He was mentored by CY Leung, knows Hong Kong society like the back of his hand and is a keen environmentalist. tells about retail, detail and the loves of his life
’m in the lift with Karim Azar, descending from his office to IFC Mall, where he wants to introduce me to Bullock, a member of the canine security squad that patrols the lofty avenues sniffing for explosives. Bullock is the apple of Azar’s eye; he takes her home on weekends for a glimpse of life beyond the shopping mecca. Most people would take this 15-second ride in silence, collecting their thoughts before re-entering the daily grind. Not Azar. IFC Management Company’s straight-shooting general manager of retail leasing is always “on.”
“Hello? Hi? Hello? It’s Karim,” he utters into the lift’s microphone, tapping the call button with his index finger as if transmitting morse code. “There’s no music in this elevator. There should be music in all the elevators please.”
A moment later the doors open and Bullock bounds into his arms. After a few tricks and hugs, Bullock receives a coatruffling farewell and Azar’s attention is once again fixed on business. His eyes are hawklike; they dart from one thing to the next as he whisks us around the mall, pointing out everything from new boutiques to energyefficient lighting. Mid-sentence, he flips his mobile to his ear. “It’s Karim. There’s a dusty air vent on the first floor; could we get this cleaned ASAP, please.” I survey the gleaming surfaces before us, wondering what he defines as dust. “It’s all about details,” he says.
It’s easy to see why Azar has won the trust and loyalty of some of Hong Kong’s most influential business barons. He’s industrious and high-energy with zero airs and graces, and his intense, boyish enthusiasm makes him immediately likeable. Is he a workaholic? “Put it this way, you will never get a bounce-back email from me saying ‘I’m out of the office.’” Over 17 years, these qualities have seen him rise through the ranks of Sun Hung Kai and now IFC Management Company, which is a
joint venture between Sung Hung Kai and Henderson Land Development. Since taking control of retail leasing, Azar has introduced numerous brands to Hong Kong, including Tom Ford, Tory Burch, J Crew, Loro Piana and Apple, all of which had their first stores at IFC Mall. His mission is to make sure the complex evolves as an international shopping hub with a distinctly cosmopolitan clientele. “We have a very low percentage of mainland Chinese traffic,” he notes. “Your trade mix determines your customers. We have filled the mall with very sophisticated brands like Giuseppe Zanotti, Céline [under construction], Valentino, Emilio Pucci and Miu Miu.” Shoppers on the mainland are less familiar with these kinds of brands, he notes.
Azar, 41, was born in Hong Kong to a Lebanese father and a British mother, both of whom are now remarried. Azar lives with his father and stepmother very happily. “I had the choice of moving out but dad is getting older, he’s 79 now, so I want to stay with him for a while. He gives me such good advice, is my teacher in all things and an amazing guy.”
When he was nine Azar was sent to school in Switzerland, where he learnt to speak French and Italian fluently. Four years later he left for a sports-oriented boarding school in England called Millfield. “I was not a great student. I was a naughty boy. I used to tease the teachers. I had lots of friends though.”
Two years into a business degree in Boston, Azar decided he’d had enough of academia; he quit the course and returned to Hong Kong, hankering for something hands-on. His first job was just that: scrubbing floors and dishes in the kitchen of the Regent Hotel. A little more than a year later he and his father opened a Lebanese restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong with a handful of partners, inluding Ronald Arculli and David Tang. His father owned the property and Azar oversaw the restaurant’s operations. When they sold the business 12 years later, Azar joined a small