Stradivari Strings featured in the Sunday Times on 20th June 2019

Stradivari Strings featured in the Sunday Times on 20th June 2019
Featured in the Sunday Times on 20th June 2019

Hitting the high notes in music and investments

She runs a music school, sells antique music instruments and invests in equities, bullion, real estate and cryptocurrency.

Music has always been entrepreneur Rita Yeo’s first love, from playing the piano as a child to heading the soprano section in the choir at university, so it is no surprise that it has allowed her to hit the high notes in business as well.

Ms Yeo, 48, is founding director of Stradivari Strings, a specialist shop which deals in handcrafted violins, violas, cellos and bows sourced from all over the world.

The store has a range of antique music instruments ranging in age from 90 to 280 years old.

She also runs a music centre with 25 teachers who conduct classes in violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, saxophone, guitar, ukulele, piano and keyboards.

The centre focuses on one-to-one coaching and students can choose to go the leisure route or undertake an exam-based option in their music education.

There are also maestro-level coaches who conduct master classes to help students refine their performance techniques.

Ms Yeo said: “The violin, viola and cello are much like the human vocal box. It’s not easy to learn bowing techniques to produce good tone without a coach.

“Students need an inspiring coach as well as a good tool (the violin, cello and bow) to practise on. With this in mind, I built contacts with music teachers who are passionate about coaching.

“For the retail side, it was a steep learning curve as I picked up knowledge pertaining to bowed music instruments, such as the intricate process it takes to handcraft an instrument and what influences its tonal quality.

“I developed a network of connections with luthiers (makers of stringed instruments), bow-makers and dealers around the world.”

The start-up capital for Stradivari Strings was less than $100,000 when it started in 2010. The business broke even in less than a year.


Ms Yeo said: “This was achieved by strategically keeping inventory levels focused to best-sellers in the initial year, turning the inventory fast and reinvesting profits back to the business.”

She is exploring technology to create a smart sensor that will monitor the accuracy in a person’s playing techniques.

Ms Yeo, who is single, has a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in sociology from the National University of Singapore and an Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Grade 8.

After university, she worked as a management trainee in Duty Free Shoppers. She was with the company for 14 years and rose from management trainee to buyer, and division merchandise manager.

She then moved on to be director of Glam Rox Singapore and Malaysia, a consultant for new-to-market fashion brands looking to launch in these two countries.

Q What’s in your portfolio?

A My investment portfolio includes my business, stocks and shares, property, bullion and cryptocurrency.

My business is invested in a wide range of bowed strings instruments handcrafted by contemporary luthiers, as well as luthiers who have died.

Depending on the pedigree of the maker, the tone quality of the violin or cello, the playability of the bow and the scarcity of the music instrument by a particular maker, these antique music instruments appreciate in value over time.

The oldest violin I own is one by Sebastian Klotz (1696-1768). I also own a rare cello by French-Swiss maker Lucien Schmitt (1892-1984).

Old bowed strings instruments are alternative investments which are not correlated to traditional investments such as stocks, bonds, commodities and real estate.

Over the past 20 years, many instruments in the top category have climbed in value by 12 to 15 per cent per annum, with virtually no downside volatility.

I acquired the Lucien Schmitt cello five years ago at $20,000. Its current value is between $60,000 and $80,000.

The Sebastian Klotz violin, handcrafted in 1731, was acquired nine years ago at $18,000. It is currently valued at between $70,000 and $90,000.

I take a long-term view in making investment decisions. The time-frame is typically one year to three years for equities. There is a basket of blue-chip shares which I hold for a cycle of 10 years or more, while reaping dividends and price upside. The timeframe for property and bullion can be more.

From 2002 to 2008, I bought and liquidated two investment properties. One was a 1,500 sq ft industrial unit in Pandan Loop which had appreciated by 20 per cent at the time of sale.

The other was a one-bedroom, 99-year leasehold, 500 sq ft apartment in Tanjong Pagar. The price had doubled when I sold it after four years.

