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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Faces -

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”

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