The Plane Ticket Journals is a series that will focus on professionals age 30 and under that have taken a step to change their lives with the purchase of a plane ticket to somewhere else. The Plane Ticket Journals is not about billionaires, fund managers or world leaders, but people in a transitional moment who are willing to make bold moves and take the risks to be the next billionaires, fund managers or world leaders.
Keith Huang was living the American Dream his parents envisioned for him when they brought him to the United States from China at the age of 7. He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from that young age through the end of his university studies with a biochemistry degree from Louisiana State University. Mr. Huang then went on to a career in the pharmaceuticals industry working for Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies during four and a half years trying to climb the corporate ladder. In the last two years, his desire for something more, his interest in emerging markets investments and a Christmas party led him to start a currency exchange (FX) business in Mongolia, almost start a real estate fund in Mongolia, start a tire business in Mongolia’s desert, start an FX business in China and plan for a wealth management business in China.
Now 30, married and the father of one, he has no second thoughts about leaving behind his career in pharmaceuticals. His childhood drives him to strive for greater success. Mr. Huang says his father was a member of the educated elite in China and once the general manager at an SOE agricultural plant in his early childhood. Mr. Huang’s irreverence comes through when he explains his family left China after his father was sacked from his position for “not wooing those above him.”
His family went through the challenges of immigrating to the United States initially for his father to pursue a Ph.D., an academic career and their American Dream. His father needed to borrow money from family just to buy the plane ticket to the U.S. and Mr. Huang’s family struggled to get by throughout his childhood. In the American house Mr. Huang grew up in, he observed his father’s diligence and pride as well as the caution his parents took on with age. His father’s efforts to attain a Ph.D. were successful but he did not fulfill his dream of becoming a professor.
At one time when times were tough, his father went to the welfare office to get food stamps. When his father looked around at the other people waiting in line, “he saw the class of the people around him that were getting food stamps and he didn’t want to be associated with that.” His father left the line and walked out of the office to look for work instead of waiting to qualify for a handout. Academia did not adequately pay the bills, so Mr. Huang’s father ultimately shifted to the private sector and became a bio-statistical programmer working for pharmaceutical corporations.
The biggest role that my parents played in my choice to become an entrepreneur was seeing all the missed opportunities that my father had but did not capitalize on. After all the sacrifices and hardships my parents endured, I know if I don’t improve from what they achieved, then I would certainly live into old age with deep regrets.
While Mr. Huang enjoys watching mixed martial arts and basketball, his primary hobbies these days are “reading and communicating with successful entrepreneurs and investors about economics, investing and business.” He admires entrepreneurs such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma who “are self-made billionaires that have great morals and principles, and persevered.” The morals Mr. Huang admires include honesty and transparency that breeds relationship loyalty. Mr. Huang shows his own interest in the failures that lead to success when he points out that Jack Ma failed for 10 years before he founded Alibaba.
When Mr. Huang explains his career path in pharmaceuticals, it sounds as though he was on an easy path to a comfortable middle class American life. When asked if that life still holds some allure he responds:
You feel that your life is constrained. Your entire life, all these nice things you have is dependent on these jobs. Any downturn in the economy and you’re just a number. When that happens, I’ve seen people get desperate and I said to myself, this is no way to live. I don’t want someone to have that kind of power over me.
Mr. Huang promised himself early in his career that if he wasn’t on an executive track in pharmaceuticals by the age of 30, he would make a go of being an entrepreneur. In his mid 20s, he became interested in emerging markets. In doing so he came across information suggesting Mongolia, a hot market in 2010, could be the next big thing with a large amount of natural resources on China’s doorstep. At a Christmas Party in Philadelphia in 2011, he met the CEO of FX Primus Limited, a foreign exchange trading platform company that started in 2009. FX Primus was looking to build on the success they had in Singapore and Malaysia. Mr. Huang suggested Mongolia as a place to expand.
From that conversation, Mr. Huang bought his plane tickets, going to Mongolia in February 2012 to do a due diligence study and relocating in April 2012 to open an FX Primus franchise in the country under the name Chiron LLC. During his 16 months in Mongolia, he learned how to start a business from scratch, recruit employees and acquire customers. As he cut his teeth and proved his worth to FX Primus management, the decision was made that “1% more of the market share in China would be better than having 100% of the market in Mongolia” with its population of only 3 million people.
