It was simply about the sushi. As a young girl growing up in a three-generation household in 1980s Tokyo, Kayoko Francis spent a lot of time with her grandfather Shozo Yagi, a retiree-turned-stock market investor. To keep his kindergarten-age granddaughter engaged and entertained, Yagi-san would sometimes ask for her ‘advice’ in selecting stocks: if things worked out well – and they often did – they would celebrate by going out for a sushi meal. “Everybody needs motivation and, for me, the motivation was food,” says Ms Francis, 38, whose early prowess at picking stock market winners led to a government scholarship to China at 16 and eventually to a career in banking. After extended stints as a trader and investment banker in Hong Kong and Singapore, she joined a leading family office for several years before deciding to focus her attention on the fast-growing financial technology (fintech) sector.
In August last year she co-founded Finesse Digital, a startup dedicated to providing tech-based solutions to banks and investment companies, primarily in South-east Asia and Japan. “Singapore is the wealth management hub in the region and a natural base for our business,” says Ms Francis, who firmly believes that fintech is the future of the financial services industry. When an ex-colleague showed her an office space that had recently been vacated by a well-known foreign bank, she had an epiphany that involved banks of computers and her place in the robo-advisory world.
But fintech isn’t the only thing that matters to the multi-tasking Ms Francis. She is also acting managing director of LifeBrandz, a listed company whose investments include Finesse, an e-travel business and several F&B outlets. From her 41st floor office in Raffles Place, she discussed how technology is changing the face of banking and other businesses, then switched gears to talk about extreme running, an activity that distances her, in more ways than one, from life in the fast lane.
Your investment experience as a child demonstrated that luck can play a key role in stock market success, but your advice to potential investors is: ‘Don’t try this at home.’
My grandfather was an active investor during the bull market in the 1980s. He had a broker and when I was in the room would put his calls on speaker phone. Occasionally he would ask me what I thought. My answers were probably based on nothing more than the way a name sounded: Toyota, Nintendo. He told me how much I earned, and how much I lost. When I made a good decision, he would take me to his favourite sushi restaurant in Ginza. I discovered early that when you advise something good you get compensated. It was fun for both of us; he explained financial terms, how dividends worked, what various industries were. In Japan during the 1970s and 1980s, all the blue-chip firms were manufacturing based, things you could physically see.
What other lessons did you learn while growing up?
I spent half my university years demonstrating in front of the Japanese Embassy in London. In the early-2000s I was a young and idealistic first-year economics student in London and I protested First World policies, Third World debt, the Iraq invasion. I also interned at the World Bank. I thought I could change the world. When I first got a job in Hong Kong, I thought I knew a lot but when you’re a junior on the trading floor, you’re below a slave, they tell you to do things like get Starbucks in two minutes. But I had a great experience on the proprietary trading desk. In the end, I learned that money is power.
It’s early days in the industry but how will fintech figure in our financial decisions in the future?
I don’t think banks have a choice. Anybody who’s worked in a bank or sales will know that the amount of administration involved means you can’t give your full attention to all your clients all the time. With the amount of compliance work, signatures and restrictions, plus the tremendous amount of follow-up to do, you can probably cater only to your top 10 clients. In the past decade the paperwork has increased and will only increase more.
Fintech can be a lot of things, starting with e-payments, mobile payments and peer-to-peer lending, then moving into the advisory and wealth management space. There’s still room that fintech has not penetrated. In the United States they’ve been doing this for the past 10 years but customers don’t change overnight, they still want to meet bankers. Younger customers don’t have customer loyalty, and they are the market that has higher acceptance to technology.
Where does Finesse fit into the fintech equation?
We offer different solutions for different markets. We are a pure tech company offering financial solutions to customers by integrating systems into banks. We’re still in the early stages of robo-advisory and banks are still figuring out if this makes sense. An adviser should be there to understand the customer’s financial goals and his expectations, but bankers don’t have time to cater to everyone.
Being in Singapore is wonderful because it is a world-class financial hub, attracts good talent and is conducive for startups. When you’re in a good eco-system you do attract business and collaborate with others. We identify customers, determine risk appetite, then identify a suitable portfolio with a view to maximise return at minimum risk, using technology and algorithms in a scalable way.
You have a busy career, and you’re also a serious athlete.
I run. I like to run. In the mountains. There are no mountains in Singapore, so I do three laps of running up and down the stairs in my office building during lunchtime: floor one to 59. It’s not fun but it’s part of the training. Next month I’m taking part in a 50-km trail run in East Java. It’s a good challenge because it starts at night. I do think about work when running: I can clear my head, and sometimes good ideas come up.
Do you still think about changing the world?
Empowerment is also an important part of my life, and women go through difficult stages in life, perhaps more so than men. I’ve decided to start an NPO (non-profit organisation) to educate and increase investment literacy for women in Japan. It’s a different world from when I was growing up. I have young children – a six-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl – they earn their own money, two dollars for washing the car, one dollar for mopping the floor. They save, and they learn. I show them simple charts and graphs and they’ve both shown interest.
Last week I gave a talk to kindergarten students in Tokyo. I told them there will be a big shift in how people work, traditional jobs will disappear, AI (artificial intelligence) will change the workforce. I tell young people, you need to find something that you have passion for – it’s the only way.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.