He’s hunched over his antique writing desk with an array of sharpened pencil crayons spread out before him. Picking up a stick, Alain Vandenborre colours in a sketch – a picture of two unicorns.
Colouring is the 55-year-old serial entrepreneur’s latest hobby, and a method he uses to lull his mind into a meditative state for work. It was his wife, an art therapist, who introduced it to him. “It is an exercise that helps you focus and soothes the mind,” he says.
In fact, every item on his desk in the spacious, light-filled home office at his Tanglin Road residence has a purpose: to cultivate an environment of creativity and contemplation. His talismans include a Murano glass figurine of a unicorn, which symbolises peace, balance and healing to him, and a book of fish drawings by Dutch illustrator Mies Van Hout that he flips through to indicate his prevailing mood – happy, curious, etc. “Every single idea that has succeeded was conceived at this desk,” he says.
Since founding his first company at the age of 26, Vandenborre has been involved in a wide range of enterprises, from laser technology in his younger days to humanitarian work via the co-founding of art therapy humanitarian mission The Red Pencil with his wife, Laurence. And his latest venture, the Singapore Diamond Investment Exchange (Sdix), is the world’s first commodities exchange trading in naturally formed diamonds.
Blinging It On
It was a eureka moment that he couldn’t let up on after learning about the diamond industry through his business dealings with an Israeli diamond logistics company. Essentially, Vandenborre is banking on the doubling of diamond prices over the next 15 years because of growing demand and the absence of new mines being explored.
“You don’t know the pricing and you don’t know where to go to buy and sell diamonds, which explains why the financial market has never (traded) diamonds, unlike gold. They do not touch it because it is opaque, not liquid or transparent,” the executive chairman and founder says. “It occurred to me that only a few highly wealthy people would buy coloured and fancy diamonds at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and pay tremendous sums for these stones. Why isn’t diamond being used as a financial instrument by ordinary people like you and me?”
For a year in 2013, he tested the market and sold US$25 million (S$35 million) worth of diamonds to financial investors. “But the question people asked me the most was, ‘How do I sell the diamonds back? Where’s the exit?’ For that we would need to build an ecosystem, similar to that for stock commodities, where you can see the live hourly pricing, where there is transparency and regulations.
“It’s not like you wake up with a genius idea. You connect the dots and realise there’s an opportunity, and then you go for it. It’s a process that is all about meticulous execution.”
Sdix was launched in late May, with shareholders such as Vertex Venture Holdings; Sun Tongyu, founder of Tao Bao and co-founder of Alibaba; Francis Yeoh of YTL Group; Mike Cai, founder of Meitu.com; and his mentor Hsieh Fu Hua, former chief executive of Singapore Exchange and former president of Temasek Holdings. The boutique exchange has since achieved a cumulative trading volume of US$44 million, and Vandenborre hopes to break the US$100-million mark by its first anniversary.
Diamonds traded on the exchange are graded and certified by the Gemological Institute of America and the De Beers group before they are sealed in a “basket”, he says, brandishing a credit card-sized case bearing 10 identical diamonds that has been casually left on his desk. “It is like a gold bar you can trade,” he says.
“Now that I’ve become a Singapore citizen, you can no longer call me foreign talent. You now have to call me local talent, and you have to look at your own people in the same way.”
– Alain Vandenborre
Sdix has offices in six cities including Beijing and London, with plans to establish in New York, Antwerp and Tel Aviv in the pipeline. Vandenborre is also looking to launch the trading of rough stones on the exchange in the last quarter of next year. He says: “This will allow a mining company and their clients to be able to trade standardised parcels of rough stones, in a more efficient and liquid way.
“I am pushing the diamond exchange into a futures market where you don’t need to trade billions of diamonds physically. The paper contracts can be worth 50 to 100 times more than the physical commodity, as is the case for gold futures contracts.”
Call Him Local Talent
He may be born in Belgium, but do not label him a foreign talent. It is one of his pet peeves. In 2005, Vandenborre became a Singapore citizen after “falling in love” with the people, its culture and values. “Now that I’ve become a Singapore citizen, you can no longer call me foreign talent. You now have to call me local talent, and you have to look at your own people in the same way.”
