Denise Hu and Kamni Bharwani of family office Archer Asia discuss investment trends, what it takes to succeed as women in finance, and how the next gen wants to make a more measurable impact
When Kamni Bharwani joined SAIL Advisors, the family office of Robert Miller, a co-founder of Duty Free Shops, it was more than a new job. It was the beginning of a beautiful working relationship. She hit it off with colleague Denise Hu, and they’re still a team 16 years later.
“We’re both raised in Hong Kong and our parents were entrepreneurs, so the mindset is similar, and we are Asian, but we also have a Western perspective,” says Hu, who went to university in the US while Bharwani studied in the UK. “We work really hard and are quite passionate about what we do.”
At SAIL, they witnessed the evolution of Asian hedge funds, from a long-only bias to full-blown long, short and diversified strategies—and wanted to capitalise on their expertise in the space. The duo launched Archer Asia in 2009 to manage a portfolio of hedge funds for the founders and partners of Rockhampton Group. “The returns in the Asian hedge fund space have been very attractive,” says Bharwani.
They were ahead of the curve. Lately family offices are booming in Asia, as the region accumulates wealth, and becoming more institutionalised. Hu cites the emergence of many mainland Chinese family offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, where they can get access to offshore investments.
“We’ve experienced so much of the development of the industry together,” says Bharwani. “When we see managers or talk to the families we work with, we have a lot of reference points between the two of us—how we’ve seen funds develop in the past, what mistakes have been made, what things have gone right.”
Below she and Hu reflect on their past, why it’s important to make some noise about female fund managers, and what’s next for family offices and investment in Asia.
What have your experiences been like as a team of two women investors?
Kamni Bharwani (KB): When we went to our first hedge fund conference in Tokyo in 2005, there would be roundtable discussions and I might be the only woman. I didn’t think too much about it, and I certainly never felt disadvantaged. I always felt like we need to stand out for the hard work we do, the depth of understanding we have and our ability to express our views.
On the plus side, we were quite memorable because it was quite rare for fund managers to meet with a team of two women investors. Over time, that has already changed. At these kind of industry global events now there is a much fairer mix of men and women—and that is actually even more the case in Asia compared to US and Europe. There are a lot more women in the financial industry in Asia.
Denise Hu (DH): Yes, being in Asia there is less of a gap. Not to say it doesn’t exist, it definitely exists—and the higher up you go, the more likely it is to exist. But it’s less so. When we look at the other markets like US, Australia or Europe, it’s surprising to see that the female representative is quite low. If you see any female senior, maybe it’s the COO, CFO or compliance officer rather than on the investment side.
In Asia and especially Hong Kong, you see comparatively many more female executives. The Alpha Female Report 2021 by Citywire shows the percentage of female fund managers running funds domiciled in key locations. We noted with pride that Hong Kong is on top with 28 per cent. Singapore is next in Asia at 20 per cent.
Why do you think that’s the case? What factors will contribute to getting more women into investing?
DH: A lot of people may say that because Hong Kong and Singapore have domestic help, it gives the time for women to really focus on their jobs.
But I also think that for women to succeed, we need strong support from men, whether they are the business partners, male allocators or male managers. I’m involved with 100 Women in Finance, and we always say we want to promote the visibility of female managers. Some people may roll their eyes, why do you need to do that? But I do believe the more you talk about it, the more it becomes normal. We are hoping that one day we don’t need to talk about it. But right now, we still have to create the noise.
Some of these larger institutional allocators investors are male dominated. So if they are on board, they know that they need to make an effort to carve out an allocation for female talent.
“Daughters are more often the ones who promote ESG and sustainability impact investment concepts to the family”
— Denise Hu
Are you seeing much interest in gender lens investing, ESG or cryptocurrency?
DH: Interest in gender lens investing is mostly coming from the institutional side. Most of the families we work with are still very traditional. But they know that impact investing and new trends like cryptocurrency are coming up. The next generation is becoming more aware and probably even using their personal portfolios to experiment.
We’re also part of a family office network in Asia, and when we speak to families who have daughters involved, the daughters are more often the ones who promote ESG and sustainability impact investment concepts to the family.
How can families prepare to hand over to that next generation of daughters and sons? How can they create a legacy?
KB: For one of the families that we work with, we set up a philanthropic fund focused on education that we help them manage. We’ve used our investment skill to think about how to select and do due diligence on various organisations that we work with in that space.
More and more people are looking at philanthropy with an impact lens and an investment lens—finding a way to put a measurement on what kind of return or impact is being generated by philanthropic giving or using investment to create that positive impact.
DH: It’s not just about donating a large sum of money anymore. Many families want to create a legacy and have an impact that is sustainable.
“The most unusual step of your career, if you follow your interests and your passion, can actually become your asset”
— Kamni Bharwani
What advice do you have for women considering a career in finance?
DH: In any industry, female or male, it’s the same philosophy: be curious and ask questions. Although their parents want to kill me, I always tell my niece and nephew, don’t be afraid to challenge. When your parents or teachers asked you do this, if you don’t think it makes sense, ask why. It’s the learning process.
KB: I completely agree. Ask questions, listen more and come to your own conclusions; don’t be afraid to be original. The most unusual step of your career, if you follow your interests and your passion, can actually become your asset.
I spent two years as a journalist, covering the Asian hedge fund industry in its very early stage of growth. The skills I learned—how to ask questions; how to pick up the phone and speak to someone you don’t know; how to join the dots and, investigate—have proved invaluable to me to this day. So sometimes you think you’re going off the path, but in fact, you’re building a unique skill set.
I’ll add a suggestion: find your own Kamni or Denise! It’s so valuable to have a trusted collaborator. Do you have any shared rituals?
KB: Denise and I have travelled all over the world. Sometimes our schedule will start with 7am breakfast and we will be back-to-back until a 7pm drink. But after that, we really have fun. We explore the places we’re in, whether it’s Singapore, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, London.
DH: We’ll go back to the hotel, change, and see a musical or have dinner and continue the conversation. Something may come up from the morning’s meetings, so the assessment never stops. Plus we like to celebrate victory, whether it’s small or big. Whenever we have something to celebrate, we always go to Gaia near our office.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the investment opportunities and growth areas?
KB: I think the hedge fund industry will continue to be a core investment opportunity. These families are already quite wealthy, so the goal is to preserve and grow the capital and they want to do that in a diversified way. One approach is investing through boutique fund managers who can get ahead of new trends.
DH: There are so many markets, so many strategies in Asia, and now with SPACs [special purpose acquisition companies] and ESG and others, it’s opened up so much more. Even within the region, combining the global, the public and the private, it’s just so much choice for families already.
In the old days, some wealthy families liked to partner with each other to get into some private deals. It was a thing to do; you felt you were part of that club. But actually many of these deals didn’t do very well. So now they know that you really need to rely on the experts.