The best decade for Hong Kong was the 1980’s.
In the SCMP: The Winning Formula for HK
This is my Fire Monkey year. In the next week, I hit sixty. What has HK has taught me about business in the last six decades?
Hong Kong started as a byword for product and service – doing a good job for people. Good business people are not always flashy, or loud, or even smart. Luck and timing play huge part. Like successful business people, locations like Hong Kong also need luck and timing as well as, of course, hard work.
As a young teenager I remember that it was possible to drive down to Central and park free around a tree-lined Statue Square. Now only the billionaire’s chauffeurs can do that. Life was slower than today but for as long as I can remember, the “doors close” button on the elevators have been worn out. It was then that I absorbed Hong Kong’s values of hope combined with hard work and ambition. There’s a feeling that no one owes you a favour, so you had better get on with it. It comes from the urgency of being a refugee society and the need to make a living. I learned a lesson that to make things happen, you have to hustle.
Time is money so things had to be done yesterday. I started working in the city in the 1970’s, which was a decade of enormous energy as the government poured investment into housing, bridges, highways, hospitals, and water supply. The Hong Kong spirit of urgency and impatience was combined with a spirit of efficiency. Corners were cut but in a professional manner, within the rules; not illegally. This Hong Kong taught me ambition – a sense that no one could stop you succeeding.
Back in London, I found a boss who illustrated the difference. He thought I was a cowboy and I thought he was a hidebound old fuddy-duddy, incapable of decision-making. In Hong Kong, bureaucracy was light and there was no blame culture. Projects came in under budget and within time. Getting the job done was paramount – the details could be winged later. If they did trip up the project, people were confident and experienced enough to find a quick solution.
A friend from the mainland recently asked, “What was the best time for Hong Kong?” It has to be the late eighties as Hong Kong grew incessantly and everyone made money despite the 1987 crash. The city moved seamlessly from being a manufacturing hub to a financial centre as the former moved to China. The population averaged 25, with the energy of youth, eager to study and learn. There was never a shortage of work and employees would walk out of one job into another with a decent rise.
The nineties saw the big global companies moving in making Hong Kong a really big financial and trading hub with global presence. We could still be creative. The Hong Kong sense of “getting your retaliation in first” was not malicious and everyone understood it that it was to secured your hard-won position. If there was a row, then Hong Kong people would not get mad, they got even.
The global influence made everyone more suspicious and aware of blame. Looking back over papers and documents from past careers, I see now that people were always much nicer, more generous, and more helpful to me than I thought at the time. I can’t help thinking that this new suspicion resulted in lost business and personal opportunities.
Hong Kong’s openness about making money makes it more honest than many other places around the world. “Wah, nice flat! How much you pay?” is often the first comment by a visitor to one’s home. Talking about money somehow makes it more transparent compared to the West. The processes of the big global companies and their global rules has made Hong Kong more of a regional centre and less of a global hub. Everything has become less negotiable in the noughties and the tens as a result of Internet systematisation and homogenisation. The average age is now 55, not much less than I.
Hong Kong was established and developed because of its geographical location but the Internet makes location a lot less important. In 1970, we were alone, masters of our own destiny – now we are the 14th biggest city in China – not just a small part of China, but of the World. We can’t afford to lose our refugee “can do” spirit that meant that those at the bottom of the pile could look at those who succeeded and believe that with hope and hard work they too can do the same.
Richard Harris is Chief Executive of Port Shelter Investment Management. www.portshelter.com