An Interview with Rayo Withanage. Founder and Chairman of The BMB Group

Rayo Withanage

The transformative power of sovereign wealth funds across world markets is one of the key features of the past two decades of international investment activity. Enabling economies and companies to realize new innovations and capture emerging trends, these funds often require a level of coordination of competencies that places management and business acumen at the center of the action, creating markets and finding opportunities to actualize the variety of potential investments on the horizon.

Rayo Withanage, the founder and Chairman of the BMB Group, is such a financer, weaving international funding from high level sources across the Middle East and Asia to develop new platforms.

Starting in Brunei, the BMB Group has since expanded to the Middle East, combining the funds of various royal families using a multilateral, multifamily format that harnesses the united synergies of the seed funding to create an institution that is a powerful, meaningful partner to companies and governments across the globe.

In a discussion of influences and major players that impacted Rayo Withanage’s views on finance and investing, we learn about a range of luminaries from the worlds of high finance and international relations.

Broadening the conversation from this point, we learn about Withanage’s family influences and his background in international finance.

Describing both the technical aspects of finance as well as his father’s strong moral ethics, Rayo Withanage gives us a glimpse into the driving spirit behind the BMB Group as well as how Withanage positions his business philosophy in a world where trust and honesty are equally important currencies.

Called “Virtue Capitalism” Rayo Withanage explains the philosophical underpinnings, practical applications, and broad application of his investment and financial strategies with references to a vision that is inclusive, sustainable, and, of course, profitable as well as mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

From here, we round out the discussion with talk about “deals that got away” as well as some of the disappointments and setbacks Rayo encountered along the path to success.

We also talk about how he overcame these challenges before finishing with a brief overview of a day in his life.

Can you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities as the Founder and Chairman of The BMB Group?

My main role at the start of BMB was to bring together senior members of royal families from Asia and the Gulf to work together to form a powerful private investment institution. From our beginnings in Brunei, we expanded to develop our relationships around the world and move our base of operations to the UAE. My role today is the development of new platforms.

Mr. Rayo Withanage with his father Mr. Rahula Withanage

Mr. Rayo Withanage with his father Mr. Rahula Withanage

How did your journey lead to the establishment of The BMB Group, and what inspired you to create the company?

The BMB Group was established at a time when Asian and Middle Eastern sovereign investors were starting to make significant acquisitions internationally.

We initially sought to develop a strong private investment institution for Brunei, but soon realized the power of a multi-family / multi-lateral format. This led us to become an important partner to key investors and heads of government throughout the Middle East and Asia.

BMB launched SCEPTER Partners for special business operations. Can you elaborate on the key areas of focus and expertise within that organization?

Scepter was established by one of our family offices that has over $14Billion in assets. It was a partnership with the Blackstone Asia Advisory business led by Anthony Steains in Hong Kong. Scepter was set up after 8 years of BMB’s operations, with the purpose of focusing on proprietary trading and large cap transactions. Scepter has since evolved into a prominent private family office.

As the Founder of BMB Group, who influenced your approach to business and leadership?

BMB taught me a lot about different business cultures and put us in the crossroads of incredible people. An early influence was Moeenuddin Ahmad Quereshi, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and Head of the World Bank. Moeen founded EMP Capital, which was bought by BMB in 2008. Moeen formed an incredible advisory board that included: Chris Patten, Ratan Tata, Toyoo Gyoten, Bill Cohen and invited Henry Kissinger as speaker. Many of these people were incredible early influences on Their Royal Highnesses and me. Our core stakeholders have since become important leaders in our respective countries, having learned from such brilliant minds over the years.

What motivated you to venture into the financial industry?

I was inspired to begin a career in finance by my father, who is a well-regarded chartered accountant and CFO. For most of his career, he worked for Deloitte and Touché International. He worked across multiple countries including Fiji, Bermuda, New Zealand and Brunei. During his consulting assignments for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, I had the privilege of traveling with him to some of the most unique places. I got to observe, from a very early age, my father’s involvement in multiple facets of finance and business operations. I was very much inspired by my father’s unwavering integrity.

Mr. Rayo Withanage with his father

Mr. Rayo Withanage with his father

As the Founder and Chairman, what is your vision for the future of BMB and SCEPTER, and what steps are you taking to realize that vision?

Although I am the Founder of BMB and Scepter, I no longer work in management for these companies, as I focus on concluding my divorce.

At the request of its investors, BMB stopped disclosing the size of its advisory mandates in 2017. BMB publishes accounts only for its investors and does not accept any third-party money.

The aim is to focus on businesses that are established to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today. Scepter will continue to be a family office and meaningfully develop wealth and impact for its clients.

Both companies will remain based in Bermuda, a country I grew up in and where I have maintained a home for the past 35 years. I am certain both companies will continue to go from strength to strength in the capable hands of professional management there.

How do you balance the pursuit of profit with social and environmental responsibility within your organizations, particularly in today’s climate of increasing corporate social responsibility?

A core component of our business strategy is to develop what we term as Virtue Capitalism. This is an economic model where for-profit businesses are established with the express purpose of solving pressing global challenges. Virtue Capitalist businesses disrupt traditional business models by finding solutions to social and environmental problems and using these solutions to differentiate themselves from traditional businesses. Virtue Capitalist businesses seek to provide better alternatives to existing product offerings and become competitive market leaders that meaningfully assist partner charities and foundations. We have spent over a year working in the R&D phase to develop technologies and business processes that we feel can make a difference. We are excited to announce ventures in the new year.

