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Sat, Jul 03, 2010
The New Paper

Wine deal goes sour

They invested up to $270,000 in wine, now they can't contact wine company.

By Geraldine Yeo and Vivien Chan
Additional reporting by Chai Hung Ying

They claim to be experienced financial advisers.

Yet, for all the financial savvy that is expected of their profession, they could lose their six-figure investments with one company.

The two men had pumped in more than $300,000 with Assets Wine Management, which specialises in premium wine investments.

Now, it appears that the married couple who ran the company - Mr Benny Lee Ghim Seng, 38, and Ms Kally Quee Yen Ping, 35 - have become uncontactable.

The New Paper understands that five people have lodged two police reports in the past two weeks. A police spokesman said investigations are ongoing.

According to the company's website, it has "more than 1,000 investors and collectors in the Asia Pacific region". It was setup in 2004.

The New Paper spoke to five local investors who invested between $160,000 and $270,000 since 2005.

Of the group, two have lodged police reports.

Also, out of the group, two said they are financial advisers and one of them was among the two who lodged a police report.

One asked that we do not use his full name and the other asked not to be named at all. Both fear their clients may find out about their predicament.

One of them, Mr Chang, 38, said he had invested $200,000 with Assets since December 2005. In the last nine months alone, he pumped in $100,000.

Mr Chang was looking for investment opportunities five years ago when his friend had told him about Assets.

He said the investment plan appeared simple and sound: Investors would put in money that Assets would use to buy Australian and French wine from overseas.

The wine would then be stored in a Singapore warehouse.

After 18 months, Assets would buy the wine from the investors and re-sell it either locally or overseas.

Mr Chang said they were told they could expect a "projected 8 per cent profit", though it was not guaranteed.

Another package

Investors could also opt for another package: Put in a sum of money and, over a period of either six or 12 months, they would get back their capital plus interest of 6 to 8 per cent.

Mr Chang said he had gone with both plans before but more recently, he has been pumping in money into the second plan.

He last invested $30,000 on May 23 and was supposed to get a letter of assurance from Assets a week later.

When he did not, he called Mr Lee, who is known as Keegen to his clients, but his mobile phone was switched off. He also could not contact Ms Quee.

Mr Chang's colleague, who did not want to be named, has invested with Assets since 2007. He last put in $40,000 on June 1. The 40-year-old, too, never received the letter of assurance.

The investors described Mr Lee as confident and well-spoken.

Mr Chang now regrets not doing more research.

"When I started investing, there was not much information available as the whole concept (of investing in wine) was still very new," he recalled.

At that time, he added, Assets was the only wine investment company he could find here. He read up about the company on its website and checked news reports on such forms of investment.

Mr Chang said he also visited the warehouse at Toh Guan Road East where the wine was stored.

"We saw huge crates of wine there, but they were not separated according to individual investors," he said.

Assets' website assures investors that "a dedicated personal wine adviser will be assigned to monitor your investment portfolio closely for you".

The website also boasted a stock list of "more than $10 million".

The company also claimed to have two other offices in Australia and China. A source close to the company told The New Paper that Mr Lee and his wife had gone on a holiday early last month and was supposed to return the following week.

When the couple did not return, she called Mr Lee's mobile phone. But it was turned off.

She said she, together with a friend and two family members, had invested about $200,000 with Assets two years ago.

While all the investors we spoke to said Assets is managed by Mr Lee and his wife, checks with Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) records show that the director of the company is Ng Choon Siang, and its secretary is Quee Chieh Shung.

The New Paper understands that they are Ms Quee's mother and brother respectively. Acra records also listed Mr Lee as the secretary of two companies - Estilo Marketing, a wholesale trading company, and Syrius.

Ms. Quee is listed as the director of both companies.

Syrius, described on Assets' website as "a wine boutique with an exclusive member's lounge", shares the same Duxton Road address as Assets.

When The New Paper visited the place, all the shutters were down. Newspapers and pamphlets were scattered on the ground, and the letterbox was jammed with letters.

Over at Estilo's registered address at Middle Road, a company named FHL Management Consultants occupied the premises. An employee said FHL has been there for about 10 years.

Mr Lee's and Ms Quee's mobile phones were switched off when we called.

When we visited Mr Lee's Pasir Ris flat and Ms Quee's mother's flat in Tampines, no one answered the door.

The Consumer's Association of Singapore said it received one piece of feedback about Assets last month.

They bought the best wine

Their taste in wines was so discerning that they bought only the best.

Mr Benny Lee and his wife even commissioned two types of high-quality specialty wines to be created specially for them, revealed Mr Mark Cohen, director of Malesco, an Australian wine trading company.

Malesco, which is based in Adelaide, has been supplying wine to Assets for three years.

Its contact details were listed on Assets Wine Management's website and on Assets' website.

Speaking to The New Paper over the phone, Mr Cohen said the bottles of the wine made specially for the couple were made of "imported glass" and came in "handmade boxes".

"Each bottle costs about A$250 (S$300)," he added. Mr Cohen said he got to know Mr Lee through Ms Quee, whom he knew as Kally.

"She used to be a trader with another wine company, and I did business with her over the phone. I've known her for six or seven years," he added.

Three years ago, Mr Lee and Ms Quee approached him to transact with their company.

