deliver.
Singh: That’s correct.
Kaizen: Part of that is the skill- and knowledge-set, and part of that is being smart enough to have the formal schooling.
Kaizen: You mentioned that most of the deals you’ve put together have had common elements — you are able to see certain, abstract patterns. But in each case, since the industries you are so different, you have to plunge into the particulars of that industry. It strikes me that you’d have to be a pretty quick self-starter to learn about biomass, ports, pharmaceuticals, airplanes, and so forth.
Singh: Yes. That’s correct. That’s the interesting aspect. In terms of brokering a deal in order to make something grow, to make it appealing to shareholders, to make it appealing to the people who are going to buy the products, and to any stakeholders who are in the business — putting those elements together. The only term I can think of is cross-functional integration. You have to see the woods from the trees. You make everyone strategically coordinate in the same way. And sometimes it’s like marketing to move the company forward, but then you know the numbers fed back to you to see how you perform. I think I have a good mix of the two.
Kaizen: Some questions about Britain’s business climate and the European climate, more broadly speaking. From your perspective, there are opportunities all over the place.
Singh: There are always opportunities, yes.
Kaizen: Do you get the sense that Britain now has an entrepreneurial culture? In one sense, Britain is the birthplace of modern economics and has a strong entrepreneurial history. Is the climate healthy? In decline?
Singh: I think the entrepreneurial spirit in Britain has always been quite strong. It’s weathered the recessions and the booms that we experience here. We have a very good entrepreneurial structure here where people are given the freedom to look at developing and incubating new businesses. We are probably more risk-averse than the Americans are. When you are in New York and pitching a road show and people are buying your stock — the Americans are more risk-seekers. Obviously, you have to speculate to accumulate, but the British tend to be more conservative. We see that through venture capitalists.
The recessions and so on tend to polarize people. You get those who are looking for opportunities and are more risk-seeking, and you have some people looking at the austerity measures going on at the moment and are risk-averse. They draw their funds in more and securitize them in gold and silver and not be willing to invest at this stage. But there is still an entrepreneurial culture that has weathered the differences in available financing.
Kaizen: Britain traditionally has strong ties with North America and more broadly the Commonwealth. But also, due to geography, close connections with Europe. Are the American connections more important now, or the European?
Singh: The American relationship has always been great. For Britain, I think, that is a huge market that is readily available. The European market is a little more fragmented; it’s always been a little more difficult because it has essential differences all across Europe. But, again, it’s an open market, which will continue despite differences in the currencies or whether the Euro dies or whatever.
Kaizen: Europe’s temporary troubles. Britain is in some ways part of the European Union, but it does have its independent currency and it guards its sovereignty. To what extent do current troubles with the Euro affect business in Britain?
Singh: The Euro is a fluctuating market at the moment with the economic climate. But the British Pound is still really relatively strong. Although, for exports, it makes your price a bit more expensive across the continent.
Kaizen: Zeroing in on the so-called “PIGS countries” [Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain], there is some instability. Does that impact your decision-making about whether you take on investments there?
Singh: We certainly do because of the political instability. I would certainly be an advocate, but if all the debt was actually liquidated, it would be a lot easier to get the next generation to have it fall on their shoulders the burden to liquidate this debt bubble. Inflating each time isn’t the solution. :
Kaizen: So solve the problem now?
Singh: I certainly would. In some ways it will come to the crunch because Greece is a recurring problem. You saw the problem with Cyprus, which is the first time 30 percent was just wiped off of accounts. It may well be that at this stage that Germany is not willing to further inflate and dilute their own currency, the Euro. This would create a domino effect where Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Greece are all impacted, which might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Europe. But I think the most likely scenario is that they will hop-along. The austerity measures will be quite drawn out. I mean, we are having riots and so on in the various countries about this, including the U.K. We are, obviously, not sheltered from it here. It’s quite unfair. A lot of assets are being depreciated due to this bubble. And business perceptions are impacted. It’s a shame that it has to come to this. But this is the result if you want these cycles — and quantitative easing is actually adding to the problem and deferring the solution as opposed to offering a long-term solution.
