All across China, small farms grow fresh strawberries and other crops that urbanites would love to buy. But the farmers often have no idea where their potential customers are, much less how to get perishable produce to them quickly. That’s exactly the kind of juicy business problem that Frank Su ’02, managing director and head of private equity Asia for CPP Investments, likes to sink his teeth into. “If someone in a small city could use their phone to buy those strawberries, the order could be picked by the farmer and packaged and express shipped to them within days,” says Su. “And the price they’d pay would be cheaper than going to the local supermarket.”
CPP Investments manages the funds of the CPP for more than 20 million Canadian contributors and beneficiaries, with a fund topping more than half a trillion Canadian dollars globally. Su’s job is to oversee investments in companies that span a huge swathe of territory, sprawling from India to Australia. For him, investing wisely is not just about choosing the best companies; it’s also about helping advise those companies on how they can increase their value.
That’s where strawberries come in. “A company addressing this disconnect could build a platform using technology to link players together, improve efficiency, and reduce transaction costs,” Su says. “That’s the kind of thing that gets us excited — where we, as investors, can help accelerate their growth and improve their overall operations.”
Su initially entered consulting, taking a Beijing-based position with Bain & Company. While working on projects performing due diligence for private equity companies, he saw up close how investors worked with the companies in their portfolios. “It wasn’t just about putting leverage into a business; it was all about how you could be a better owner by working with the right management team,” Su says. He transitioned to another position with Bain Capital before joining CPP Investments in in 2014. Now he oversees a wide range of investments in industries including health care, consumer retail, manufacturing and technology across the Asia-Pacific region.
“It’s a hugely complex market to cover,” he says. On one side are developed markets such as Japan, Korea and Australia, where he works with companies in mature industries to help them run operations more efficiently. On the other side are emerging markets such as India, China and Southeast Asia, which offer enormous growth opportunities. “We try to identify longer-term, sustainable trends,” he says, “and then find emerging local champions who know the market well, and help them apply new technologies and improve productivity.”
The pandemic has created challenges for Su, whose job relies on frequent travel across borders to meet with company managers. “Private equity is a people business,” he says. “You really have to be there in person to develop a rapport.” To compensate, he has relied on colleagues in India and Australia, as well as on existing partners in other cities in the region, to meet with people when he can’t.
Despite the recent challenges, Su says he loves the variety of the work he does, as well as the direct impact he can have on people’s lives — even helping farmers deliver fresh strawberries. “It really satisfies my intellectual curiosity to constantly be looking at new industries and learning new things,” he says. “You are essentially working with the best brains in the industry to generate value and create impact, and that is super rewarding.”