January 23 2017
This job would carry me forward for the next six years to the present. I would engage in a series of power struggles before earning an imperial purview of my domain and a very flexible schedule. Day Job After three-and-a-half years of working as a investment banker, I re-joined the corporate world as an employee of a tiny start-up. The wealthy Chinese investor was in the initial stages of developing a port facility in northern China dedicated to importing lumber products from all over the world. He sought to complement this long-term strategic project with add-on investments in Canada. The Firm had already helped him make a passive investment in a public forestry company, through which he had no control but received industry insight. The investor also created a Vancouver office to pursue day-to-day business for further market awareness. The office exported lumber from Vancouver to China to keep a finger on the pulse of international trade. I joined this office nominally as a finance manager, eager to exercise my new found freedom in the entrepreneurial world. Together with my significant other and our Chinese-Canadian colleagues, we designed our office-space and our business processes. We purchased lumber locally and sold it to end-user customers in China. Due to the time-zone difference, we often needed to work late evenings to communicate with those in China, and we did so gladly, happy for the camaraderie of our empowered and flexible work employment. Given my background, I focused mostly on the financial aspects of the business. Although I had no training in accounting, I took over the financial reporting processes and tried to create clear and succinct reports on the company's performance. The investor himself largely left the running of the office to us as he spent most of his time in China. On the occasions he was in Vancouver, he would spend more time at social gatherings and on his other business ventures than in our office. To make the most of my exposure to accounting, I signed up for course work towards earning a professional designation. These courses were relatively easy compared to the arduous CFA exams, as the content was broken down into more than two dozen exams and by now I had far more experience with finance. Over the next few years, I would secure the accounting designation to compliment my CFA charter. At the outset, I yearned to add more value to the Chinese investor's vast enterprise to which I had purview only to the tiny lumber exporting business. The investor was curious about how the capital markets could help his Chinese enterprise, so I tapped my network and introduced him to a China-based fund manager. I chaperoned the fund manager on a tour of the investor's Chinese enterprises and gained a sense of the scale of his operations. Our destination was the city of Tangshan, less than two hours from the port city of Qinhuangdao where I had spent a large part of my childhood with my maternal grandparents. We were driven from Beijing airport directly to Tangshan in the investor's luxurious Maybach for the tour. The effort ultimately did not result in a transaction, but by helping the investor create a professional presentation describing his entire empire, I got a seat inside the tent and strengthened our relationship. In China, the investor sat atop a workforce of thousands and exercised a much more hands-on approach to managing. In Vancouver, we had a free-hand in running our own business, but here, the investor was in the driver's seat and commanded his management team, carrying on in a formal and rigid manner that seemed to be the norm in Chinese business culture. I had a direct relationship and an open line of communication with him, and I came to realize that this level of access was restricted to a very small circle of long-term loyalists in China. Although my tenure in his empire had just begun, my position and relationship was boosted by the aura of my previous affiliation with The Firm, MIT, as well as my foreigner status. Our small Vancouver operation thought we could leverage our relationship with the investor to expand our presence in China and maybe even build a local office. As we began to make more frequent trips to China, we found that we were unwelcome, as our outsider status and Canadian compensation upset the rigid Chinese hierarchy. We were treated roughly by the locals and the investor did not extend to us the aid we had expected. After one particularly brutal episode of office politics, I felt completely alienated and undervalued. To cope, I locked myself in my decrepit dorm room, blasted loud music, and worked on my Story Charts website to distract myself before quickly returning to Vancouver and vowing never to return. I was jaded, but unlike in previous such encounters, I did not resign immediately. To prove to myself that I still had value, I used my well-practiced job application process to secure an enticing offer. In the end the thought of returning to a strict nine-to-five regiment in order to validate my own sense of self-worth did not appeal to me. It was a blessing to be able to work together with my significant other, just as my parents had done for many years. Plus, in the Vancouver office we had control, a flexible schedule, and could forego the suit-and-tie. So I chose an alternative route to deal with my disappointment and burnout at work. Rather than seek solace in a busy new job, I took it easy and coasted until I recovered. It was a decision that would guide my career for the next six years into the present, a pragmatic choice that would ironically help me insinuate myself into the organization while allowing me to dedicate myself to my family. Family Increasing family obligations helped me adjust to the difficulty of treating work as just a day job. After much family discussion and a romantic proposal, my significant other and I were married in our UBC condo by a commissioner in front of my parents and my grandmother. A few months later, my in-laws hosted a large wedding reception for us in China, attended by local family and friends as well as two of my childhood friends who flew around the world to be there. By then, my wife was pregnant. Upon our return to Vancouver, we rented a tiny studio apartment on the west-side of the city. We would spend the evenings eating dinner and playing cards with my parents and grandmother, then return home to walk around the neighbourhood. Having accepted my