In 1993, Kuan Lim (BComm ’97) chose to pursue her undergraduate studies in Australia. However, she faced a tough decision in choosing where to study, made all the more difficult by the 3,600 kilometres between her two preferred cities.
“It was either Perth or Canberra,” she recalls.
Ultimately, it was The Australian National University (ANU) and the ‘bush capital’ that won her heart.
“I chose Canberra because it was further away from home,” Kuan chuckles.
Shortly after settling into life at ANU, another contender for Kuan’s heart emerged when she met Matt Richards (BAsSt (Hons) ’97, LLB (Hons)/GDLP ’99). Matt, a Sydneysider lured to ANU by his own sense of adventure, met Kuan during one of their lectures.
“Little did I know that this guy who sat beside me in our political science class – wearing his Canterbury striped rugby jumper similar to Where’s Wally but in blue and white – would end up being my life partner,” quips Kuan.
“Like Wally, I soon discovered that Matt was doing a variety of amusing things at a given setting. To this day, he is always doing something interesting!” she continues.
It marked the beginning of a bond that would take them to new personal and professional horizons. In February 2012, they established WATIGA - an independent, Singapore-based professional services firm specialising in trust and fiduciary, funds, corporate and legal services.
Matt, as founder and CEO, and Kuan, the company’s CFO, have built WATIGA as an emerging professional services firm in Southeast Asia. From modest beginnings as a consultancy, it has evolved into a multifaceted company encompassing service lines that cater to the different needs of its clients across the Asia Pacific.
Building upon their professional expertise and facing a crossroads in their personal and professional lives, and their son Jake was starting his education soon – Matt and Kuan were inspired to channel their entrepreneurial spirits and set up the company.
“We wanted Jake to have an Australian education, however most of our personal and business contacts were still in Asia,” Matt says.
“We decided that we needed our own platform and the flexibility to travel back and forth (between Asia and Australia), and we were fortunate that we had clients who were willing to support us in this journey,” he adds.
WATIGA operates three different business verticals: WATIGA LEGAL which has a focus on corporate law; WATIGA TRUST, where they manage corporate finance structures as well as private client trusts; and WATIGA ASIA, a corporate services firm that handles fund administration and other corporate maintenance services.
“When we first coined the idea to start WATIGA, it was just the two of us. Now there are approximately 3 dozen professionals in WATIGA. We wouldn’t have known back then that this is the path we’d end up taking,” Matt recalls.
Setting up a business that covers the Asia-Pacific region has presented many different challenges. In addition to the various regulatory issues brought about by constant changes that come with working in the industry, they also have to navigate the varying cultures, geographies, politics and economics that come from working with the different countries in the region.
But these same challenges, along with seeing their team members rise to these challenges and their clients getting the bespoke solutions they can offer, fuel their sense of fulfilment.
“The region has many different obstacles that we need to navigate through, and that variety energises me because every day is different,” commends Matt.
“The variety is a plus, especially for our team members who are keen learners,” adds Kuan.
“They work on different projects which helps their growth. When we see our team members genuinely excited in the work that they do, that shows us that we are progressing well.”
The geographic location of WATIGA is also crucial in helping them navigate these challenges. Matt highlighted the fact that Singapore has a stable environment that allows new businesses to thrive as an essential factor in WATIGA’s growth over the past 11 and a half years.
“We are very fortunate because Singapore is a major financial hub of Asia and we are surrounded by growing economies and developing countries – we just have to be agile and adapt to changes as they come,” exclaims Matt.
The future and the value of internship programs
As Matt and Kuan continue on their journey, they can’t help but look back fondly at their time at the ANU. Matt still remembers the inviting scent of freshly baked bread from the old bakery and the popular fluff that signifies it’s almost exam time, while Kuan remembers Canberra as an excellent environment to learn.
It is this fondness, along with their commitment to paying it forward, which has led them to establish the WATIGA Internship Program, recently taking on four students from the ANU College of Law.
“My first career break was a summer clerkship during my final year of law. A partner at Baker McKenzie Singapore was one of the few ones who replied to applications I sent out. He was kind enough to let me have a summer work experience,” Matt recalls.
“Without that, perhaps my journey wouldn’t have gone the way that it has and since then, I have wanted to provide a similar opportunity to others if I had a chance,” he continues.
The WATIGA Internship Program, in partnership with the ANU College of Law, has provided an opportunity for law students to have a similar experience as Matt – getting valuable on the field experience while also learning some of the intricacies of the legal landscape internationally.
But it has also been equally beneficial to the company as it gives its team a chance to interact and learn from the next generation of legal professionals. Matt and Kuan note that the students offer a different lens on the world and some of the conversations that flow from that end up being educational for everyone involved.
More importantly, it has allowed them to stay true to their core value of giving back and they encourage others to do the same.
“Our journey has equipped us to help others which is important because we’ve always said that if we can empower others and pay it forward, we will be satisfied with how things panned out for us,” adds Matt.
In the future, Matt and Kuan express hope that the program continues to grow and gives more students the opportunity to gain valuable professional and life experiences.
“We envisage to eventually have more students participate in this program in the future, not just from law but also from other colleges like the College of Business and Economics,” Kuan says.