The Wheel Deal
As Jebsen Motors celebrates the 60th anniversary of its relationship with porsche, Hans Michael Jebsen talks to Chloe Street about his automotive ancestry
A porsche is the coolest thing on four wheels,” Hans Michael Jebsen declares as we circle the latest model in the Jebsen Motors showroom in Kowloon Bay. As chairman of Jebsen & Co, the 120-year-old trading conglomerate that owns Jebsen Motors, one might expect him to be prone to the giddy gearbox chat of a crazed car enthusiast. And yet Hans Michael, a poised and polished figure clad in a doublebreasted pinstripe suit, is anything but giddy. The father of five exudes a gravitas and charm reminiscent of a bygone era. His statement is so calmly authoritative, so matter-of-fact, that I am inclined to really inspect the feat of design and engineering that is the 911 Carrera GTS in front of me. And I have to admit: a Porsche is damn cool.
The Jebsen family’s association with Porsche dates back to the 1950s, when Hans Michael’s father had a chance encounter with the brand. There were few cars on Hong Kong’s roads back then; the city, Hans Michael says, was a “a refugee society of just two million people, and very far from luxury motoring.” When his father was invited to take a test drive in 1954, he fell so deeply in love with the car that he placed an order for three on the spot. Its designer, Ferry Porsche—the son of Volkswagen creator Ferdinand Porsche—was somewhat flummoxed by the order, wondering how one of Asia’s smallest territories, with just 170 kilometres of roads and a speed limit of 50km/h, could possibly find a use for the thoroughbred speedsters he designed. Hans Michael’s father was, however, “a gung-ho, sporty young fellow who was quite adamant that this was the car for the future,” and the colony’s first Porsches—all convertibles— arrived in 1955.
Despite initially receiving a mixed reception—hans Michael says one resident commented that the car “looked like a beetle that had been under a stone for too long”—hong Kong soon fell in love with the Porsche, and the growth of the city’s economy in the 1970s and ’80s ensured that business eventually boomed.
The Jebsen family’s history in Hong Kong, however, far predates that of Porsche. Its business interests in Asia can be traced back to the mid-1800s when Michael Jebsen, a ship’s captain from Denmark, began trading between the East and West. In March 1895, Michael’s son Jacob co-founded Jebsen & Co in Hong Kong with Heinrich Jessen. Jacob passed the business to his own son, Hans Jacob Jebsen, some years later.
When Hans Jacob died suddenly in 1981, his son was called to Hong Kong to take over. Educated in Germany and Denmark, Hans Michael had trained as a banker in London before undertaking an economics and business administration degree at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, where he met Desiree, the German countess who was to become his wife. He was just 23 when he arrived in the colony and set about growing Jebsen & Co into the prosperous conglomerate it is today. Now one of Hong Kong’s oldest companies, the business handles the marketing and distribution of international consumer, beverage, industrial and motoring brands in Asia. The automotive arm, Jebsen Motors, is one of the largest Porsche distributors in the world, with nine centres in major cities across China. This year, it celebrates the 60th anniversary of its relationship with the brand.
Hans Michael, who learnt to drive on quiet country lanes in Denmark, had to “practically start learning all over again” when he began driving on Hong Kong’s chaotic streets. He remembers one fateful outing in Stanley early on when, driving the wrong way up a one-
way street, he came screeching to a halt to avoid a collision with a double-decker bus. Despite this shaky start, Hans Michael soon developed a love of driving in the city. He had one of the most memorable drives of his life in 1985 when journeying to the newly built nuclear power station in Daya Bay, Shenzhen. “Driving in China then was almost unheard of. In those days the streets were just being paved and Shenzhen was still largely rice fields. It was like a drive into a different century,” he says, remembering steering the car through the chaos of children and ducks on the road and crossing rivers on rickety ferries.
Cars aren’t the only things that rev Hans Michael’s engine. He’s a man driven by community interests, evidenced by his role as chairman of the Asian Cultural Council Hong Kong Friends’ Committee, as a trustee of WWF Hong Kong and as a member of the advisory board of the Hong Kong Red Cross. He also promotes access to further education through a close relationship with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He established a scholarship fund for the university in 1995, serves as a member of the corporate advisory board of the School of Business and Management, and was awarded an honorary fellowship in 2000. He was also awarded a Bronze Bauhinia Star in 2001.
Between all his business and philanthropic pursuits, Hans Michael somehow manages to make time for play. He is a keen yachtsman and a competent violinist who regularly attends classical music concerts. We can’t have a discussion about his passions, however, without coming back to cars. I suspect that when it comes to speed machines, the line between Hans Michael’s personal and professional lives is blurred. As part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, for example, he and Desiree recently hosted a party to launch the limited edition 911 Carrera GTS at their grand home on The Peak. To display the car, they had to lop off a section of one of the large trees in their garden. I remark that such pruning demonstrates a real dedication to the brand, to which he replies coolly, “Well, Porsches just become a part of your life.”
“MY FATHER WAS A GUNG-HO YOUNG FELLOW, WHO WAS QUITE ADAMANT THAT THIS WAS THE CAR FOR THE FUTURE”