day job as it came, I channeled my energy elsewhere. I spent my copious spare time in creating a new website for Story Charts. Whereas before I had created images on my computer before uploading them to the internet, now I wanted to make the website an interactive tool for creating charts on the fly. In typical fashion, I approached the project with gusto, creating a clean and powerful product. It had been years since I had programmed, and it was empowering to be able to learn and use the full stack of modern computer languages I needed to build the website from the ground up. I made a concerted effort to broadcast the end-product on social media and scrutinized visitor web traffic from all over the world, having grandiose ambitions of building an audience and eventually making money. In anticipation of our growing family, including with my in-laws who were planning to retire in China and join us in Canada, we decided to rebuild the Dunbar house. Designing and building our own house was to be the culmination of one aspect of our Canadian Dream, a testament to our permanent roots as foreigners no more. We hired a general contractor for help, but were very hands-on from the very beginning and eventually finished the project by ourselves. To begin with, we hired a cheap architect and worked off an existing floor-plan, making adjustments for livability rather than for flair, as we did not ever plan to sell. Having gotten used to the UBC condo's open floor-plan, we designed the first-floor of the house to have a condominium-like layout, seamlessly merging the kitchen, dining, living, and family areas. We decided to forgo a separate dining room, as these were rarely used and needlessly partitioned the precious space. The family area was designed such that in the future, we could cordon it off to turn it into a bedroom for my grandmother, should one day stairs become too cumbersome for her in old age. We complemented this feature with the bathroom on this floor having a senior-friendly seat shower. Our design choice for the second floor was to shrink all the bedrooms and the master bathroom in order to carve out an open and airy office in the middle of the floor. Once equipped with two side-by-side office desks, it would become one of the most used spaces in the entire house by my parents. Most houses built around the time ended there because contractors generally balked at the extra complexity of more floors, but we chose to add a small triangular shaped attic. The attic had no doors and was one single open space, reminiscent my old nest at the top of the tear-down. The basement was a separate suite that served as guest bedrooms or a mortgage helper and the entire house was rounded out by a yard and a flat garage which could one day have a roof garden. My father and I took over the construction process as it got going, choosing the windows, appliances, and building materials and designing everything down to the location of every single wall-plug and light switch. It was a labour of love that we would get to enjoy for years, unlike the Seattle bungalow we had restored and then unceremoniously sold. My in-laws were set to move to Canada to join us in retirement as my wife's due-date approached. Their visas were delayed and it appeared that they were going to miss the day by a few weeks. On a last minute whim, we drove across the border to give birth in Bellevue, Washington. It was something we had heard some Chinese-Canadian immigrants did to give their newborns duo citizenship, and we had not seriously considered it until the disruption to my in-laws' visas. But once decided, it seemed like a no-brainer. Our child would be born with American as well as Canadian citizenship, and would have the option of studying or working down south without the restrictions I had faced at Microsoft. A week after the birth of our child, my in-laws had arrived in Vancouver and we returned home to join them, birth certificate in hand. My mother helped us apply for UBC staff rental housing and we landed a unit in the condo building next door to my parents, where we could see each other's balconies from across the small courtyard. By this time, the Dunbar house was well onto the final stages. To save money and ensure quality, my father largely finished the interior with his own hands, aided by my father-in-law, who was quite handy himself. They cut and installed all the interior window frames and crown molding, tiled all the bathrooms and the basement floor, and painted the walls, ceilings, and even the exterior of the house. As the project neared finish, my father ceaselessly worked late nights, even sleeping in the unfinished bedrooms, putting an endless number of invisible touches everywhere. Soon, my parents and my grandmother moved into the new Dunbar house, and we moved into the UBC condo. My wife, our newborn, and my in-laws began to live as a family of five, frequently getting together with my parents and grandmother who were only a short drive away. Winning Through child birth, my wife took only one month of maternity leave while I did not take any. Our work schedule was flexible enough to accommodate the pregnancy as well as our house building project and we were grateful. We maintained the stable trade file easily and did not expect much from the day job beyond the paycheck. My laid back attitude towards my career overall did not extend to the actual work itself. In fact, it made me less patient for waste and social connection. Gone were the days where I would take open ended meetings and network for its own sake. In the interest of efficiency and control, I streamlined everything that was necessary and discarded anything that was not, including relationships. In the areas where I had control, I brooked no dissent. I switched banking relationships at the smallest perceived slight, fought for stringent credit terms with the easygoing sales team, and threatened a fist-fight when I deemed a colleague to be pushing make-work onto my wife. As the finance manager and the one voluntarily submitting monthly performance reports to the Chinese investor, I leveraged my role as the self-appointed internal auditor to strengthen my position, all the while finding ways to finish the work day within fewer hours. Eventually, within this small corner of the investor's expansive empire, I came to have dictatorial control and disdained insubordination. I focused my positive energy on communicating up, delivering