December 31, 2012

This executive paints his stresses away

THESE days, you can almost never find a corporate executive who isn’t either into golf or marathons. Though considered sports or hobbies, these weekend activities invariably still end up being an opportunity for networking with their peers or targeted clients. 

So it was quite refreshing to discover that Alex Chan Lim, Philippine country manager of MoneyGram International, spends his weekends with his family teaching modern Chinese brush painting to a diverse group of students. 

In his private studio in Pasig on the recent Saturday I visited him, there were about seven students gathered, mostly merrily chatting away, some with their Chinese brushes still in hand, gently working these on rice paper to create art. 

(Alex Chan Lim, Philippines country manager of MoneyGram International demonstrates his Chinese brush painting techniques to participants and interested onlookers at a recent exhibit of the Chan Lim Family of Artists and students.)

There was no perspiring here, no racing heart rates, nor a push to perfection. It was just a cheerful, relaxed atmosphere as the students leisurely practiced their brush strokes. As with most Chinese brush paintings, the artwork invariably depicted are lightly tinted flowers, horses, bamboo, or lush landscapes in bold vibrant colors. 

It was a casually attired Lim who met me with a welcoming smile and warm handshake, and after our initial greetings, he led me around the room introducing some of his students. Among them was an ex-president of a bank, an airline official, and two smiling Korean ladies whom I was told later, hardly spoke English but just enjoyed coming to class. His family was also gathered around, including his wife Ester, who helps in teaching the students, their daughters Kaye and Kyra (the eldest Geoffrey wasn’t around), and his father Jose. 

Lim says throughout the different stages in his career, what has remained constant is his painting, which he has been doing since he was 11 years old. “It is during weekends I forget about work. [Painting] is my anti-stress.” 

Unlike most traditional Chinese families where the children are conscripted to work in the family business during weekends or long school breaks, Lim says his parents instead encouraged him and his siblings—Felix, Rolex and Jolex—to study Chinese painting during summer. His father, Jose, also paints although he does so using oils and is a painter more in the Western style. “I used to wonder why we had to do it; all my childhood friends [in Caloocan] were playing with their Lego sets. It was only later that we were thankful we studied it because no one really does Chinese paintings [anymore].”  

But he asserts that it never entered his mind to paint professionally. “Not at all. We really focused on painting during summers, and then we took up our college degrees which were non-painting related. It was quite a good match, it was a good partner. We were very happy. It was something that we wanted to do but not to earn a living.” (Like him, Lim’s brothers are also engineers and work for various multinational firms. They continue to paint to this day, and Felix even teaches Chinese brush painting part time at Stanford University.) 

(One of Mr. Chan Lim's works of art.)

Though his father wanted him to take over the family’s plastics business, Lim didn’t want to fearing that he and his three younger brothers would just fight over the company someday. After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the Mapua Institute of Technology in 1986, his parents grudgingly allowed him leave for the US to work and pursue a post-graduate degree. (With the success each sibling has reaped since then, he says his father “is now very happy” his sons made the right decision in their respective careers.) 

Lim came home in 1990 when his mother Rosa passed away, and has been based here since. He has worked in various “intensive” industries, making full use of his engineering background. He designed distribution centers for Levi Strauss Philippines, handling systems for DHL, and packaging for integrated circuits for Advantek. Later, at Ausenco, a mining services firm, he became a project manager—“a good learning experience” but, he says, it was “not my cup of tea,” understandably due to the inherent controversies in the industry. 

In April 2011 Lim made his first foray into the financial services world when he was appointed Philippine country manager for MoneyGram, the world’s second-largest global money-transfer company headquartered in Dallas, Texas. The next month, he set up the company’s very first office in Makati, in recognition of its burgeoning remittance business in the country. 

Under Lim’s helm, the business grew over 30 percent in 2011, which is no small feat considering that the entire remittance industry in the country only grew by 7 percent. This can only mean that MoneyGram has eaten into the market share of its main competitor. “We are happy with our volumes. The increase is too significant, I could never have imagined it!” With a new advertising campaign launched in March using actor Robin Padilla as a celebrity endorser, he says, the uptrend can only continue. “We’re still projecting a double-figure growth this year.” 

While it may not be immediately apparent, Lim’s creativity as a painter has actually enabled him to “think out of the box,” he says, in solving problems at work. Also, it has helped him in the marketing and advertising aspects of the job, enhancing his ability to judge whether a TV commercial being produced for the company’s brand awareness campaign is up to par with the company’s standards of excellence and good taste. 

There are also times when his work at MoneyGram fuses with his painting. Back in January, for instance, the company supported an on-the-spot Chinese lantern-painting contest at the SM Mall of Asia to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The winning entries were later exhibited along with those crafted by his own family members and students. 

The Chan Lim Family of Artists and Students were also in Davao City in October to exhibit their works and conducted workshops at SM City and Marco Polo Davao Hotel. Lim is ecstatic that a lot of institutions have recognized their group and regularly invite them for exhibits. 

He believes that anyone can do Chinese brush painting. “There’s no special talent or skill needed. One just needs the passion and the interest to learn.” 

(My column Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This profile on Alex Chan Lim was published on Nov. 23, 2012. Photos from Mr. Chan Lim's and the Chan Lim Family Facebook accounts.)

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