Randy Kwei’s “East to West to East”

Randy Kwei’s memoir “East to West To East” tells of a fascinating life story that spans multiple careers, continents and historic world events. The author grew up in the 1940s in a Shanghai under Japanese occupation, completed his studies and early training in the US and then eventually returned to Asia to help play a part in the economic development of the region. The overarching theme of his career and life has been that of bridging the gap between East and West, at a time when his skill set and level of intercultural understanding was still a rarity.

Kwei actually came to the investment advisory business and public market investing relatively late in his professional life. He was well into his 50s when he established Pacific Capital Management Limited with a mandate to invest in the Asia ex-Japan region. By then, he had already had successful careers in computing, banking and private equity. His unique set of experiences and disciplined, value-oriented approach helped him amass an enviable track record over ~14 years through 2008 (the time the book was written). His fund management company has since merged with another and is now JK Capital Management.

Without giving away too much, here are five things I learnt from his book:

1) A sense for how careers evolve.

One thing I appreciate about the book is how Kwei explains the specific transition points in his career. He had a directional sense of how he wanted his career to evolve but was also open to new and different opportunities along the way. The dots always connect looking back, but there seemed to be little career “engineering” at the time he was making his decisions. He is also straightforward in discussing his setbacks as well as the factors that drove his various choices. These obviously evolved over the years, but consistent themes in his career choices were the opportunity for learning, family considerations and a desire for some degree of autonomy. 

On a somewhat related note, I wish business schools, or perhaps even universities more generally, would add a “biographies” component to their core curriculum. Most careers do not follow straight line paths. Young professionals tend to focus disproportionately on outcomes but there are often a number of setbacks and crossroads that even wildly successful people encounter along the way. Encouraging alumni and other members of the community to come back and talk about their professional and personal journeys can perhaps help provide students with a sense of perspective and the tools or frameworks with which to make better decisions. 

2) The importance of anchors.

Kwei’s remarkable career spanned multiple continents, with stints in the US, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America. That is unusual even by today’s standards, where international careers are increasingly more commonplace. It does take a certain type of personality to be willing to take on such a range of postings in the first place but moving around that much can be especially disruptive for someone with a family and young children. As a reader, I got the sense that there were probably many challenging periods in terms of the frequent cultural adjustments required as well as the time Kwei often had to spend away from his family.

Contrary to what I might have expected, however, Kwei’s family ties and the connection to his heritage seemed to help rather than detract from his career outcomes. Stability at home and a strong sense of identity meant he was able to devote considerable energy to new and difficult assignments at work. Kwei’s career also had added purpose in that he perhaps saw achieved success as a means of providing a good set of opportunities for his children. Anchors and roots, far from tying you down, can actually set you free. 

3) Discipline is key, especially in investing.

According to Kwei, there are three very important qualities one needs to be a successful investor. First, the ability to think independently and not follow the crowd. Second, the temperament to remain calm when under significant pressure. Third, intellectual curiosity about the world around oneself. I would add another perhaps underappreciated quality to that list: discipline. Only by adopting a rigorous and disciplined approach can an investor come to terms with what Seth Klarman calls the “relentless continuity” of the investment process.

In many ways, Kwei’s personality probably made him well suited to an investment career. He comes across throughout the book as being thoughtful, organised and very much aware of the habits and systems he adopts in his broader, day-to-day life. This is reflected, for example, through his commitment to a daily routine, balanced diet and regular exercise. My overall sense was that it was less his unique insight or grasp of business models (à la Buffett) and more his commitment to a disciplined process that made him a successful investor. A long term outlook and value orientation (he studied under Dodd at Columbia) also helped.

4) Commit to being a lifelong learner.

Most stand-out investors are curious about the world and Kwei is no different. He clearly values traditional education but has also learnt a great deal over the years from reading as well as through conversations with friends and mentors. His willingness to regularly take on new and unfamiliar challenges over the course of his career further illustrate this commitment to learning. The various insights and lessons from his experiences have snowballed over time and he has been able to successfully apply a deep knowledge of psychology, economics, politics and history to investing.

In his only real bit of career advice in the book, Kwei writes that, regardless of your path, it is important to be “engaged in a craft or a profession that [continually] demands your mental energies and challenges your ability to think.” In his view, one should ideally never truly retire.

5) Have an underlying life philosophy.

Kwei’s outlook on life is heavily influenced by Confucian (as well as Buddhist) values and practices. Central to his philosophy are the search for contentment, balance and detachment. Kwei writes that he has thankfully been blessed with an innate ability to find joy and gratification from “an inner depth in everyday life’s observations and engagements.” In his view, another aspect of being content comes from seeking balance in everything that touches you. One must have the ability to see the good in the bad. Finally, he says that we are too often consumed with self-righteousness or a mistaken sense of self-interest. As a result, we fail to see things objectively. Ultimately, fulfilment cannot come seeking external rewards; it can only come from within.