Creador founder Brahmal Vasudevan on enhancing financial literacy in Malaysia through CSR programme Multiply

12.09.20 / Author: Anandhi Gopinath

The private equity firm is providing Malaysians with a valuable platform to access quality information on the subject for free in an easily understood format.

Creador deals with finance, but the thing I will remember most about its office is the art. My favorite is Birth of a Nation/Death of a Nation by Ivan Lam — a majestic piece in resin that features elements of the Jalur Gemilang, it takes up almost an entire wall in the entrance area. Damien Hirst’s Five Stages of Dying provides a glorious pop of colour to a corridor that connects the foyer to the offices within, where a piece by architect/artist Indra Ramanathan takes pride of place. In another nook sits a brass Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god said to be the remover of all obstacles, while several sculptures I am unable to get the details of dot the rest of the space. There is a disarming honesty that emerges as a theme to what I see — this is a collection anchored by passion and love, not quite dictated by investment value.

A private equity firm focused on high-growth markets in South and Southeast Asia — one often needs good money for good art — Creador was founded by Brahmal Vasudevan in 2011. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Imperial College, London, he spent time at British American Tobacco, Boston Consulting Group and Astro before assuming the position of managing director of ChrysCapital, a leading private equity firm focused on growth capital investments in India. Upon returning to Malaysia, he started Creador.

The company, with offices in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka, has done remarkably well over the years. It has raised close to US$1.5 billion (RM6.2 billion) of investor commitments across four private equity funds since its inception and has invested in a variety of industries, including financial services, consumer durables, retail, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, media and business services.

There is nothing like dealing with money and young people in new markets to make one realise the deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots — only in this case, it is about those who have an understanding of finance and those who do not. Financial literacy, and the glaring lack thereof, has been a major issue in many countries in the region as household debt continues to rise amid suddenly burgeoning economies.

The reasons are shockingly simple — unknowingly taking loans beyond one’s means or failing to understand how credit cards work. On the local front, the data is not particularly encouraging. According to a 2018 report by the Credit Counseling and Debt Management Agency (AKPK), titled “Financial Behaviour and State of Financial Well-being of Malaysian Working Adults”, 33% of Malaysians think they have low financial knowledge.

Creador’s answer to this is Multiply, an online financial education platform aimed at simplifying personal finance for young adults in Malaysia. While it is likely the only one of its kind in the world that unifies quite as many financial literacy topics, its true stock-in-trade is its method of delivery — information is relayed through easily relatable videos, guides, blog posts and calculators and info graphics, which make the often-intimidating parts of finance seem relatively easy to understand. Most importantly, the vast repository of information on the platform is available absolutely free in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.

Multiply is a major thrust of the Creador Foundation, which Brahmal set up with three other trustees — his wife Shanthi Kandiah, Datuk Badri Masri and Dr Thillainathan Ramasamy — to support the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities in the areas of education as well as arts and culture. Although our meeting point was Creador’s office, the foundation is actually physically based in a smaller, more modest space closer to Shanthi’s law firm in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur.

“When we came back from India and started Creador, we decided right then that part of the profits of the firm would be directed towards the foundation, which would initially allow us to fund its activities here and in our other markets,” Brahmal begins. “That was essentially the genesis. And then, we started thinking about how we could translate this into something more impactful that could touch the lives of millions of people. Financial literacy is but one of the ways, and doesn’t apply only to Malaysia. Once we get Multiply up and running, we want to replicate it in the other countries in which we operate.”

As it turns out, Multiply was actually Shanthi’s idea and based somewhat on personal experience. “I was watching Fareed Zakaria on TV and he was presenting some statistics on the lack of financial literacy in the US — how it is not incorporated into formal education and how some countries like China fared better than others,” she says. “This was something I thought would fit within the Creador skill set. We have young people who deal with finance on a daily basis and their knowledge on the subject is far superior to mine,— and I’m a lawyer! So, I thought a platform to get them to share their own tips on personal finance would be wonderful; and that evolved into Multiply over time. As Anisha [Pradhan], Shobana [Sivanendran], Ellina [Badri] and Kaveesh [Vijendran] came on board, we started to see what the specific gaps in knowledge were that needed to be filled, and how to fill that.”

