To get ahead in the commodity trade industry, you need to go beyond having the right information, says Mr Cheam Hing Lee, CEO of Rhodium Resources Pte Ltd (Rhodium). Having a passion for people and trade is key. Driven by his own passion, Mr Cheam has transformed his company from a small enterprise into one of Singapore’s leading independent commodity traders with four product lines, a footprint in 20 geographies, offices not just in Singapore but Hong Kong, China, Dubai, Australia and UK– all within the short span of five years.
“Trade is not only about getting the right information. It’s about values, people, knowledge and expertise,” Mr Cheam says. “We believe that there is only one way to trade and that is by making the right judgement, following the principles of best practices and staying true to the ethics of trade. At Rhodium, we call this Pure Trade.”
Such corporate wisdom was born as a result of Mr Cheam’s extensive experience in the industry. Mr Cheam started his career in 1983 with a Big 4 accounting firm where he was hired during the second year of his Accountancy degree course. However, within a period of 9 months, he realized that his interests lay outside the audit arena and he left to join a bank where he kick-starts his banking career.
In his earlier years, Mr Cheam detected an accounting fraud and saved the bank from potential losses. As a result of his strong analytical abilities, he was promoted and was exposed to the different desks of the bank within corporate banking to various sectors including retail, manufacturing, securities, MNCs and shipping. In 1989, Mr Cheam was further promoted to lead the bank’s commodity desk.
Subsequently, Mr Cheam joined another bank as Manager of trade. He successfully managed to solicit relevant support from their Headquarters and the local credit teams to put together a credible portfolio of trade finance clients including a newly formed commodity company who has since became one of the leading Agribusiness group in Asia. Under Mr Cheam’s leadership, the bank participated actively in various types of bank and corporate syndications including lead managing a USD100 million transaction, where such a deal size was considered significant back then.
In 1995, Mr Cheam moved to a Dutch bank where he focused on the Indian and Indonesian markets. In his tenor at the bank, amongst others, Mr Cheam’s work led his team into clinching the bank’s “Deal of the Year” globally by syndicating their first ever structured trade finance commodity financing for an Indonesian rubber group with global reach.
In 1997, Mr Cheam made the defining move of his career when he joined a US MNC, known to be one of the largest private owned company in the world. He worked as the regional credit and market risk manager, and subsequently as the director with the Financial Markets Group Asia division of the company. His impact in the company was immediate as he was credited with saving the division from significant potential losses by having the analytical ability and foresight to avoid the blood-bath of the 1997 Asian Crisis. In 1998, the Financial Markets Group Asia division was separated and Mr Cheam was tasked to lead the company’s new TSF Asia outfit. Mr Cheam provided leadership to the company’s commodity and TSF traders in leveraging the company’s commodity flows to build significant relationships and new trade flows, including developing several new prospects and converting them into long term regular counterparts of the company.
The above sets the ground work for Rhodium which is the brainchild of Mr Cheam. In 2011, Mr Cheam set up Rhodium Resources Pte Ltd and is currently the CEO of the Rhodium Group. Under his leadership, Rhodium has become one of Singapore’s leading independent commodity traders with a turnover of over USD 1.5 billion and the company has grown from 6 employees to 67 employees globally.
His extensive corporate travel, especially within the Asia region, gave him the exposure he needed to gain a comprehensive understanding of international finance and how geopolitical considerations affect markets. It also enabled him to meet thousands of customers in various industries including oil, soft grains and steel – all of whom served as valuable connections that he could potentially tap on for Rhodium in the future.
Armed with these essentials, Mr Cheam set about developing unique selling propositions for the company. He established a core business specialising in the physical trading of commodities and trade logistics. He worked closely with financial institutions and credit risk underwriters to provide innovative financial solutions to his customers during difficult times, when the risk of credit default is at its highest. “It was something that demanded a great deal of hard work and multiple client visits,” he recalls. “But the proof of the pudding is when they see regular repayments.” Business bloomed but he knew that more could be done to ratchet up the company’s growth. His next goal? To attain USD 5 billion in revenue within the next five years.
But to achieve this goal effectively, Mr Cheam knew that he and his team needed to make certain sacrifices. Mr Cheam and his team were able to identify Rhodium’s weaknesses and strengths, conduct short- and medium-term market assessments and plot a progressive plan that would enable them to reach their corporate goals together.
“Achieving collective buy-in is critical for a multi-product commodity company like ours, especially in volatile markets,” he explains. To that end, Mr Cheam practises a management style that fuses the best of both the East and the West. He nurtures a collegiate atmosphere, empowering his people and soliciting ideas and group participation, but retains the power of decision-making in order to ensure strategic outcomes. “At Rhodium, we have an open and transparent culture, but at the same time, we remain respectful of our Asian culture,” he says. Mr Cheam knows that it is not enough to lay down the rules; for any management to be effective, it needs to lead by example. He walks the talk by holding himself to a high standard of disclosure, integrity and accountability. “Financial and commodity markets are transparent and we must work very hard to ensure we are credible and reputable,” he explains.
Despite having made significant progress for Rhodium in a short span of time, Mr Cheam finds the biggest inspiration not in the company’s accolades but in the people, that he has connected with during his journey. “I gain satisfaction in sharing what I’ve learnt from my career with the next generation,” he says. “I love to teach and find amazingly simple approaches to solving complex situations. In Rhodium, I get to nurture people by sharing my knowledge and expertise with my young and vibrant staff and, at the same time, build financial bridges for our customers within a space that’s extremely volatile and bearish. It’s a challenge, but when everything pans out, I feel a great sense of joy.”
And that describes Mr Cheam’s winning strategy to business to a tee. With his passion for people, he will continue to develop trade and drive Rhodium’s next phase of growth.