Dream, Explore, and Discover – The Final Frontier

Hannes Hebel | Member since 2017

It’s 6 am Monday morning, July 3rd 2017. Heavy raindrops are tumbling onto my rooftop, playing an eerie  melody in chorus with honking cars and heavy construction sounds outside. It’s the first day of my MBA summer internship as part of my full-time MBA at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). In a little over a year my studies moved me almost halfway around the globe, with destinations such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Dubai and Tibet, the top of the world. And, of course, I will never forget, Berlin, the host of the MBA Global Summit 2017.
I open my window with a view over a boggy river, take a deep breath of my new city before looking into a dusty mirror, and thinking: “Time to shave off this handsome beard for the first time in months.” Only a few seconds later, the sound of my hair trimmer suddenly turned off – power blackout. In my mind “Hell yeah jackpot, but …. first impression today? Hmmm …. every little thing is going to be all right! So, I head unshaved out of the door, well dressed – onto the street, into my new adventure. Good Morning Yangon, Hello Myanmar!
I thought the year doing my MBA was crazy but Yangon – a city with no road rules and maroon colored streets – is even wilder. Humid, hot, rambling, buzlling, alive with street-vendors and full of bright green and heavy foliage, like house-plants on steroids. Crossing streets in Yangon is dangerous in Monsoon season. You risk ending up like a Los Pollos Hermanos fried chicken, grilled by a falling power cable while walking through the water puddles.
Thankfully, one thing which HKU has helped me was giving me the confidence to take on new challenges. So, crossing all fingers, I sneak like a freighted cockroach behind some friendly shaved monks in red robes to the other side of the jammed road.  “Beep, Beep,” the same alarming sound which got me up in the morning, starts yelling at me.  An old man in an even older, shabbier taxi stops in front of me, pulls down the driverside window, and spits some red chomped mass right by my feet.  No wonder the ground is marooned. You think it`s disgusting? I don’t, then he smiles friendly back at me with teeth stained black from chewing betel, and says: “Minga labar – Where do you go?”
“Merchant Road, 31th street – Anthem Asia”, a Frontier Private Equity Firm and my employer for the next few months.
I rumble in the back of the tuk tuk like a rat in a cage, I think: “What the hell made me come to such a place to undertake an internship?”
First, living and working in South-East Asia is super exciting to me. Since my first encounter with the
Far East years ago, I have fallen in love with the region and the people.  What’s more, it’s always been my desire to get out of my comfort zone, living the principle of “Dream, Explore, and Discover.” I believe that meeting foreign cultures and seeing unknowns broadens your horizons.  Whether you choose to spend a few years or months traveling this amazing planet or living abroad, it`s important to see what it’s out there. I am a bit like Indiana Jones if he would have studied for an MBA. Tieing this altogether, of course, is my interest in Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital, and Private Equity. To get the full spectrum, there is no better place to be with Anthem in Myanmar in these days.
Anthem, is an independent investment and advisory group with the aim to build sustainable business in Myanmar, specializing in investments in local small and medium size brands and businesses that serve the domestic market. To date, they have invested in nine companies, ranging from tourism, over education to a traditional teahouse; btw with amazing Burmese food, worthwhile to stop by if you are in town. With very few companies in the mid-market, Anthem sees opportunities to invest in marketing and communications, food and beverage, tourism-related businesses, leisure and entertainment, training and education, and agri-business.
In general working in a PE firm is a little bit like fishing, only without the insects and beer. You got a target or target industry, and then you let your hook dive to the ground by gathering and tracking all kinds of information and trends. Sooner or later the float shows a bait, a “Yes” for a company you are interested in. But, mostly it´s a “NO” either because of an overlap with one of the portfolio companies the wrong industry, or simply because of the wrong deal size. Sometimes it is a “Maybe,” which means wait a bit longer or change your lure and dive into inaccessible areas by allowing the float to drift. In either case, a predefined process is initiated. Different teams are hooking up on various jobs. The jobs are covering a wide array and all aspects of business: Management, accounting & finance, legal & tax, negotiation, project management or human resources. You are discovering what makes the company tick, or figuring out why it stopped ticking. For me, it`s the diversity of industries and tasks which makes PE investments so exciting.
