In between brokering multi-billion-dollar boardroom deals, Mr Ong Chao Choon sheds his power suits for running gear to go on 40-km runs as many as five times a week.
His love for ultra-running – where running your standard marathons are just the training, not the end-goal – even took him to the Gobi desert in 2010 to complete in a seven-day, 250-km footrace.
But, although a sportsman since youth (he played rugby for Raffles Institution), the 49-year-old lets on that he only picked up endurance running 10 years ago, at an age “when you have more patience”. And it’s taught him a thing or two about life.
During his first two marathon races, he suffered agonising cramps despite training religiously. “Then a friend gave me a tip. ‘Why don’t you try walking through drinking stations?’ … So at each (of the 21) stations, I stopped, walked, finished the drink and ran again.
“This time, I finished the whole race, no cramps. And I did it in 4 hours and 40 minutes,” he says proudly, over a healthy meal of mostly-steamed dim sum at Yan Ting restaurant. “The moral of the story is, you have to stop and slow down in order to last the race. It’s not about how fast you get to the barnyard, but whether you reach the end game.”
OF COURTSHIPS, MATCHMAKERS AND WEDDINGS
When it comes to end-games, Mr Ong has helped to seal the deal on some of the most high-profiles mergers and acquisitions (MA) in Singapore’s corporate history – such as SingTel’s US$8.4-billion (S$10.5-million) acquisition of Australian telco Optus, Dubai Drydock’s US$1.6-billion acquisition of Labroy Marine, and Natsteel’s US$400-million takeover by Ong Beng Seng’s 98 Holdings.
He joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a fresh graduate in 1987, and today is its advisory leader, in addition to leading the firm’s Asia-Pacific and Singapore Transactions Practice team, which provides a chain of services pertaining to MA such as strategy, due diligence and post-deal advisory. Clients include Temasek Holdings, the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore, Bain Capital and ST Telemedia.
An accountant by training, Mr Ong spent the first 10 years of his career in the audit department before starting MA work in 1997, just when the Asian financial crisis went into full swing.
Ever-ready with a colourful and incisive metaphor over the course of our two-hour lunch, Mr Ong, a father of four, says the easiest way to understand the process of corporate MA is to see it in terms of a marriage.
There’s the “courtship” (the sounding-out period and negotiation process) and “wedding” (the forging of a successful deal). “Investment bankers and corporate finance guys are like the matchmakers – we (due diligence) are the guys that check out the bride or groom of the other party, their background and stuff,” he says.
What’s more “like matchmakers”, the investment bankers typically get paid on a “success fee” basis. “They only get ang pows when the wedding is done. The rest of us doing structuring and due diligence, we get paid on time cost. That’s important so that I would be impartial about reporting what I find. I must tell you the truth, with pimples and all, and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to go ahead with the marriage.”
BUILDING THAT RELATIONSHIP
These days Mr Ong’s responsibility spans the whole MA process. “If a client wants to acquire, we’ll help you find a potential target. Or if you want an investor, or to sell out, we’ll help you find a buyer.”
Sounding out a party’s potential interest at the initial stage may be as simple as a meeting over coffee or a phone call. Contrary to popular perception, the negotiation process rarely takes place over a meal, which is an occasion reserved more for relationship building.
“Otherwise, I’d be very fat,” quips Mr Ong, who cites SingTel’s Optus purchase as the deal he is proudest of.
While there is no running away from numbers-crunching – “understanding the story behind the numbers”, in his words – what makes or breaks a deal are relationships. “I mean, if someone approaches you and asks you to sell your company, but you don’t know this person at all and you don’t feel comfortable, why would tell that someone you are selling your company?”
Building relationships is something you do constantly – through “your friends from school. Guys you meet in the army. People you have a beer with, and my former clients who move on to other jobs. It could even be my kids’ football game where I meet another parent. It is relationships and it is not just confined to work.”
WHEN THINGS GOT PHYSICAL
None of this precludes the inevitable tensions that arise in the thick of negotiations, when “nitty gritty” details such as the terms of the agreement are being haggled over.
He recounts an incident when “someone got shoved”. It was a transaction he was working on, although he was not at the scene. “I only heard about it … (but) I was quite shocked. I got a call from my client who said ‘guess what happened?’”
While he stresses that this episode happened over a particularly long negotiation process and is an exception rather than the norm, it also underscores the importance of building trust between parties. “The best negotiators are those who make sure they build the relationship and the friendliness first, because in any situation, it’s always better to laugh and disagree than to frown and get angry.”
That particular deal eventually went through, says Mr Ong, because he reckoned the two involved in the scuffle were junior representatives rather than the principles from each side. “If the two CEOs start doing that, then it’s the end, right?”
It is why chief executives typically only get involved in negotiations when a commitment seems in sight. The bulk of the process – from initial interest and courtship, to thrashing out the details of a signed deal (which can take five months or more) – is conducted by representatives in the company’s MA or business development department. “It’s not different from state-to-state negotiations,” he says.
UNTIL DEATH DO US PART
Describing the last day of deal-making – when pen is put to paper – as the “first day of the marriage”, Mr Ong says one area the industry has neglected in the past, and is only now starting to pay attention to, is what happens after the deal.
“People tend not to plan for the marriage. A lot of effort is spent planning for the wedding, to get to the point where I sign the agreement and give you the money. ‘Here’s the shares. Good luck to you.’ But that’s where the real work starts.”
One example, he says, is the issue of managing employees of an acquired company who might be insecure about their new bosses, or the uncertainty of the company’s customers and suppliers over continuity. “It’s no different from having in-laws.”
This is where his post-deal advisers come in to provide consulting on optimising synergies of the merged companies, including planning effective communication and retention packages.
“What makes a good marriage is not the courting and the wedding but how you sustain the relationship after the wedding. You might court for one year, three years and five years but the marriage is going to (last) 20, 30, 40 years until death do us part, right?”
DAD’S ON THE CLOCK
Mr Ong’s own marriage vows were pledged to a former PwC colleague he met in Australia while he was on secondment there in the late 1980s.
His wife Catherine, an Australian-Chinese who traversed the Gobi sand dunes with him, moved to Singapore in 1991 and is now a homemaker busy with their children, two older boys and two younger girls aged 11 to 17.
It has been challenging finding time to spend with his children. “You have two hours in a day, half an hour for each kid. That is why it is actually impossible to have both parents working in a big family.”
One way in which he is bonding with them is through rugby – he occasionally coaches his younger son, who now attends St Joseph’s Institution International with his elder brother, and has started his own rugby school team, says Mr Ong proudly.