Indeed, this Singaporean, who was involved in the 2003 Economic Review Committee, has set about spreading Singapore’s name far and wide since arriving here in 1995 from Paris where he lived. After leaving his position as head of international development at French multinational Compagnie Financiere de Suez, he joined the venture capital industry in 1998 where he ran Viventures Asia, a venture capital fund launched by the Vivendi Group.
In 2002, he became the chairman of the Singapore Venture Capital and Private Equity Association – “my first national service for the country”, he says with a chuckle – where he was tasked to grow the number of venture capital firms in Singapore. Hong Kong was the hotspot then. During his five-year tenure, 60 firms relocated to our shores, joining the existing 20.
In 2010, inspired by Swiss freeports in Geneva and Zurich, he launched, with two Swiss families, the state-of-the-art, 250,000 sq ft Singapore Freeport to attract UHNWIs to the country. “You can have your money managed remotely. But, if you have something highly valuable stored in Singapore, for example a collection of Picassos or Van Goghs, for sure you would come here,” says the art collector, whose Tanglin Road bungalow is decorated with sculptures – primarily of horses and ballerinas – and paintings.
“I think that was the selling argument for the Government,” says Vandenborre, recalling the landmark concessions such as landing at the airport, free trade-zone status and simplified Customs procedures for clients. “It took me 12 months to sign approvals with eight government agencies including the Singapore police, EDB, JTC, Customs and airport authorities. Nowhere else in the world can you achieve such a major project involving so many administrations in 12 months.” He has since relinquished his stake at Freeport to focus on Sdix.
“It’s not like you wake up with a genius idea. You connect the dots and realise there’s an opportunity, and then you go for it.”
– Alain Vandenborre
Herein lies the beauty of Singapore Inc for Vandenborre, who has also written two books on the country: Proudly Singaporean – My Passport to a Challenging Future and The Little Door to the New World. “When you come to Singapore with a breakthrough idea, (the Government) will, as PM Lee Hsien Loong said, ‘leave no stone unturned’ because they are always in search for the next new thing that has the potential to become a world breakthrough. Once they come to a positive conclusion, the entire system catalyses behind you to make that thing happen,” says Vandenborre, who attended every parliamentary session for two years to do “due diligence”, before deciding to give up his EU passport. “That’s the magic of Singapore.”
His reverence for the little red dot is clear, evidenced by a portrait of the late founding prime minister that overlooks his study from a wall behind his desk. They had exchanged six letters, the contents of which Vandenborre can quote from memory. “He had always inspired me and when I work at my desk, I feel like he’s watching my back. He’s always present in my mind.”
Although he is better known as an entrepreneur, he began his career as a scientist and inventor. An astrophysicist by training, he grew up a curious child who was constantly testing boundaries.
His ingenuity was discovered at a young age. Placed in a Jesuit boarding school in Belgium at the age of six, the young Vandenborre felt restricted by the regimented lifestyle. “I decided to revolt,” he says, recalling his days of being the chief instigator of pranks, which also made him very popular with his schoolmates. He would rally them to play tricks on the priests, such as dropping bottle caps in unison in the middle of the night, when a priest did his nightly check of the dorm rooms.
Two years before he was to take his International Baccalaureate, his pranks caught up with him and he was expelled – even though he consistently topped his class. Undeterred, he rode a motorcycle to school daily and ultimately completed his examinations. “It’s okay that you write this. My children know anyway,” he says, smiling.
Deep down, he was a boy who would not be held back by convention. “Curiosity has always pushed me to understand things of life and nature. I studied physics because I wanted to understand why the apple fell from the tree,” he says. When he learnt about Newton’s law of gravity and realised he could not make money from it, he says jokingly, he moved on to other things – namely laser technology.
At 17, he won a National Young Scientist award for developing a system that transmitted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony through a laser beam, a ground-breaking experiment at that time. Nine years later, he founded his first company in Belgium, which developed new laser technologies for microelectronic design applications. He went on to become a lecturer in optical and quantum physics in various institutions, including his alma mater, the University of Liege, and later taught at the business school there as well as that of the University of Brussels.
The science background is crucial in his ability to juggle “discipline and approximation”, essential qualities that an entrepreneur should have, he says. “The discipline that comes from studying science helps me to be focused on the long term in business. And unlike mathematicians who need to be 100 per cent accurate, physics is about approximation. The deeper you go into quantum physics and laws of the universe, the more you need to measure probabilities and accept that things can happen unexpectedly,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, you need to have a sense of approximation too. You need to keep yourself flexible enough to be reactive to what the consumer wants.”