One thing you must know: working in PE keeps you super busy. You will often hear friends saying you are goofy, because you have often no time.  I still owe one of my buddies a promise to take him to turtle beach (Hong Kong). However, realizing your promises is what makes the industry trustworthy – even if it means waiting long-term. It is worthwhile; then all good things in life need time.
Working with Anthem is super hands on.. Over the past few weeks, I have been involved in various stages of M&A deals or working with one of the portfolio companies on developing alternative strategies. One big challenge which came across my desk, was modeling a fund involving several transactions including the formulation of underlying assumptions of hurdle rates, IRR, and currency fluctuations. The answer if I hit the target – outstanding as of today. Burmese FX dealers are excepting only fresh-looking dollars – 1 USD dollar = MMK 1,352.
I also had the chance to visit one of the tech accelerators here in Yangon to participate in a workshop for the local start-up scene. On another day I attended a Facebook event in collaboration with one of our portfolios companies to get more insights on digital disruption, and about how Myanmar has leapt straight into the smartphone age. Only a few years ago a sim card cost up to US$ 1,200, today it’s only a few pennies. Online connectivity  is no issue at all anymore and it is totally reshaping Myanmar’s way of life. Within three years, Myanmar’s mobile penetration rate went from about 10% to 88%. There are about 48 million subscribers today, and 90% are on Facebook, using it as a modern trade channel. For example, to trade Thanaka, Myanmar’s national organic cosmetic, sun cream, mosquito deed, and …? If you believe in it, it`s almost cure-all.
My biggest highlights at work have been the chance to write an opinion paper on opportunities, market trends, competition and potential partners in the event and ticketing industry. I am probably the first person to write about this subject in detail in Myanmar. It’s topic I love and where I can leverage my prior event and music experiences. Back in Germany, and beyond Ernst & Young, I was by working for the award-winning band K.I.Z. I was responsible for several years for the planning and execution of various tours as well as the production and distribution of merchandise including setting up of two online stores. This provided me with unique exposure to the music and event industry, a creative and fast-paced environment, where I could take ownership and contribute significantly to the growth and revenue of the band. It was a once in a lifetime experience to grow something from scratch and become a number one Billboard top charting act, headlining Europe’s largest festivals. Operational understanding is such a big thing in PE. On PPT every business model looks impressive but in real life its often a hustle.
The music industry in Myanmar is fascinating with only around 400.000 legal sales made every year and millions of bootlegs sold on the black market. Any difference to the West some years ago? Most of us remembering to the good old downloading tool: “Emule.” So, it comes down to play live to survive as a musician. Working in Myanmar is a little bit like working with K.I.Z. – chaos every day.  Challenging, exciting, and every day something new. It comes down to getting your things done.
With the first democratically elected government in 50 years now in place, modernization and peace-building will continue. At the same time, however, Myanmar Asia’s final frontier still faces significant challenges due to continued fighting in parts of the country, ethical and religious violence, high poverty, and low health standards. But, the people here are super energetic and conscious of learning new things, they want to try to make their lives better. The vibe of the city is incredible – I have rarely felt so welcomed in a country. I like to be involved and share my knowledge to do my best and make Myanmar successful.
When it comes to lifestyle, yes there are fewer options for activities than in Hong Kong or Shanghai. But there are so many things going on; Myanmar is transforming. I keep myself busy with sports in super modern gyms, tasting a variety of street food, or having a good old Myanmar draught, a brew in a class of its own, but not the Premium one.  At weekend, I sometimes visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, just sitting in some cool spot and breath in the „atmosphere“ of serenity and calm. The Golden Pagoda is Burma’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site – magnificent.
Bars and night clubs are now popping up on every corner of Yangon, playing the newest EDM music. People are celebrating music and are more opened minded to meet foreigners than I’ve experienced in China, where people sit in clubs glued to Wechat. You even have big sports events these days such as the One MMA Championship, attracting an increasing audience due to rising disposal incomes. And, now they have their first superstar, the Burmese Python, Aung La Nsang.
Leaving  the very best for last: Chapo to my team here at Anthem, you have made my time unforgettable. From the first day, you guys involved me in so many things. You share your amazing culture and view on the world with me. Even if we lost in the Xscape Room – there are no other words to describe my time than “my doors at home will always be open.”
And for all others who are reading this – grab your backpack, take a vacation, and fly to Myanmar!
Sincerely, Hannes