Worst and best bets

Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

A In 2004 when I started investing in stocks, I blindly relied on my broker’s recommendation and invested $5,000 in a company which designed, manufactured and distributed medical apparatus. I was not familiar with that business and did not actively manage my portfolio then.

Subsequently, I lost almost all my investment when the stock was delisted from the SGX many years later.

The lesson is to always learn as much as I can about the businesses I intend to invest in. Never invest blindly in anything based purely on recommendations. And always take an active interest in managing one’s investment portfolio.

I started investing relatively late, when I was in my early 30s.

I should have started on financial literacy at an earlier age. Time is an asset where investing is concerned.

Q And your best investment?

A My best investment is in myself and my business. I am proud of my business as it is something that I have nurtured over the years, putting in time and effort to build it up from scratch. I am also proud that Stradivari Strings has the potential to positively influence and cultivate 6 to 7 per cent of Singapore’s population (who are, by my estimates, bowed string-instrument learners).

By positioning Stradivari Strings in the music niche and differentiating my brand in terms of service and product offerings, I have also built my business value manifold since its inception.

I prefer not to discuss hard numbers, but the initial capital outlay took less than a year to recoup. Subsequently, I reinvested profits into the business by building up inventory levels and mapping out the service so that each student who desires to embark on music lessons enjoys a seamless experience.

As I grow the value of the business, it concurrently generates a stream of income.

Around 20 per cent of my portfolio is in non-traditional alternative investments, split between two polar opposite assets. One is tangible, the other is not.

The tangible asset is in physical bullion, which is securely stored in a vault. I am heavily weighted in silver bullion. My collection consists mainly of Perth mint silver bars, Canadian maple silver coins, Perth mint kookaburras and koala coins.

I am bullish on gold and foresee its price heading north beyond US$2,000 (S$2,733) in the near future. Silver’s value is intrinsically tied to gold. Based on the ratio of silver versus gold, silver prices will have a parabolic move upwards when gold moves up.

The other non-traditional alternative asset is in cryptocurrency. I opted to get exposure to blockchain, which is the record-keeping technology behind bitcoin, through cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is the most direct way of investing in this technology.

I invested in this in April 2017, before the herd entered. I hold a basket of the top volume-ranking cryptocurrency in my portfolio. The price swings can be wide and this presents trading opportunities, which I catch to trade for more cryptocurrency. If the next wave of hot money flows in, cryptocurrency prices could supersede the previous high at the end of 2017.

For insurance, I have a single-premium insurance savings plan with income payout for life. This plan preserves my wealth and protects my capital. It also covers against death and accidental disability.

Real estate, equities and my business form around 65 per cent of my portfolio. Cash forms 15 per cent.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A Before I invest in anything, I would spend time researching and understanding it. It has to have high potential and be undervalued. I have a ballpark target in terms of the time horizon and returns. Once this is realised, I take profit and move on. Occasionally, I take a loss and reinvest the funds, in an alternative asset class which has upside. It is important to take a clinical approach to investing and not fall in love with your investment.

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I grew up in Serangoon Gardens with four older brothers.

Before they retired, my mother was a schoolteacher and my father worked for a reinsurance firm for many years.

I got my entrepreneurial blood from my mother. In her younger days, she loved to collect and wear beautiful pieces of handcrafted fine jewellery. A few of her acquaintances liked some of her jewellery pieces and that was the start of her informal side business, selling jewellery to acquaintances.

With half of the profit made, she invested in jewellery for herself. The other half of her profit went into a fixed deposit savings account for the family.

From this, I learnt a few important lessons. First, one can start a business with little money down. Second, grow the business by reinvesting profits with a focus on assets which can increase in value over time. Three, provide exceptional customer service and treat your customers and suppliers as friends.

Q Home is now…

A Home is now a freehold, corner terrace in the east.

Q I drive…

A I had fun zipping around town in a black Audi TT coupe for 10 years. However, it was underused and I sold it when the certificate of entitlement expired in March last year. Singapore has an eļ¬ƒcient public transport system and this is my main mode of transport now. On busy days, I can clear work on the go while I’m on public transport.

Source: THE STRAITS TIMES

Credit to Andrew Chow for securing this media interview.