SINGAPORE — After decades of racing motorsports and adventure bikes, it seemed natural for former stockbroker Tommy Lee to turn to cycling as a business.
The 54-year-old signed up Route 55 – an adventure bike training school that also distributes motor parts and accessories – in 2019, years after leaving the stock exchange. But it hasn’t been easy. Lee said Yahoo Finance Singapore how the pandemic left his cycling plans in the dust.
For Lee, a Malaysian and Singaporean permanent resident, most of his life has been guided by vehicles in one way or another. He started motor racing at 17 when he got his license and later enrolled in college to learn mechanical engineering, as he was determined to learn how engines work.
“But after I graduated…I figured the only way to fund the race is to get a good paying job. And at that time the market was really bullish, so I got into stock brokerage more for fun and also for money,” he said candidly. During this time, Lee continued to participate in motor racing, counting 300 to 400 local, regional and international events to date.
Work-wise, Lee went full throttle until his late thirties, when he decided he’d had enough. The commission was no longer worth it. He quit and worked temporarily at a racing circuit in Malaysia until he too had had enough.
In 2013, he decided to buy a motorcycle to travel the world and immediately became addicted. “The best way to see a country is on a motorcycle because not only do you see it, but you feel the country, you really feel what the whole country is about, and the cycling community tends to be very warm, welcoming” , he said.
“When I started riding I realized that actually a lot of people aren’t very good riders either. When I started I wasn’t good either, but I took lessons and I learned,” Lee said of why he turned to teaching.
He earned his motorcycle instructor certification in 2017 and founded Route 55 two years later, with plans to run bike trips in the area starting in 2020. He also landed a dealership as a source of income.
“(The company) needs to be self-sufficient… It can’t constantly burn money. So it has to be able to be essentially self-sufficient on some level,” he said.
But the pandemic put a damper on the work and his business plans came to a halt.
With bike tours suspended due to travel restrictions, Lee has fallen back on student training and distribution to generate income. It also had to cut marketing and promotions to cut its losses.
He originally put S$150,000 in savings into the business, intending to break even in the second year. But that never happened because of COVID-19. Until a few months ago, the company was still “depleting its reserves” and only recently started to break even.
Lee barely earned a fraction of what he earned as a stockbroker. He declined to reveal how much, instead giving an apt comparison.
“I used to make a Mercedes S-Class, now I make an A-Class, or maybe a B-Class,” he remarked.
“When you start doing trainings and events like this, obviously it’s a source of income. But whether it makes me really rich or not, 100% not. In relative terms, what I was earning in a bank and what I earn now is completely different.
Either way, he knew the business wouldn’t pay him as much as before. Besides, Route 55 was not really about money, but about sharing the passion for adventure travel.
For Lee, it all came down to good financial planning and spending within your means. Lee had also put money aside for his two children.
While Lee’s past has been characterized by an adrenaline-fueled hobby and career, now it’s all about slowing down to enjoy the scenery – via his bike travels.
“(I) have a different outlook, a different outlook on life now, as people get older, people see things differently,” he added. “I guess when you’re young the fast pace is a lot more fun, you feel the adrenaline rush, but nowadays the world has moved on. I think technology has changed and you do things differently.
“I’m still doing fast things, I mean, I’m still riding, I’m still running but…I would say I’m not as competitive as I used to be because before anything I do I’ll do everything in my power to make sure I win. Now it’s like I don’t compete as much anymore.
Now that the borders have reopened, Route 55 has traveled to Malaysia and India on bike trips. Future trips to Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries are in the works.
Lee hopes to continue running the company for as long as he is physically able.
“It will always come to a point, then when you don’t like doing it, don’t do it. I’m not quite young and physically I might not be able to do it because sometimes a lot of traveling takes a lot of energy from you.
But even if he stops riding one day, Lee can at least say he once lived the fast life.
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