results, and shielding the investor from unnecessary noise. The relationship blossomed as I took every opportunity to demonstrate my competence and my loyalty. The investor began to call me from China to troubleshoot business issues as well as run personal errands he had in Canada. I always completed these special assignments expeditiously, circling back with succinct reports of symptoms, causes, and recommended treatment. As such, my work days became shorter even as the singular relationship that mattered was strengthened. With practice, I became better at crisis management of complex entanglements, which, combined with my experience in finance and developing political acumen, made me an indispensable problem solver increasingly relied on by the investor. The execution and resolution of these unique assignments compounded my power and fortified my position as his Canadian consigliere. The investor recruited me to help harvest his investment in a public biotechnology company. He had pursued the investment for many years in Vancouver and had become a significant shareholder. The company hit a homerun in its drug discovery pipeline and monetized it by selling the patents to a global pharmaceutical conglomerate. The investor appointed me join the board of directors of the company. As the chairman of the audit committee, I discovered the management team had paid themselves bonuses related to the asset sale before negotiations with the board had concluded. I quickly engaged in a cat-fight with the officers as I sought to investigate the perceived wrong-doing. It was a painful experience as the chief executive was a shrewd star manager who had made the company a lot of money and had his own personal relationship with the investor. Coincidentally, he was also a family friend of my parents and shamelessly used the connection to press for advantage. I did not back down. My parents refused to engage him on the work issue while I demonstrated to the investor I was even willing to go after a classmate of my father's to protect the company's interest. In the end, our fight allowed the investor to stay above the fray and to mediate, resolving the crisis while strengthening his hand for future negotiations. Out of spite, the chief executive used the company's public company status as a shield and manipulated the board to deny some of the investor's other requests, so I designed a plan to help the investor consolidate control. I organized the distribution of the company's windfall to shareholders, and, once completed, I resigned. Freed from my fiduciary duties to the public company, I turned around and helped the investor use the cash received to launch a bid to take the company private. The remaining board, scared into action by the chief executive, alleged our bid was too low and sued to block the bid rather than letting shareholders vote. I explained this act of corporate betrayal to the investor, then systematically dismantled the lawsuit with my own legal team and completed the takeover. Once the company became private and we were firmly in control, the board and its lawyers were summarily dismissed. The chief executive now had to report directly to the investor. He quickly adopted a humbler persona, though I continued to refuse taking his calls for years afterward. I was designated the chief financial officer of the private company and added its financial control to my purview. The investor rewarded me by revealing another significant Canadian investment he wanted me to trouble-shoot. This was an oil and gas project based in Calgary. The company had spent a lot of money drilling unproductive wells and there had been rumours of malfeasance. I parachuted into the company and quickly learned the business, acquiring an oil and gas production accounting certificate within two months. I was blocked by the chief executive of the company from conducting a proper audit of the company, so I took my work underground. I worked late nights and weekends when the office was empty and used my computer skills to find smoking-gun evidence of wrongdoing deep within the company's servers. The chief executive's computer consultant alerted him to the breach who sent a company wide email threatening to call the police. I had gotten what I needed and jetted back to Vancouver. The investor and the board protected me while my discovery empowered them to demand concessions from the chief executive, eventually leading to his ouster and the launch of litigation against him. I was returned to the company and put in charge as the chief financial officer. I quickly streamlined the business processes such that I was able to oversee the company and the lawsuit from the comfort of Vancouver. My now multi-company portfolio made my work-day even more flexible, as I devoted time only to oversight and put things on autopilot as much as possible. Fighting Recognizing my ability to quickly size up a situation and get to the crux of the matter, the investor had me tackle more personal issues as well. The investor had helped a friend try to gain American permanent residence by investing in some Subway restaurants. The investment went sideways and did not produce the requisite American green-card. I made a quick trip to the Subways in Boston and followed up with a few weeks of financial audit to highlight some previously undisclosed expenses and helped them conclude the green-card was not salvageable. The only remedy available was likely a flimsy lawsuit against the immigration consultant for fraud and negligence. I would not get the experience of running an American lawsuit as another lawsuit awaited at home. In Vancouver, the investor and a group of friends had purchased an island off the coast of Vancouver as a shared vacation destination. One of the investors was gruesomely murdered by his brother-in-law and cut into a hundred pieces in a sensational case that captivated the city. This person had died without a will, and soon half a dozen children borne out of wedlock to different women emerged to fight over his estate. The court-appointed trustees targeted the island and sued the other owners to reclaim for the estate. I had the privilege of helping the group lawyer-up in defense. It was yet another multi-year project added to my portfolio. During my time at The Firm, I had helped a Nanjing-based entrepreneur visit investment funds on a multi-city tour across China. The gentleman was quite kind and had even attended and spoke