I Am Gen.T: MFT Group Founder Mica Tan On Starting Her Multimillion-Dollar Investment Firm At 19
The 27-year-old founder of private equity firm MFT Group on female leadership, the future of investing and why safe is the new risky
At just 19 years old Mica Tan decided she was going to start her own business. Fast forward eight years and Tan, now 27, has done exactly that: her private equity firm, MFT Group, operates in nine countries and 18 cities worldwide, and has assets of more than US$61 million.
Tan’s decision to start MFT Group was triggered by an unexpected source: her first heartbreak. “I was at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to study finance in New York or stay home,” she says. The breakup made her decide to stay in the Philippines and start her company. “I just went all out on my career, so that one day the guy who broke my heart would read about me and wish he hadn’t broken up with me. Oh, and that guy who broke my heart ended up as my husband.”
Tan’s journey hasn’t been without its challenges. “I’ve been underestimated many times and my height doesn’t help—I’m 5 foot 1 [155cm], and often people think I’m the PA,” she says, “But I just don’t focus on what they think or how they judge; I just work on the results really, really hard—so when it comes to meetings, I just talk results.”
Why did you decide to focus MFT Group on legacy businesses? And why are other firms not doing the same thing?
Family or legacy businesses are undoubtedly the backbone of many economies, especially where I am from in the Philippines. In the past few years we have seen an increasing number of investors putting a significant portion of their money into family businesses, and most of the large businesses today were initiated by families, which we see as a strength.
Family businesses have also proved to be more profitable than other types of businesses: investors can get a high profit ratio within a brief period of time and a lot of market studies suggest that family businesses are a reliable way to increase revenues. Family legacy businesses also offer better governance compared to non-family businesses.
I think what scares other companies is inheritance disputes. Perhaps they aren’t aware that a family owned business has a much lower probability of internal legal risk overall—and the lower the legal risk factor, the more likely it can attract more investors.
You’re a millennial, but you often credit your family and older mentors for aiding your success. How have different generations shaped your company?
It’s a challenge being a millennial in a world of mostly baby boomers, but it is exciting. I grew up with five siblings, and I’m the youngest; I grew up with Gen Xers as siblings and baby boomers as parents, which allowed me to adjust from a young age.
At work we manage multiple generations and it’s really about addressing and taking advantage of the differences in values and expectations of each of the generations—but not so it’s a disadvantage to older workers. We educate our managers and we want every person in the company to recognise the generational differences and adapt accordingly. It’s important that managers change rather than trying to change the staff.
You have achieved a lot of success at a young age. Have there been moments where you’ve found yourself underestimated for the same reason? If so, how do you overcome it?
I think more than just being underestimated, women in general are underrepresented in the top ranking positions across a wide range of professions. It leads to women being reluctant to engage in competition. I feel that hasn’t been much of a challenge for me because I am very competitive—I think I had to be because most of my siblings growing up were very outspoken and I was the youngest in the pack.
It’s also essential to have confidence in what you’re capable of doing. My mentality is that as long as I come prepared, then that will change the way people view things.
See also: I Am Generation T: Michelle Sun
You’ve previously talked about "failing forward". What does that mean?
Failing forward means that you also bounce back and I believe that every business is in the business of bouncing back. It’s really about surrounding myself with people who are better than me, smarter than me, faster than me, and having the humility to learn from everybody around us. I can make mistakes on my own, but once I’ve identified the mistakes I make sure I build a team in order to not make those mistakes again.
The theme of April's Gen.T Asia Summit is breaking barriers. As you’ve gotten older and more experienced, how has your ability to overcome obstacles evolved?
I think obstacles are part of the momentum—it stops it for a bit and it starts it again, and it’s up to us to really trigger that. I started gaining more momentum when I started leaving small fights to small fighters. I stopped fighting those who tried to put me down, be it personal, business or political. I left such fights for those who maybe have nothing else to fight for, and I started fighting for my vision, my dreams and my ideas. The best advice that I could give to young women like myself is that some battles are not worth your time, so choose what you fight for wisely.