Kaizen: Younger people. What advice would you give to those starting out in business? Do they need to work on personality issues? Character? Or acquiring formal knowledge? You also mentioned being able to see the forest through the trees, so cultivating a big-picture, abstract ability? Understanding markets? Politics?
Singh: I think people in college now have a lot more opportunities these days, especially with the information age where we have the internet.
Kaizen: Research costs are way down.
Singh: Absolutely. And we have readily available information through the internet. Researching opportunities and social networks are developing and have changed marketing in of itself. And communication can happen almost instantly across the globe. And we can almost travel anywhere in the world. I think it is a very exciting time for someone in college.
Kaizen: What from your college experience has stood the test of time?
Singh: I would certainly invest in knowledge-development by gearing yourself up through formal education. Also by looking at the common denominators of what make businesses work.
Kaizen: So lots of case studies.
Singh: A lot of case studies, which are, again, readily available. It’s almost gaining experience through someone else’s eyes without actually doing it. Because the best experience, I always say, is experience.
Kaizen: Also learning from failure cases?
Singh: Absolutely. Failure cases as well as successful cases. One of the big things I enjoyed in my MBA looking at was real companies that either got it right or wrong. And even some live cases. Or even simulations where you are designing a product — I think that is a very good way of learning. In those days we competed against each other in a marketing simulation and we had a product that was the equivalent of, let’s say, a 3D gadget like a navigation device. It gives you a good taste of business given that you can never have perfect information; you’ve got to make guesses sometimes. The other thing that you do learn is to follow reason through — everything has a cause and effect. To understand that and to build your character in terms of experiencing all the virtues we derive from reason.
Kaizen: So lots of experience whether through case studies or simulations, and getting internships and actual jobs as you can. Then combining that with high-level knowledge and judgment skills as well.
Kaizen: The internet is a boon in making tons of information available, but one still must sort through that information and say what counts and what doesn’t and then exercise good judgment.
Singh: Yes. You have to be able to make that meaningful to your own goals. The other aspect, which is very essential in the earlier part, is combining your personal goals with the goals of your organization. And self-development is something that you really have to invest in from the outset. Putting time aside to look at your weaknesses and how you can improve them. There is a lot of talk about positive thinking, but I always promote what I call “negative thinking.”
Kaizen: Objective self-evaluation is part of the process.
Singh: Yes. In terms of constructive negative thinking. With negatives, sometimes we have to overcome them. The positive things look after themselves.
Kaizen: When you were younger and your family was poor and working class, a big part of your motivation for going into business was to earn money. Now you are comfortable financially and wouldn’t have to work anymore if you didn’t want to. So the money is part of your motivation, but what also is motivating you to continue to work hard?
Singh: I think it gives you the emotional fuel in terms of knowing that you are valuable, that you can contribute and make a difference. I’m happy to grow businesses — to see our starting position and where we could make a contribution towards that business and make it grow. And if anything is attractive, it is probably the achievement from having done it — moving companies and making a difference. That excites me.
Sometimes you have a project that gets me thinking about how we could do it. I always find that if there are complicated financial project, many people don’t want to get into the messy details of finding a solution. But I’m wired in the way that it gets me excited to find a solution to it. From an early age, I tend to think about how I can make things work. Perhaps I can get certain investors or banks interested and maybe partly venture-capital financed. If I can break that project down to phases, then …:
Kaizen: So you enjoy the process of problem-solving, seeing the problem solved and watching as the business grows.
Singh: Well, not always is it growing! [Laughs] Sometimes it is something you didn’t envisage and I think, “Why didn’t I think of that at the time!” But it is all part of the learning curve. You get better as you experience more.
[This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.]