Chris Burton has enjoyed a life working internationally. He is now Managing Director of Vistra Group in Singapore and Malaysia.
What’s your story?
I am the Managing Director of Singapore and Malaysia at Vistra Group. Vistra is one of the top 3 independent corporate services providers globally. Born and raised in the UK, I was always interested in working internationally. I secured my first role, a junior position in Nottingham with NatWest UK (now RBS Group) in 1982, aged 18. I spent most of my career with the bank, moving from the UK to Gibraltar, to Hong Kong, then Jersey, Channel Islands. I joined Vistra in Jersey in 2010 and have been working for its Singapore office since 2015.
What excites you most about your industry?
Well, on paper, corporate services does not look very sexy! It is an administrative compliance business. Having said that though, appearances can be deceptive. First, there is a huge amount of industry consolidation, acquisitions and disposals. Our own company grew 10 times from 350 people in 2010, to 3,500 people today. There have been ground-breaking industry shifts, such as the anti-offshore backlash after the GFC, the introduction of automatic tax exchange legislation, and initiatives to deter tax avoidance (such as the OECD’s BEPS regulations). All these have had huge impacts on our industry. Now we have digitisation and AI which will massively change the way our services are delivered. Never a dull moment! Although the occasional one might be nice…
What’s your connection to Asia?
I love Asia! Such a fascinating place, so dynamic and full of entrepreneurial people. I have had two spells working here. First, I joined Coutts’ Hong Kong office in September 1996, saw their wealth management business expand massively, against a very volatile macro background (China taking back Hong Kong, Asia economic crisis, Russian debt crisis, Y2k, tech boom and bust). Then came SARS in Hong Kong in 2003: I got the 7 year itch, and went back to Europe. I came back to Singapore in 2015 and am facing another set of opportunities and challenges. Our headcount has more than doubled since I arrived, showing how much potential there is here, and how determined we are to grow our leading position in Asia.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, it’s the best. The most stable politically, it is transparent, no corruption and it has a strong legal framework underpinning business. Physically, it is small and it is very easy to get around, and everything and everyone are easily accessible: the airport is also a major hub and it is so easy to get just about anywhere. It is always looking to the future, ways to make the island better using new technologies and constantly innovating. We have some great entrepreneurs here backed up by a first-class international professional community. It is the place to start in Asia for companies expanding from other parts of the world.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“There is very little that is pure black or pure white – 99% of the world is grey.” As a young man, I thought it was always important to state my opinion and battle for it if I thought I was right. I felt the pursuit of right-ness was an objective in itself. But I learnt quickly that not everyone wanted to hear my opinion, and whether I won an argument was not really very important at all. It is far more important what others think, when it comes to getting things done. Better to listen to them, steer the discussion, and encourage them to help meet your objectives. Most discussions can lead to agreements that are win-win, or worst case, compromises where no-one loses too much. Of course, on some matters of ethics and legality there can be no movement, but these are the exceptions rather than the rules. Most things can be handled cordially and respectfully.
Who inspires you?
I do not have a single “guru” who inspires me on everything. In this “Twitter” generation, we are all bombarded by multiple flashes of information every day from many different sources. Inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone. I try to read different points of view on the same topic, and make my own mind up. For example, reading the US and Chinese media over the recent trade spat is really interesting, as they obviously approach the issue from different angles. Watching my two sons growing and developing is also fascinating and inspiring. It helps me keep the connection with how young people are feeling about the world.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I am finding the Facebook story mind-blowing. This company has grown from a quaint idea at college to a massive company holding the data of over 2bn people. The well-intentioned vision of the company has been compromised by malicious actors and a lack of maturity on data protection of its users. This has led me to explore how much data about me these large tech companies have collected, and what they are doing with it. It really is quite amazing what they know about us. They say that Facebook knows more about us than our spouses do, after just 300 likes!
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I am pleased to say, nothing. Of course, like everyone, I would love to have invented something like Facebook and be sitting on a nice big superyacht, but that happens to only a few of us. If anything, looking back, a long career in a bank gave some great job security but I missed the chance to take a risk and do something more entrepreneurial when I was younger. Then the family came along, and job security became more important, so by then, it was too late. My advice to budding entrepreneurs is to take your risks while you are young, and can afford to make mistakes as you learn. I have had a great career working in some fantastic locations but probably could have taken even a few more risks along the way.
How do you unwind?
We all have that moment where we just want to be away for a little while from our busy schedule. For me, I hit the gym to decompress and get a good cardio workout. It is important not to let stress get on top of you.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Hong Kong. It seems odd to say that about such a frenetic city! But I do really enjoy going back there, catching up with colleagues and old friends, and hanging out around the old haunts from my time there in the nineties. I find it relaxing because it is the most familiar city for me in Asia outside my home in Singapore.
Everyone in business should read this book:
“Alchemy of Finance” by George Soros. Soros is dubbed as “The Man who Moves Markets” and remains an important actor in the financial community even today. The book provides great insights into understanding financial markets and Soros’ mindset on the world.
Shameless plug for your business:
Vistra is one of the world’s top 3 independent corporate services providers. We provide services to major corporations, SMEs, high-net-worth individuals and any other organisations or individuals that need help incorporating or managing a company in many jurisdictions worldwide. We can help with just about any query around structuring.
How can people connect with you?
If you have interesting industry-related developments or more general articles of interest, see you on LinkedIn:
This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews
Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.