SINGAPORE — After decades of motorsports racing and adventure biking, it seemed only natural that former stockbroker Tommy Lee would turn towards biking as a business.
The 54-year-old registered Route 55 — a training school for adventure biking which also distributes motor parts and accessories — in 2019, years after quitting the stock market. But it has not been an easy ride. Lee told Yahoo Finance Singapore how the pandemic left his plans for bike tours in the dust.
For Lee, a Malaysian and Singapore permanent resident, most of his life had been guided by vehicles in some way or the other. He began car racing at 17 when he obtained his license and later enrolled in university to learn mechanical engineering as he was driven to learn how motors work.
“But after I graduated… I thought to myself, the only way that I can fund the racing is to get a high paying job. And at that time the market was really bullish so I went into stock broking more for the fun of it and also for the money,” he said candidly. Meanwhile, Lee continued competing in motor races, clocking 300 to 400 local, regional and international events to date.
On the job front, Lee went full throttle until his late 30s when he decided he had had enough. The commission was no longer worth the effort. He quit and worked temporarily in a race circuit in Malaysia until he had had enough of that too.
In 2013, he decided to buy a motorbike to travel the world and was immediately hooked. “The best way to actually see a country is on a motorbike, because you not only see it but you smell the country, you really feel what the whole country is all about, and the biking community tends to be very warm, welcoming,” he said.
“When I started riding, I realised that actually a lot of people are not very good riders as well. When I started I wasn’t good as well but I took lessons and I learned,” said Lee on why he turned to instructing.
He obtained his instructor certification for motorbiking in 2017 and founded Route 55 two years later, intending to organise bike trips across the region beginning from 2020. He also snagged a distributorship as a source of revenue.
“(The business) has to be able to stand on its own... It cannot be burning money constantly. So it must be able to self-sustain basically at a certain level,” he said.
But the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, and his business plans ground to a halt.
With biking tours on hold due to travel restrictions, Lee fell back on training students and distributorship to pull in revenue. He also had to scale down on marketing and promotions to cut his losses.
He had initially put S$150,000 in savings into the business, intending to break even the second year. But that never happened due to COVID-19. Till months ago, the business was still “burning through reserves” and only recently started to break even.
Lee was earning barely a fraction of what he used to earn as a stockbroker. He declined to reveal how much, instead giving an apt comparison.
“I used to make a Mercedes S-Class, now I am making an A-Class, or maybe a B-Class,” he remarked.
“When you start doing training and events like that obviously that is a revenue source. But whether it makes me really rich or not, 100 per cent no. In terms of relative, what I used to earn in a bank and what I earn now is completely different.”
Anyway, he had known the business would not earn him as much as before. Besides, Route 55 was not really about money, but to share the passion for adventure trips.
To Lee it all boiled down to proper financial planning and spending within your means. Lee had also set aside money for his two children.
While Lee's past is characterised by an adrenaline-fuelled hobby and career, he is now all about slowing down to enjoy the scenery — via his bike trips.
“(I have a) different outlook, different perspective in life now, as people get older, people look at things differently,” he added. “I suppose when you’re young the fast pace is a lot more fun, you feel the adrenaline going but nowadays the world has moved on. I think technology has changed and you do things differently.”
“I still do the fast-paced things I mean I still ride I still race but … I would say I am not as competitive as before because previously everything I compete in, I will do everything in my power to make sure I win. Now it’s like I don’t compete as much anymore.”
Now with borders reopened, Route 55 has been to Malaysia and India on bike trips. Future trips to Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries in the works.
Lee hopes to continue running the business as long as he is physically able to.
“It will always come to a point then when you don’t enjoy doing it then don’t do it. I'm not exactly young and physically I might not be able to do it because sometimes a lot of travelling does take a lot of energy out of you.”
But even if he stops riding one day, at least Lee can say he once led the fast life.
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