Shanthi is referring to Multiply’s young and highly qualified team, which is directly responsible for managing the platform, from deciding on and sourcing content, planning its delivery — grid, graph or video, for example — and communicating with focus groups on its efficacy to planning what topics to tackle next. Another notable aspect of Multiply is how it is driven by research and data. All the information is chosen based on consumer feedback and analytics, approved by Creador’s teams, tested and retested for efficacy and then run by Brahmal before it goes live.

I spent much of my twenties and thirties with a very rudimentary understanding of what my money could do for me and, at 41, I see how many opportunities I have missed. The 20- and 30-somethings today have it much harder than I did, because the financial landscape has become more dynamic and there are far more options today than there were even a decade ago. The nature of global finance has changed, as have the kinds of products that are available. Gaining control over one’s financial freedom is very liberating, but that starts with having the right information. Creador has distilled the wealth of its knowledge and insights for Multiply, creating a bank of information that is easily navigable, applicable to real-life situations and designed to be understood by a non-financial audience. This is not some CSR programme launched for the sake of it, but one with a genuine intention to educate and inform.

Sharing much of Brahmal and Shanthi’s sense of ownership over Multiply, the team has an almost instinctive understanding of what it is meant to achieve and can explain in stunning clarity why financial literacy remains a challenge for so many — because the basics are not incorporated into education at a tertiary level and so, the understanding is cursory at best and does not carry through to the rest of their adulthood.

The team’s research unearthed many more insights that prove quite interesting. For example, the lack of financial literacy is a problem in both emerging and developing economies, as consumers in developed or advanced economies also fail to demonstrate a strong grasp of financial principles in order to understand and negotiate the financial landscape, manage financial risks effectively and avoid financial pitfalls. Asia, Europe and the US have populations that do not understand financial basics.

Although the level of financial literacy varies according to education and income levels, evidence shows that highly educated consumers with high incomes can be just as ignorant about financial issues as less educated, lower-income consumers. But the issue is that learning about finances is stressful — the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development cited a survey conducted in Canada that found that choosing the right investment for a retirement savings plan was more stressful than a visit to the dentist. Creador’s approach with Multiply is non-intrusive, which provides consumers with a safe environment to explore aspects of financial literacy in a friendly, non-intimidating way.

“As we know, for a lot of Malaysians, questions around financial topics — how to save, invest or borrow money —are simple, but a lot of people don’t know the basics. What we are trying to do, essentially, is provide a fundamental outline of the things they should be thinking about in a simple and an easy-to-understand way,” says Brahmal. “Processing the information for Multiply is quite a lengthy process, although with the blogs, we try and are a bit faster. Some guides need to be researched in detail and that takes time. But if something new is announced today, we need to be able to respond to that quickly.”

“We are making the best use of the talent and knowledge that already exists within these walls, but also my perspective on what financial ignorance looks like,” Shanthi adds with a good-natured chuckle. “The litmus test is if I don’t understand it, it is not going out! I genuinely think my greatest value-add to the process is saying, `I don’t get it’, and there is a valuable angle to that.”

The room erupts in laughter and the banter continues as Shanthi jokingly confesses that her husband is the financial whizz who thinks in Excel sheets, while she is very much unlike him and tends to think in words. With such opposing personalities, I can see how both of their contributions were imperative for Multiply’s existence — Brahmal’s understanding of finance may have been the engine to power this initiative, but Shanthi is responsible for its raison d’être and its heart.

“What I’ve learnt in life is that, whenever I’ve taken on something new with information and without information, the results are very different,” she says thoughtfully. “If I walk into something informed, I make much better decisions, often ones I can live with and not regret. But if I’m not adequately informed, often I have to pivot and change something. So, hopefully, this site becomes a way to get us all just a bit more informed about our personal finances. This is one of the most important things that lead to longevity and happiness — feeling secure in the financial decisions you make mean a lot. Through Brahmal, I’ve learnt a lot about the subject, but this entire process has been so educational for me.”

