Me & My Money: Sound financial planning is core tenet in his life

Posted on Aug 3, 2020 by The Straits Times

Building solid financial foundations through investing for the long term is something that has stood Mr Laurent Bertrand in good stead over the years.

He also hopes to help others reduce financial anxiety through developing their own financial-planning road maps.

Mr Bertrand, 47, is the founder and chief executive of fintech firm BetterTradeOff, which helps people build financial plans online.

The business started here in 2015 and has since raised more than $10 million in three funding rounds.

He said: “We started BetterTradeOff with the belief that we could leverage technology to provide people with a means of making better decisions regarding their financial future, in a way that was easy enough for everyone to do it.”

The business started as a B2B solution for financial advisers, and an end-consumer version called Up was launched last November.

Up has nearly 10,000 users now.

For Mr Bertrand, creating a sound financial plan is also something close to his heart, having weathered the financial crisis in 2008 with a newborn baby then.

“Keeping a long-term perspective and commitment helped, but it wasn’t easy to make difficult decisions. Should I reduce my life insurance to reduce cost? What would happen to my family then?

“That experience convinced me that I should try to help people make better financial decisions.”

Mr Bertrand, a Frenchman and Singapore permanent resident, is married to a Korean artist.

They have two children, aged 12 and 16.

He has a master’s degree in business administration from Insead and another master’s in physics.

He started his career as the head of information technology with cosmetics firm L’Oreal, before working with a consulting firm and banks.

Q: What’s the next stage of growth for your businesses?

A: Following several successful pilots with major global institutions, we’re now working on long-term licensing deals and partnerships that will allow us to bring our solution to new countries and a vast number of new customers.

We have also signed several leading financial advisory firms to our adviser platform, and added a well-respected former adviser to our executive team to continue to expand this important pillar of our business.

Finally, we have Up, a platform which continues to grow in Singapore. We continue to improve and expand this solution in Singapore, while developing it for launch in new markets later this year.

The objective is to demonstrate our ability to scale all aspects of our business, while generating recurring revenue quickly before entering the United States, the largest and most competitive market for financial services.

With Covid-19 negatively impacting so many people, especially the poorest, we also hope to make our solution available in countries like the Philippines, where we feel we can have an even greater impact on people’s lives and society as a whole.

Q: What’s in your portfolio?

A: Most of my wealth is tied to my company. As an angel investor, I’ve also invested in other tech start-ups, like MyRepublic. My portfolio is mostly in equity with stocks, funds and exchange-traded funds. Regarding property, I invest through real estate investment trusts which provide good income, diversification and liquidity. My parents invested in properties and did quite well. I just happen to have better opportunities with my own company at this stage.

Q: How did you get interested in investing?

A: With the change of the retirement mechanism in Sweden, where I was at the time, suddenly I had to choose where to invest 2 per cent of my salary. I decided to invest in Internet and mobile technology. And if I’m not mistaken, the date for the first investment was at the peak of the tech bubble. I was travelling a lot and the headlines were all talking about the bubble bursting. Somehow, I made the link between the news and my investment only when I received an orange envelope with the statements inside. I had lost 60 per cent of my retirement savings in a few months. Following this shock, I decided to study investing more seriously and began reading any book I could find on the subject.

Q: Describe your investment strategy

A: I focus on investing with a long-term view on businesses that solve important problems at scale and thus have a positive macro impact. Ultimately, you invest in the people that make it happen. Thanks to my career and interest in tech, I have been fortunate to meet and collaborate with many extraordinary people. Some of them invested with me, some of them joined us.

More traditionally, I also invest every month in equity index funds for my retirement to benefit from dollar-cost averaging and, most importantly, from compounding. Many people don’t understand how investing over the long term can make a difference. I try not to think too much about it or time the market. I do invest in single stocks from time to time when I have strong conviction. In such cases, I make sure the amount is big enough to make a difference, but small enough that I can afford to be wrong.

It also helps to be able to visualise how time can help you build wealth even if you start late.

Buying a property is also on the horizon – not having to make rental payments is especially important when you don’t have income from salary at retirement.

Q: What else is in your financial plan?

A: I come from a family where, short of unforeseeable accidents, we die of old age and generally in good health. However, witnessing the impact of my grandmother’s dementia on my mother who was caring for her, we have made sure that we have suitable legacy planning in place, including a will and Lasting Power of Attorney.

I use our solution, Up, to keep track of all our accounts, assets and insurance policies.

It’s also easier now that there is an account aggregation service to keep the plan updated.

Q: How are you planning for retirement?

A: I use Up to estimate how much money I will need when retiring. Like 80 per cent of Singaporeans, I’d like to maintain the same lifestyle I have now. But the truth is, our spending patterns – like healthcare costs and family composition – change with age. If you factor in inflation by the various expense categories, figuring out how much is needed can be quite complex. I underestimated my expenses by 40 per cent.

Q: Money-wise, what were your growing up years like?

A: My parents were entrepreneurs and, from a young age, I witnessed them working very long hours. I remember my grandparents taking care of me and my sister for three years to help them.

My father was a gifted jeweller, but it was my mother who was the driving force behind the business. She has an innate sense of business and innovation. At the time when shop owners were travelling to Paris to visit jewellery designers and producers, she organised trade representative tours. She also developed a private customer base of high-net-worth individuals. I was very fortunate to have such role models.

Q: Home is now…

A: We rent a condominium apartment near the Botanic Gardens. While relatively old by Singapore standards, we love the place, the surroundings and our friendly neighbours. It’s a big place with lots of natural light – which are both important for my wife, who is a painter.

Q: I drive…

A: My first car was my father’s car, a Volvo 240 with over 600,000km! I still drive a Volvo, this time a red XC60 with much less mileage on the odometer.

Worst and best bets

Q: What has been your biggest investing mistake?

A: While I was working in private banking, I made a currency trade using a 10-year currency option (USD/JPY). It was a high conviction trade and the idea was that I would have time for it to play out. I executed it with two different strike prices and got quite lucky within a year.

Unfortunately, I was also very busy and didn’t dedicate the time to monitor the position or define in advance my exit for the trade. I ended up closing the position cutting my losses to 50 per cent when I could have more than doubled my money. It was a painful reminder that we can all benefit from professional advice and services.

Q: And your best investment?

A: Apart from BetterTradeOff, my best investment is my MBA at Insead. At that time (in 2003), the fees were €42,000 but if you count the opportunity cost, it was more than €100,000 in total. This was quite an effort then and it took some time to reimburse my student loan.

What mattered is that I took a long-term view on it and this commitment has paid off multiple times, beyond the financials as well. I was able to transition to banking after spending a few years in strategy consulting.

The greatest value, though, is the Insead community, which has been a constant source of inspiration and support, opening doors to unique opportunities and resulting in a number of very good friends across the world.

Today, I have Insead alumni as investors, colleagues and board members of BetterTradeOff.

I made it a point to support my alma mater financially, but also regularly spend time interviewing candidates, a unique tradition at the school.

Finally, I met my wife while studying at Insead and we decided to call Singapore our home.