Is there a deal that got away?

There was a company I tried to buy for several years. One of Australia’s largest oil and gas companies. I worked with an advisory partner to try and buy the company… twice! We raised over $12.5 billion and engaged with the chairman of the company for over a year.

At one point we partnered with another private equity firm to achieve the acquisition, which was reported in a financial review. Sadly, the deal fell apart, despite spending a lot of time and money to make it happen.

I don’t view this as a deal that “got away,” because it ended up being an incredible experience that taught me many valuable lessons. It upleveled my skills on putting together large scale deals, negotiating, building business relationships, learning to determine when and how to focus on the right things, and working with advisors. The growth I and my team experienced during that time has been highly valuable.

What is something that disappointed you in your career?

I was recently covered by a media outlet in Australia, who had got hold of some stolen materials. Unfortunately, much of what was reported was inaccurate. Some of the company names mentioned in that article I did not recognise, others were code names for R&D under development to develop technologies to raise money for charities. None had launched publicly.

Although the assertion is quite flattering, I do not control a $30 billion empire, and my companies are not worth $100 billion. Although I still have deep respect and friendships with them, I no longer represent the Brunei Royal Family. I never had a commercial connection with Prince Jefri Bolkiah.

It was disappointing to be covered so inaccurately, but I respect a journalist’s right to write and to speak truth to power. Fortunately, freedom of speech also gives me the right to respond and provide clarifications.

What has been the most difficult moment of your career?

My divorce proceedings began in 2018. Over the past six years, it has been difficult to adequately control assets critical for viable business ventures. The divorce process delayed payments to creditors and gave rise to a string of proceedings. One example is the loss of my NYC apartments, which I purchased when I was 28 and put into a trust. The trust then went bankrupt because of the divorce. The proceedings have had a serious impact on both my personal life and my businesses, and I look forward to concluding proceedings around my divorce and starting with a clean slate.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders based on your own experiences and the journey you’ve had with SCEPTER Partners and BMB Group?

I would advise entrepreneurs to understand their skill set very carefully. It is important to have self-reflection to understand what you are good at and surround yourself with people who are different to you, who can challenge you, and cover your weaknesses. I would then encourage that person to find something they are passionate about and to always have conviction in themselves.

The universe rewards those who are brave enough to try and reach their goals, so never give up. Continue to adapt and understand risk. Stay in the game and keep your heart light. Never stop being amazed by the world. It is tremendously beautiful and our time in it is short. If you are happy, you will spread this to others.

Picasso Estate

The Picasso Estate

Mr. Withanage, you purchased the Picasso Estate, located on the French Riviera, in 2017. What spurred you to make such a purchase?

I was always drawn to the immense creative energy at the estate, not only from Picasso’s time at the estate and all its prior history, but also in the creativity it inspires in people until today. Throughout the 20th century and the time of Benjamin and Bridget Guinness, the estate welcomed illustrious celebrities and some of the most important creative figures in history including Henri Matisse, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin and the Rolling Stones.

Of course, Picasso was incredibly productive during his time at the estate, creating most of his work from the ‘later period’ drawing inspiration from the large villa, expansive Mediterranean gardens, and magnificent view of the Bay of Cannes and the Estérel mountain range. The estate has always been a source of inspiration and peace. After spending time there, I knew I had a role in preserving the essence of the estate as a sanctuary, and a place that has celebrated life for over a thousand years.

How do you imagine your ownership of the estate will contribute to its legacy and that of the famous painter?

I have transferred the estate to a consortium of investors, chaired by renowned attorney William Beslow, and I no longer own it. The estate is a place that celebrates life. It should be relevant to the most important creative developments of the present and the future, and it needs to be a place that is a force for good.


Pablo Picasso

What does the future hold for the property?

The new owners would like to return it to a space that produces art once more, to keep its history and heritage alive, given its importance to Picasso’s work and two major art periods.

Picasso’s time at the estate was a huge part of the growth and transition towards a new style and generation of artists, and they would very much like to honor this. They are exploring different businesses that can be developed at the estate, focusing on the intersection between art, cultural conservation and technology.

Chateau De Vie-Picasso State

Chateau De Vie-Picasso State

Mr. Withanage, how is a day in your life?

My work is my passion, so I relish working as much as my hobbies. I spend my first half of every day planning how we can execute and do things better. I spend the second half executing what we have decided to do. I have my daughter who lives with her mother in Geneva, so my favorite time of every month is the 10 days I spend with my little one.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I love singing and acting and wanted to be a performing artist when I was younger. I was the solo singer in my school’s jazz band for a few years.

I did not have enough money at that time to support my family, and that was very important to me, so I went into business. I also love travel and comedy. I have travelled to over 100 countries and speak six languages. I enjoy laughing, principally at myself. I think I got that self-deprecation growing up in New Zealand. I think too many of us take ourselves too seriously. A life without color and humor would be sad.

Choose two of your favorite quotes and write them here

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Pablo Picasso

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston S. Churchill

If you had the power to change just one thing in the world, what would it be?

To eradicate suffering in all forms, especially that which is caused by poverty, inequality and conflict.




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