Online stockbroker Conrado “Dino” Bate has a lot to smile about these days. After all, the Philippine stock market has been riding high and outperforming its Asian neighbors, and it has been doing so for the past couple of years now. As a result, his clients are happy and, of course, this makes him happy too. It was almost late afternoon yet their corporate headquarters at the East Tower of the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) in Ortigas was a beehive of activity. As we walked around the premises, he proudly showed us their seminar room with a good-sized crowd currently listening to one of their stockbrokers explaining how online stock market trading works. Bate is the president and CEO of COL Financial Group Inc., formerly known as Citisecurities, which became CitisecOnline, until it settled with its present corporate name.
COL Financial is the leading and fastest growing online stockbrokerage firm in the country, handling about 20 percent of the total number of trades at the PSE. According to its corporate records, it is also the largest capitalized stockbroker with over half a billion pesos in resources. COL Financial is also listed in the PSE, and a member of the Hong Kong Exchange.
Amid the change in corporate name and changing its business model to become an online stockbroker, Bate explained the company’s evolution. “When we started this business in 1999, it was an offshoot of the Asian financial crisis in 1997.” The crisis was triggered by the fall of the Thai baht, which created a domino-like effect on other Asian currencies. What happened at that time, he said, made stock market investing less desirable in the country. The shift, he said, came about as a result of the passion of their founder and chairman Edward K. Lee in investing in the stock market. Bate says the Philippine market then was a basket case, but their chairman loved investing in the stock market. In 1999, Lee learned about online trading in the US, and how it brought down the barriers in trading worldwide. Lee thought, “If technology is going to be an enabler today for everybody to participate in the stock market, why can’t I do it here in the Philippines?” So Lee put together a team from the PSE who set up the technology for electronic trading there, and asked them to build him a platform that will allow him to trade online. Bate explained that Citisec wasn’t really the first to use electronic trade. “BPI had the same technology, but was only limited for their clients, and the timing at that time was off, so it never gained traction.” Bate said their founder was more of a contrarian and despite the conditions at that time, still took the road less traveled, built the system, while at the same time managed his costs, while letting the bear market pass. In 2002, its wholly owned subsidiary COL HK became a trading participant at the HK Exchange.
Bate said that when he joined COL Financial in 2003, the company was ready to finally roll out their new business model. “My first marching orders from our chairman were: put my plan together, roll it out, and get us listed in three years.” Bate admitted that even then many were skeptical. He said, “We saw it initially as an advocacy, because they didn’t know whether there was a real market out there.” “This retail aspect was not tested, and the perceptions at that time was stock brokering was almost like a sunset industry, the young ones avoided it, so there was no new blood,” Bate added. Still, they went ahead and conducted comprehensive, weeklong seminars to teach people how to trade. The company started with only 250 individuals, composed mostly of friends, family and employees using the system.
COL Financial launched its IPO (initial public offering) in July 2006, when the market was still “soft.” Bate explained that they struggled through their first four years, although they had raised a decent amount during the IPO. The tipping point, he said, finally happened in 2010 when they reached their 10,000th client. This was the result of their highly successful “COL Easy Investment Program” which they launched in 2009, where they simplified stock market trading. “We made it easy and convenient for everybody, regardless of age, income or investment experience. It was a method, he says, that had always been there called dollar-cost averaging, only they tailor-fit it to become the peso-cost averaging.” It was a real breakthrough, Bate said, because “it heralded the beginning of the growth spurt of COL”.
These days, Bate’s schedule is always full. The company regularly conducts road shows and seminars around the country to continually educate people on how to gain financial independence via the stock market. But, he said, he is still able to manage his time for family and relaxation. He even found enough time to help his driver and family cook understand and invest in stocks. He happily stated that his two personal employees were beyond ecstatic to learn over the years that their investments have gained so much over time—much more than what they could ever hope to earn in their lifetime, if they just relied on their salaries. For his part, Bate said, this is what he hopes to achieve more in the work that he does—empowering the Filipino investor to achieve financial independence, one step at a time.