Mr Cohen said: "They bought quite expensive wine, the best wine."

The couple ordered wine three or four times a year.

Each shipment comprised four to five thousand bottles.

Each bottle costs between A$20 and A$100 a bottle.

Mr Cohen said: "They usually (visit) once a year to taste the wines. They're very nice people, very hardworking.

"They bought only the very best for their customers. I visited their Singapore store once, and it had a beautiful showroom."

He last met them in Australia a year ago. The couple placed orders for wine then too, but have yet to make payment, said Mr Cohen.


The bottles, which cost "a few hundreds of thousands of dollars", are still sitting in his warehouse.

They include about a thousand bottles of the wine made specially for the couple.

Mr Cohen said: "We'll wait till the end of the year, then the wine will be put up for auction."

The Assets website also listed an office in Beijing.

But when The New Paper called, the woman who answered the phone said she had not heard of Assets.

Her company had been on the premises for only three months.

She said: "But we've had some other calls also asking for a wine company. Maybe they were here before us but not any more."

What can investors do?

Do investors have any recourse in such cases?

Not much, lawyer Pratap Kishan told The New Paper.

"They can sue the company, but they can't sue the directors as any investment contract they entered into would be between the company and them, and not with the directors."

If the investors sue the company and the case goes to court, investors can get a "judgment in default" if the representatives of the company do not appear.

"But they can enforce the judgment only against the company, not the directors," said Mr Kishan.

He added that concerned investors should lodge police reports so the police can investigate if there is any fraud.

Consumers Association of Singapore executive director Seah Seng Choon, said: "Consumers should be mindful that such investments are not regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

"So they are not subjected to stringent requirements imposed on regulated investment companies."

As such, the risks can be high, and "risk-averse" consumers should not get involved, Mr Seah added.

In this particular case, consumers should "ensure there is physical wine stored in the warehouse and that the company is transferring title of the products to them when payment is made".

Mr Seah said: "They should also check for other hidden costs such as warehousing and transport to determine the total investment."

Finally, they should also seek legal advice on the documents to be signed, he added.

Other tips from Case for investors:

1. Beware of hype. Seek a second opinion if in doubt. Consumers should familiarise themselves with the type of investments in the market to get the best deal.

2. Read through the agreement's terms and conditions carefully. Clarify if in doubt.

3. State all verbal claims and promises in writing.

4. Never focus solely on expected profits. Pay attention to possible risks and losses.

5. As far as possible, invest with companies that are properly regulated for investment.

This article was first published in The New Paper
Copied and pasted from a PDF version of TODAY. Sorry for the alignment. Smile

TODAY July 6, 2010
He aggressively wooed clients days before disappearance
Wine investment firm boss was pushing deals with margins of 20 per cent, say sources
By Teo Xuanwei

SINGAPORE, Several days before he suddenly
could not be contacted, Mr Benny
Lee Ghim Seng (picture) was aggressively
wooing clients of his wine investment firm
to put in more money.

Out went the usual two- to five-year
investment period with returns of between
6 and 8 per cent. Benny ‚ better known as
Keegen to his clients ‚ laid more enticing
offers on the table: Deals as short as three
months, with profit margins as high as
20 per cent.

For these customers of Assets Wine
Management (AWM) ‚ many of whom
were savvy investors looking to diversify
their portfolio ‚ such sales tactics should
have set off alarm bells.

But to many of them, Keegen, 38, was
also a friend who had delivered on his
promises in the past.

MediaCorp spoke to five investors who
had pumped in between $15,000 and $50,000
in the three months before Keegen went
missing on June 6. He is believed to have fled
the country with his wife Kally Quee Yen Ping,
32, taking with them hundreds of thousands
of dollars belonging to clients.

One investor, who works in the finance
industry, said: "Keegen was, as usual, very
persuasive. I thought I could trust him
because I have been getting my payouts
consistently since I started investing with
AWM in 2006."

The rot at AWM ‚ which boasts on its
website of having about 1,000 investors and
about $10 million in investments ‚ could
have set in as early as last year.

According to those familiar with the industry,
investors were spooked after another
wine investment firm, Universal Asset Group,
was reported to the authorities for delayed
payouts of clients' investment returns.
UAG folded months later.

After that, AWM's business started bleeding,
sources claimed, while staff strength was
cut from eight to three when its Duxton Road
office closed abruptly on June 15.
Keegen also borrowed money from
friends and was also in the process of selling
off his HDB home in Pasir Ris, one of
his friends told MediaCorp.

However, what drove him to run away
was not business failure, but legal woes, as
he is believed to have run afoul of the law
in May, according to sources.
Associate Professor Fong Wai Mun,
from the National University of Singapore's
department of finance, advised investors to
be more cautious when it comes to non-traditional
investment products, such as wine.

Before investing, they should do background
checks on the company and the
proprietor. They should also consider the
risk if they are not able to see the bottles
of wines they are investing in.
He said: “Investors should always ask
questions when someone promises exceptionally
high returns over short periods."

"At the end of the day, it's still the same
advice: If it sounds too good to be true, it
probably is."
"At the end of the day, it's still the same
advice: If it sounds too good to be true, it
probably is."

exactly!! Big Grin