Manufacturing mogul Henry Tan talks to Chloe Street about his journey from flicks to frocks and assuming stewardship of the family empire
uam has been kind to us,” says Henry Tan, who moved to the Micronesian island in 1972 when his father, Luen Thai founder Tan Siu Lin, moved his shipping and trading company there. It was on Guam that Henry, while a student at the island’s university, made his first entrepreneurial foray—an adventure that was to have far-reaching benefits for the family empire his father was building and of which Henry is now CEO.
“Foreign students didn’t have much to do,” Henry recalls. So, as a member of the Chinese students’ association, he would invite classmates home on weekends for screenings of Chinese movies and to enjoy his mother’s cooking. These soirees became so popular that he had to move them outside, projecting the movies from a balcony onto the neighbour’s wall for the crowd seated in the garden.
It was the heyday of Bruce Lee and kung fu films, and Henry had an idea. He asked a film-industry friend of his father in Hong Kong—tan had already invested in the industry—to send over some martial arts films. After successful garden screenings, Henry struck a deal with his local movie theatre; if a showing of the latest kung fu film took in more than a certain sum in ticket sales, he would get 35 per cent of the profit. In the first week, at the tender age of 19, Henry made US$3,500.
The budding entrepreneur and his four younger brothers soon parlayed this success into a film distribution business, which ended up popularising martial arts movies across a swathe of the Pacific. At its peak, it had more than 2,000 films on the go. “I flew to every island that a plane would land,” says Henry, recalling that some places didn’t even have telephones. “Everything was very primitive.” The arrival of videocassettes dealt them a blow, but the brothers, who by then had diversified, still own 16 movie screens on Guam and maintain “a real passion” for the industry.
In 1983, Tan Siu Lin opened Luen Thai’s first garment factory—also in the Pacific, on Saipan in the Northern Marianas—and the brothers were soon immersed in a family business that grew from its shipping origins into the Luen Thai Group of textile, fashion, fishery, hotel, real estate, insurance and logistics interests. Henry today presides over its consumer goods, manufacturing and supply chain flagship, Luen Thai Holdings. With 44,000 employees, it makes 175 million garments and accessories a year for brands such as Ralph Lauren, Gap, Adidas, Coach and J Crew, to name a few, and turned over US$1.2 billion in 2014.
As a Hongkonger and a key industry player, Henry is disappointed with the city’s position in the fashion world. “The sad thing is that we are the biggest centre for garment sourcing and yet the whole community was not able to develop Hong Kong as a fashion centre,” he laments. While the city has many of the ingredients—hip bars, restaurants and shops— to position itself as a fashion capital, “we really have to get our act together,” he says, and the government has to provide more support for the creative industries. “The government here is too worried about being fair to everyone.”
Shopping, however, is a bright spot where Hong Kong holds a competitive edge. “It’s the best; you get all the global brands in a small, manageable area,” he says. And though much of Henry’s attire comes from his own factories, he enjoys shopping with his daughter, often choosing items for her and his wife, Joise, who he met while at the University of Guam. “I know what they like. I know their style.”
The early lessons Henry and his brothers learned collaborating on their film business have proved a boon for the empire founded by their father, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. “The fact that my brothers and I worked together to build the film business provides some of the fundamental foundations for the functioning of the family business today,” says Henry, whose brothers, Willie, Raymond, Jerry and Sunny, all work for Luen Thai, along with sister Lily’s husband, Samuel Chou.