at our wedding reception. Now he approached me with a personal issue as well. His son, a high-school student, had used social media to engage with, and solicit from, an under-aged girl. The police stepped in and arrested him. I helped the family find criminal defense lawyers and attended the court proceedings and social worker meetings with them. It was a fascinating front row seat to Canadian criminal law. The young man would eventually be rehabilitated through community service, with his records sealed due to his young age. The entrepreneur was able to return to his Nanjing project with a settled peace of mind. However, his family's rough patch was not over. A year later, he called me mysteriously from Hong Kong airport, asking me to help him book flight tickets to Vancouver through New York. When I picked him up from the airport, he walked out of the terminal with wrap-around shades and was visibly shaken. He asked me to take him to a McDonald's, and there, he showed me his bruised eye and he said he was hounded in Nanjing by the mafia who had taken over some loans his company owed. For the next week, he holed up in a hostel and looked for Buddhist temples as long-term hide-outs. Eventually, he decided to go back to China to press charges. I had not heard from him since. Living My vicarious experience with litigation and witnessing the turmoil of those in business made me appreciate the stability of the family life my parents had built around them. I had been successful in my efforts to entrench myself at work and developed an enviable position of control and flexibility, but the peremptory manner I often used in order to secure these victories was a liability on the home front. I had to adapt to life with a toddler as well as my in-laws. My tendency was to try to control my living environment to the same degree I had at work, and being a new parent served as a narrative excuse and emotional fuel for fighting to correct perceived inadequacies. I would then feel extremely guilty afterwards, trying to reconcile my family values with my rough actions that caused heartache and pain. For one month, I moved the entire family to be with me in Calgary while I was seconded there. We lived together in a house for the first time. The additional personal space in the spacious living quarters compared to our UBC condo was conducive to a more harmonious atmosphere. Upon our return to Vancouver, we decided to look for a larger permanent home. By this time, the Vancouver real-estate market was in a froth of speculation. Land prices had risen substantially in the years after the Winter Olympics and even a tear-down lot was priced at millions of dollars. We wanted to be as close to my parents as possible, so we kept an eye on listings within walking distance. The market was so hot that the lower-priced listings were sold immediately with multiple over-the-asking offers competing for them. By now, only subject-free offers were being considered by sellers. This placed the buyer at a severe disadvantage as the offer could not have the traditional financing or inspection conditions attached. Once the offer was accepted and the six-figure deposit was submitted, the buyer was on the hook for consummating the deal, even if they could not find a bank to finance the purchase or discovered a serious deficiency in the house. Only the very cheapest of the listings were affordable to us, and many of these were unlivable 100-year old dwellings. One listing on a larger lot appeared, but we promptly ignored it because it was on residential thoroughfare with more traffic and was west-east facing in the north-south facing neighbourhood. A day later, we took a closer look at the photos and realized that the house was a real gem. The floor-plan had been thoughtfully laid out and the house seemed to have been renovated. It was small, with only one bedroom, but crucially, it had three bathrooms. We decided to go for it. I immediately contacted the listing realtor and asked if he would consider helping us write the offer, meaning he would represent both sides of the deal and would double his commission. He said the open house was a few days away and he would only consider helping us if we offered above the listing price. We agreed immediately. The next day, he said the sellers had accepted our offer and cancelled the open house. We now had weeks to find the money to close. I solicited my parents' help and they mortgaged their house and the UBC condo. Even so, the combined savings and incomes of our entire extended family was just barely able to support the mortgage. We closed the deal and the house was legally ours, but it would be months before we could take our first steps inside, as we agreed to let the elderly couple sellers stay for free while they moved to the condo they were downsizing to. For the next few months, as we waited, we would drive by every evening to peek from the distance at our future home. When we discovered the couple had already finished moving and had been cleaning and re-painting the house for us, I paid them to be able to move in early. They gave us a set of half a dozen well-crafted keys as well as a package containing all the design documents and every single receipt for the 1987 renovation they orchestrated to turn it into their dream retirement home for two. Months after having made the biggest purchase of our collective lives based solely off of photographs, we finally stepped into our new home for the first time. It was a dream come true. The elderly couple had clearly treasured and lovingly cared for it over many years. The gentleman had added many finishing touches with his own hands. The ceiling was high, the basement floor was even, and even a professional inspector found only minor updates required. We co-opted the dining room and the basement office for additional bedrooms and eagerly moved in. The best part of the house was one we did not even consider in its market value. The renovation package revealed the original design of the large garden all around the house, where each plant, tree, and shrub had been carefully chosen and placed. Now, three decades later, the trees and greenery had matured and their foliage surrounded the house. Having only taken furtive peeks through our drive-bys, we walked wide eyed into a lush paradise. Our extended family now had two dream homes within a short walk of each other in Dunbar, we loved the arrangement and decided we would never leave.