Naturally quite self-deprecating, Brahmal is put on the spot when I ask him what Creador has done for Multiply that no other company could have. He thinks long and hard before replying. “First, that we made the choice to do it — a lot of people could have done this, but they haven’t. It’s about giving back, and we are committed to the idea that a meaningful part of our profits will impact the societies in which we work. Second, it’s how we bring this expertise that we have as one of the leading investors in the region to the masses, and that’s quite a big bridge. So, we have to find the balance — in terms of topics and also how we can simplify things enough so it is understandable to someone who may not have a lot of financial knowledge. We’ve had a number of teams from Creador working alongside Aneesha, Shobana, Kaveesh and Ellina on each topic.”

The couple is clearly invested in Multiply on a personal level, evident from the amount of resources that have been plunged into making it work and the thoughtful manner in which they have considered its future. “What will give us the most fulfillment would be when we meet someone and they say, ‘I learnt so much about buying a house that I didn’t understand before.’ If we could repeat that with a million people, it would be a fantastic achievement,” he remarks.

Anisha steps in with statistics on unique visitors —launched in July, it has racked up 25,000 views — and Multiply’s presence on social media, and Brahmal nods approvingly. “It has taken us two years to get here,” he says, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “In Malaysia, getting to a million users in a couple of years is a good target, getting a high degree of repeat usage would be another one. Then, being able to roll this out in the other countries in which we operate over the next few years is the key, which will require a good amount of customisation, for which we will need a local foundation team to transfer, absorb and adopt. I don’t know how to measure this, but [in terms of] impact … we can broadcast, but what are people receiving? What is the impact of Multiply on those one million people?”

The next step for Multiply is getting the word out that it exists. The team’s partner-based approach is two-pronged: those who can connect with a wide number of people and those who can reach marginalised communities that Creador cannot. At present, their partner list includes Financial Education Network (FENetwork) — an inter-agency grouping co-chaired by Bank Negara Malaysia and the Securities Commission Malaysia — credit reporting agency CTOS and Astro.

Eventually, the team will also reach out to banks as well as institutions of higher learning, although stopping short of attempting to influence policy changes related to the incorporation of financial literacy in mainstream education. “I think these things are complicated, so we would rather this be a private sector initiative, where we are promoting it to the masses and we hope consumers take it forward. In the event any government agencies think this is beneficial, we will be more than happy to share our resources and learnings,” says Brahmal.

The conversation later meanders to the other focus of the foundation, which is arts and culture. Last year, in partnership with the Wei-Ling Gallery, the foundation provided Malaysian artists Anurendra Jegadeva, Ivan Lam, H H Lim, and Zulkifli Yusoff with the opportunity to present their works at the internationally renowned La Biennale di Venezia. With the performing arts, the foundation has done something similar to its approach to Multiply — to paraphrase the old adage, teaching someone to catch the fish instead of merely giving them one — so that beneficiaries do not just receive financial support but also critical assistance for their sustenance.

A team from Creador was stationed at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in Sentul, and reviewed its internal processes with the intention of making them more efficient. “We are one of [klpac’s] many donors, but we are more than that for them. They are brilliant and they know what they are doing, but we are helping them take things to the next level,” says Brahmal.

To the question of increasing the scale of this exercise, his expression becomes a bit wary. “We would like to, but the issue is that we don’t have the resources to work with 100 arts organisations. But if we can do things that benefit the industry? Perhaps. We are trying to move away from supporting individuals to supporting institutions.” The idea is to help these organisations grow beyond the people who started them, and this is his hope for Multiply as well — that it continues to grow, driven not by what Creador wants, but by what its users need.

Collecting art requires a good eye, but it does not come about by accident. It is a function of knowledge and passion, and putting in consistent effort towards feeding and nurturing it. Similarly, it took a keen eye to identify the skill set in Creador that could benefit quite as many Malaysians, none of whom may even become direct clients of the boutique firm. Creador may be in the business of investing money, but its team’s passion for investing in the financial security of the average Malaysian will be the true legacy it leaves behind.

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