Looking back on why he made the move and where he chose to go first, Mr. Huang says:
I was inspired by the stories from Mongolia I had been reading and hearing. I just thought it was the perfect opportunity. It seemed like a free world where you could start from scratch as an entrepreneur. That was quite naïve of me at the time without realizing how things really worked in frontier economies.
Mr. Huang’s on the ground experience in Mongolia also included two other ventures in addition to the FX Primus business. At one point, he looked into starting a real estate investment fund and went to Singapore to raise funds for it before determining the market timing was not right. He also assessed a need to improve the supply chain for tires in the burgeoning mining industry of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. With the tire company he learned many execution issues that can challenge the success of a good idea. Although the tire company continues operations and may still turn the corner, Mr. Huang is counting it currently as part of the tuition one pays on the educational path to successful entrepreneurship.
Terry Thompson, President and CEO of FX Primus says:
When we met in December 2011 Keith had done a lot of due diligence and had a clear vision about the business prospects in Mongolia. He convinced us, we believed in him and he did very well there.
Last year, Keith came to us with a clear and concise plan how to build the FX Primus brand in China. We knew we needed to expand our presence in China for a long time. We thought he did such a great job in Mongolia, we wanted him to replicate that in China.
Today based in Shanghai Mr. Huang is working to build the FX Primus brand in China as FX Primus’ Managing Director of East Asia. Moving from Mongolia where he cut his teeth to China was a rapid process of scaling up business. Mr. Huang notes in his first month working in China, the deposits he accrued at his FX Primus operation there exceeded deposits he had from sixteen months in Mongolia, and he was told by many that he did “really well” in Mongolia.
Mario Singh, FX Primus’ Director of Training and Education says of Mr. Huang:
I am very impressed with his drive and leadership. The important task of setting up our entire China presence in Shanghai was given to him and he has delivered outstanding results. As a company, we strive to be world-class in all that we do and having Keith on board makes our journey that much easier and brighter.
Mr. Huang still visits his parents and younger brother in California where they relocated to when he was at LSU. When he speaks about his brother, 8 years his junior, Mr. Huang’s attitude toward self-determination is clear:
He works in tech and immediately jumped into business development. I am a role model to him and he has been watching and learning from my endeavors. He will not be going for a Master’s, Ph.D. or MBA. He understands that the world is changing so fast these days that we cannot afford to lose time on developmental opportunities and ventures.
Mr. Huang prefers Giorgio Armani and Theory. To relax, he enjoys H. Upmann aged Cuban cigars and triple cask 16-year Balvenie single malt scotch. Currently in the market for a watch that Asian business associates will recognize, he is leaning toward purchasing a Rolex Daytona despite the allure of Patek Philippe. When visiting California he collects red wine such as Opus One that carries with it a premium value and name recognition prestige in China.
Mr. Huang is interested in what matters to other successful people as his next plan is to begin a wealth management company in China. He sees great opportunities in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities of China whose population has size and wealth greater than most countries. Where he sees an opportunity is that many Chinese people still prefer investing in real estate, fixed income and assets they can see in their bank account or feel and touch such as gold. Mr. Huang believes that these investments are becoming more saturated in China. Thus his next business idea is based on marketing, educating and selling overseas wealth management products to this population in need of new investment avenues.
Mr. Huang says he has always believed he “has what it takes to succeed” and knew he was different from his colleagues in corporate America. After several years in pharmaceuticals “accepting all challenges and additional work for the team it was actually corporate politics that was my tipping point.” The sensation of feeling stuck due to imposing corporate politics inspired Mr. Huang to be in charge of his own destiny. During his pharmaceutical career, his ascent up the corporate ladder lagged his drive. Early on, it was an indicator he may have to change companies or be stuck in middle management. In the end, it was the indicator he needed to make a jump to his entrepreneurial pursuits. While he’s quick to note, “I’m not rich yet,” he adds “I did learn a lot in Mongolia” and “I want to make enough of an impact” to join the billionaires club. As opposed to his prior career track in pharmaceuticals, when he falls short at entrepreneurship, he knows he is one effort closer to this success.
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