Being an entrepreneur also requires the gritty ability to accept and learn from setbacks and failure. One of his most recent ventures was the ill-fated Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, which closed in April due to falling visitor numbers, following the closure of the Parisian flagship just two months earlier.
As the initiator and minority shareholder of this project, it is natural that Vandenborre feels a certain sense of ownership. He first mooted the idea of turning Fort Canning into a museum when he noticed the “sleeping beauty” was “under-utilised”. The plan was to develop this historical area into a centre for arts and entertainment. “It is a tragedy but I never give up on anything,” Vandenborre says.
He has been busy working with his partner KOP Group on proposals for a new museum. “Sometimes things take a bit longer than expected; you don’t see the end of the tunnel immediately.”
For now, Sdix, says Vandenborre, is probably his last business venture, or so he claims.
“I feel the need to start something new every five years. I’m not the kind of person who builds a business and sticks to it. My children often debate that I should keep something for myself, but I say no. Once I have invented and achieved, I just move on,” he says.
In four years, he intends to focus solely on his work with The Red Pencil, to ensure that the humanitarian organisation remains sustainable and continues its work beyond his and Laurence’s lifetime. It has over 100 projects with local organisations, as well as a presence all over the world including in the Middle East, the US and Africa. He says: “As far as I am concerned, I have made a commitment that by 2020 – it’s written in the book Not Born in Singapore by Tng Ying Hui, which I contributed to – I am going to sell all my businesses and dedicate 100 per cent of my time to The Red Pencil and my family.
“Nobody believes it though. But I am telling you it’s going to happen.”
FACETS OF A MULTI-FACETED MAN
Expressions of Vandenborre’s Can-Do Attitude
01: HE WAS A SCOUTMASTER At the age of 40, Vandenborre took a 12-week crash course that involved a training camp and trekking activities to become a Scoutmaster to 12 kids. It was to train his sons, who could not join the local scouts’ unit as they were enrolled in an international school. Coincidentally, his family home was once the headquarters of The Singapore Scout Association from 1987 to 1996.
02: HE SUBSCRIBES TO NOTES FROM THE UNIVERSE The website sends out personalised inspirational messages daily. He has come to anticipate its arrival at his inbox at 5.30pm as it allows him to take time out to “meditate and reflect on the day”.
03: HE HAS AN AFFINITY WITH HORSES A stone sculpture on his front lawn featuring the head and neck of a horse is actually a Sumatran tombstone of a Chinese warrior. Vandenborre used to ride horses in his birth country but stopped when he moved to Singapore because the climate wasn’t suitable for him.
04: HE ENVISIONS SG100 He believes it is necessary to grow the country beyond its physical borders. He suggests this can be done by maintaining strong ties with Singaporeans living outside the country, perhaps by allowing dual citizenship. “People can serve the nation abroad – get them to work and forge relationships with peers overseas so they anchor the city from the outside.”
WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS
As meticulously curated as a museum exhibition, Alain Vandenborre’s antique 18th century French desk houses only items of significance. Here, he talks about his whimsical collection.
01 This unicorn, which is made from Murano glass, is a magical creature to me, as it embodies qualities such as purity, peace, balance and stability.
02 This box, which was carved out of camel bone, was gifted to me by my wife for my birthday during one of our many trips to Doha, Qatar. I use it to store bits and bobs like mobile cables.
03 I got this artisan-made Murano glass clown from Venice, a city that my wife and I love and visit annually. It is a reminder to me that no matter what happens, one should always be cheerful.
04 I love vintage sports cars, hence these car-shaped paperweights and paper clips.
05 The Red Pencil is a humanitarian art therapy organisation that I co-founded with my wife, Laurence. Faber-Castell is one of our sponsors and these are the pencils we use on art therapy missions.
06 This book is the Chinese version of Happy by Mies Van Hout and has beautiful pastel illustrations of fish expressing different emotions like “happy”, “curious” and “surprised”, which I use to indicate my prevailing mood of the day.
07 This ballerina statuette is a gift from a dear Singaporean friend. I saw it in his home many years ago and fell in love with it, so I was very touched when he presented it to me as a gift a few years later for my 50th birthday.