From Creditor to CFO

#turnaround #oceanushistory #governance

An Interview with Duane Ho, CFO of Oceanus Group, on his unlikely journey from creditor to CFO

“I can’t promise you an iron rice bowl. You might even have to take a pay cut. But what I can promise you is an adventure.” – Peter to Duane, when inviting him to join Oceanus.

In 2015, a young accountant from a management consultancy firm was attempting to help creditors recover defaulted debts from a Singapore-listed company about to become insolvent. He found the company’s internal systems and records in disarray. To that end, the instructions he received from the creditors were simple: “It’s a write-off. Take control and sell everything.”

Two years later, in the most unlikely twist of fate, he became that company’s Group CFO. This young accountant was Duane Ho, and the company – Oceanus Group.

Back in 2015, Oceanus was fighting for its life. It had been placed on the Singapore Exchange’s watchlist. Its previous management was ready to give up and shut down, and its investors had written it off entirely.

When Peter Koh, the newly-appointed CEO of Oceanus took over and started rebuilding his team, he was impressed by Duane’s competency and commitment to creating a strong restructuring plan for the company. He appealed to Duane to come onboard to turn the company around, to which the latter unexpectedly said yes. Duane explained:

“I was doing well but starting to feel jaded in the consultancy environment – you go in, execute the plan, then leave for the next project. I started to wonder: what would it be like to stay behind, take ownership and see through such a restructuring plan?”

Duane also joined because he was inspired by Peter’s clear commitment to rebuilding the company. The first moment of turn-around happened at the company’s Annual General Meeting in December 2017, when Peter won over 99% of shareholders with the restructuring plan that Duane and his team crafted.

The Big Clean Up Adventure

The real work began after that. Leading a skeletal team, Duane began the process of what’s now known as the “Clean Up” phase of Oceanus.

For Oceanus’ annual financial reports had received a “Disclaimer of Opinion” from auditors – the worst possible report, which meant that the accounts were so unverifiable that auditors refused to give an opinion. A publicly-listed company with a Disclaimer of Opinion was disastrous because it would make it impossible to attraction new investors or business partners.

The team began cleaning up nine years of mismanaged accounts. “It was a large-scale forensic exercise. We had to find every piece of paper, search every file, comb through the data in every server. We even visited warehouses to dig out boxes of documents.”

Those years were characterised by late nights, elbow grease, blood, sweat and tears. And yet, “it meant everything to us. It’s a prerequisite for Oceanus to grow.”

In two years, the team cleaned up all legacy issues, and Oceanus became one of the very few companies to turn a “Disclaimer of Opinion” into a “Clean” unqualified audit opinion.

From Clean Up to Tech Up

In the ensuing years, Duane and the Oceanus management have celebrated many milestones – exiting the Singapore Exchange Watchlist; diversifying the company beyond its single aquaculture farming business; and most recently, embarking on the firm’s Tech Up phase.

Duane’s especially excited about the new project ODIN, the first platform of its kind designed to revolutionize the way global food trade is financed. He’s also looking forward to Oceanus’ first move out of Asia into the US, which will bring in new partnerships and collaborations.

All these serve to fulfil Oceanus’ new vision, Food Without Borders, which imagines a world in which food could move frictionlessly across the world.

“Food is a global necessity. Yet people sometimes can’t buy it due to difficulties in finding reliable food sources, dealing with customs, delivering food quickly and efficiently. That’s where we come in,” he said. “Bringing food across borders is what we’re best at.”

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