You turned down a place at university and started a business at 19. Do you think more people should turn away from social norms and take risks like that?
I think safe is the new risky. I know that it’s cliche and there’s a book about it but I believe in blooming wherever we’re planted and if I guess a certain person can accept that level of responsibility and be accountable for every decision, then yes. I believe we all have our different paths and we all have our mountains to climb, but it shouldn’t take too long to climb a certain mountain or to choose which mountain, so just climb and next thing you know you’ll enjoy the view going up.
Do you face gender-specific challenges as a female CEO, and is there a particular mindset that has helped you overcome them?
I do, but not as gravely as in other communities; we don’t feel it so much here in the Philippines, because we’ve been led by a couple of female presidents and there’s a growing number of female CEOs here. But the mindset that would help me and other women is coming prepared, being humble enough to say what we don’t know and what we know and, if we know certain things, then having enough confidence to show our abilities. But I do want to note that the Philippines climbed two notches to eighth place in the latest World Economic Forum gender gap report and we’ve maintained our position as one of the most gender equal countries in Asia. However, yes, when I travel abroad I do face these challenges.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
If you want to lead a company of dwarves then surround yourself with dwarves; if you want to lead a company of giants then surround yourself with giants. Most of the time I feel like I am that little dwarf lucky enough to be in a room full of giants.
What do you see as the next disruptor in your industry?
Well, private equity firms love disruption; that’s how we look for value creation opportunities, and right now we’re finding that specific disruption is on everyone’s radar. I may not have a specific area because we are involved in multiple sectors but what I can share is that 10 years ago relationships mattered the most in private equity: that’s how they made their deal structures. While we still value relationships, now it’s about data and investing in the right opportunities to gather more data.
Data drives everything and one key driver of the disruption in our industry is that the private equity market has become far more competitive; it’s now quite difficult to differentiate the strengths of general partners.
What’s a book that changed your life?
I have four. I read these books over and over again, and they’ve come to my life at certain stages when they were very strategic: Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi—and for the past eight or nine years I’ve never eaten alone; The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday, which is more philosophical and talks about turning adversity into opportunity; What It Takes by Stephen Schwarzman, which talks about a way of thinking, how to build an interesting life and an interesting career that goes with it; and the fourth is very interesting, and matches where I am at this current stage in my life. It’s called Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Dan Gardner and Philip Tetlock, and it revolves around research on the art of forecasting. It is a learned skill, being cautious, humble and pragmatic.
What productivity hacks do you swear by?
Something we call the MFT calendar. The calendar has always been a critical part of the development of civilisation and it continues to shape how we think of time, so here at MFT we have a calendar system that allows us to accomplish more in a shorter period of time. Essentially our calendar incorporates the simple practice of putting two lines dividing each week into three parts, so Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is our week one, Thursday, Friday, Saturday is our week two and Sunday is intended for rest. The two lines serve as a reference point that triggers the start of another week. It’s a simple device that creates a better guide to focus our attention on the daily management of time or the perception of it. We have two weeks in one week and this has allowed us to achieve results in shorter periods of time.
Who was your mentor growing up and why?
At first I thought successful people or business leaders only had one mentor. I thought wrong. I believe we don’t need to look so far, because my dad was a mentor to me at a point in my life; he was an oncologist and his attention to detail is something that I embrace. My mum on the other had was a jeweller; she chose that profession because she enjoyed parties, and she taught me to dance through life no matter what music is playing, and how to build relationships over meals. That’s why we are active in the F&B industry.
And there are two other specific business leaders: one who is a patriarch of one of the largest pawn shop chains in the Philippines, who introduced me to the strengths of family legacy businesses; and my current mentor, who is a president of one of the largest banks. What I am learning from him is efficient corporate governance, building efficiently and staying ahead in terms of mergers and acquisitions.