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We speak to A-PASS's investor - Capricorn Capital

Robin Harris a pass

2018 was certainly a milestone year for A-Pass, as family office Capricorn Capital took a strategic investment position in the company. A family-owned private investment business with offices in London, Johannesburg, Malta and Hong Kong, Capricorn Capital has a diverse portfolio of investments from the likes of Nando’s (one of the world's most successful F&B chains), Clientele (a leading direct insurance business), Auto & General (today known as Budget Group in the UK), luxury game lodges in South Africa and more.

We sit down with Robin Harris, A-PASS Director and Capricorn Capital's Managing Director for Hong Kong, about his role in growing A-Pass.

Corporate Secretarial companies aren't typically the most 'exciting' investment targets. What drew Capricorn to A-Pass?

I have always been drawn to the attractive financial characteristics of trust and corporate services firms, dating back to my time working for Equity Trust (now TMF). These businesses are akin to “financial infrastructure” with very stable predictable annuity style revenue streams. What’s more, unlike physical infrastructure such as bridges, toll roads, electricity grids etc, corporate services firms don’t require large investments of capital to maintain and grow earnings.In general, our mandate at Capricorn is to look for businesses with the following characteristics:

  • A business within our circle of competence – we can only deal in things we are capable of understanding
  • Has certain characteristics that give it a durable competitive advantage
  • Limited capital requirements
  • Reliable (‘sticky’) customers
  • Low risk of technological obsolescence
  • Abundant growth possibilities, and thus
  • Significant and growing free cash flow
  • A management team in place with a lot of integrity and talent

At the time, Capricorn was already invested in the corporate services sector in Europe and was looking to expand to Asia. It was by chance that I was introduced to A-Pass by a trusted friend at a law firm. When we met A-Pass founder Andrew Burgin, we knew instantly he was a man of great integrity and trust, and someone we wanted to partner with for the long term.

Capricorn is extremely lucky to have met and partnered with Andrew. He has been a wonderful partner from day one.

In what ways does Capricorn help A-Pass?

We are big users of corporate services around the world and hence brought on significant global expertise to help A-Pass continue to grow and operate more efficiently.

Tell us about yourself and your role at A-Pass.

I grew up in Hong Kong back in the early 1980’s, and have lived in HK for the past 20 years. I am now married with 2 kids (age 5 and 8), and my day to day is to fully focus on A-Pass by supporting Andrew Burgin (founder of A-PASS) to help grow the business. I take the lead on strategic acquisition discussions and talent acquisition – finding good quality people to work in the business (the most important asset of a corporate services business is the people!).

What sets A-Pass apart from its competitors?

The unique selling point of A-Pass is that it offers professional standards of one of the large global firms but with the flexibility and personal touch of a more focused team; under Andrew’s strong leadership.

What have some of the challenges been to date?

We have acquired other corporate services businesses and consolidated them under the A-Pass brand. Small firm M&A and the resulting integration of different systems, processes, and people is always a challenge. In my experience, the acquisitions are easy, it’s the integrations which are a real challenge!

A triumph of cooperation in turbulent times – last year we acquired Ethos, a HK based corporate services firm. This transaction was exceptional due to the fact that it was executed at the height of the Covid19 turmoil. The ability of all parties to navigate individual challenges, and still come to the table with the commitment to see the deal through, is a testament to the quality of service that they will continue to provide.

What are some of the wins you see from the acquisition?

It's a platform to grow / consolidate and it allowed us to insource a lot of Capricorn group work onto the platform. We're also hoping to do more acquisitions in the future – both for business and talent.

How do you plan to grow A-Pass?

We believe there is great potential in the mid-size corporate services segment, companies which need capital to grow but don’t want to be swallowed up, gutted or passed around. Capricorn’s form may be corporate, but our mindset is very much partnership, and our capital is extremely patient, something we feel differentiates us from traditional PE buyers. With so many markets across Asia Pacific experiencing rapid growth and attracting new companies, the market for high quality corporate services and in-depth local knowledge can only grow, and Capricorn has the expertise to help strong local businesses like A-Pass take advantage of this opportunity. We anticipate this to be the first of many such acquisitions for Capricorn Capital.

What advice do you have for other investment companies?

The most important piece of due diligence that you should do on any company, especially an “asset lite” business in the service sector like corporate services, is on the owner. 99.9% of your due diligence should be on the individual(s) to ensure they are talented, capable, trustworthy, and will make good long term partners. In my experience, these businesses are a reflection of the individuals that own them. Too often, investors get drawn in by the attractive financials, outlook, P&L, and forget to DD the operator. For my mind, it’s the most mission critical part of any transaction. As long term investors, Capricorn sees itself as a permanent home for the businesses we acquire – we see these investments as partnerships akin to a marriage, and so we spend a lot of time making sure it’s a good fit.

Tell us more about Capricorn Capital

Its roots date back to 1994 as the Private Equity arm of the Hollard Insurance Group, a global insurance business and South Africa’s largest privately-owned insurance company.

In 2003, Capricorn Capital Partners was formed as a separate business and its first office in Asia was opened in Hong Kong in 2015. Capricorn Capital’s approach and investment philosophy is grounded in family values, looking to build inter-generational businesses and teams that create long-term value.

Capricorn Capital Partners HK Limited, the Hong Kong arm of the family-owned global direct private investment business Capricorn Capital Group, made its first acquisition in Asia, by taking a majority stake in A-Pass, Hong Kong. By doing so, we spearheaded our long-term commitment to investing in the corporate services sector in the region.

Are you able to share other investments Capricorn has done?

In Asia, the focus is very much on the Trust and corporate services sector. Elsewhere across the group we have a much wider investment remit. Details of these investments can be found at www.capricorncapital.com.

Would you like to get in touch with Robin? You can contact him here.