Fam­ily Threads

Man­u­fac­tur­ing mogul Henry Tan talks to Chloe Street about his jour­ney from flicks to frocks and as­sum­ing ste­ward­ship of the fam­ily em­pire

Hong Kong Tatler - - Faces Close-up -

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.

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