THE PEAK INTERVIEW
Dr Allan Zeman has one of Hong Kong's more interesting offices. A large room is filled with a haphazard array of art, photos and awards. Behind his desk, there are two photos of Zeman shaking hands and chatting with Chinese leader Xi Jingping, a testament to his outsized influence in Hong Kong. Yet, his two secretaries share the same room, working at desks within throwing distance from his. And there are stacks of books carefully piled up as high as five feet around the room, covering subjects such as architecture, design, philosophy and the arts. Zeman says he hasn't read one of them.
For this legend of Hong Kong, the show is the business.
Born in Germany and raised in Montreal, Allan Zeman likes recounting his early childhood work history. By the age of ten, he had his first job delivering newspapers. By 12, he was bussing tables in a restaurant, where he learned about hustling for tips. He was, he likes to say, already making more money than his teachers at that point. He also developed a love for eating out – able to afford a restaurant rather than taking a packed lunch like other kids.
In his story, there is the hint of a personal philosophy: teachers and books don't necessarily have the answers – you need to work, learn practical lessons, and apply those lessons as you go. By the time Zeman was 19, he had dropped out of college and famously amassed his first million dollars by selling women's lingerie. “He wasn't caught up in what university you went to; in his mind, having no experience was better than having a lot of the wrong experience,” said Bruce Rockowitz, one of Zeman's long time friends and business partners.
“He's very humble. Billionaires will take themselves so seriously, but Allan doesn't do take himself too seriously; his work, yes,” said Richard Feldman, chairman of the Mimosa Group, which runs bars and restaurants in the Lan Kwai Fong area, and who is a fellow Montrealer. Feldman reckons Zeman's demeanor is part of being Canadian. “How many billionaires in Hong Kong are like that?”
By the 1970s, Zeman had already moved to Hong Kong to be closer to the source of his clothing, which was then sold to Canada. It was around 1980 that he met Bruce Rockowitz, then a young tennis player touring Asia. The two met once, and then again about a year later, when Zeman hired him on. Rockowitz was in his early 20s, Zeman his early 30s.
“He was in the forefront of Asian fashion. He was a great businessman, but he had great taste as well. He could design things and make things,” says Rockowitz. Zeman has since developed a trademark look – the bangles on his right arm, open neck shirt and upturned collar. It's a look that sets him apart from any other businessman in Asia, and he never changes it, even when meeting Xi Jingping.
“He kept saying how hard he had to work and that he was expanding. He was looking for someone young and hired me on the spot,” Rockowitz recalled. Taking a chance on young people with a big idea and a willingness to work has become one of Zeman's hallmarks. “He gave me a lot,” said Rockowitz, who has remained connected to Zeman over the years, most recently as fellow board members on Wynn Macau casino. “By the time I was 26 or 27, I was president of the company.”
Simon Squibb, who recently returned to his native UK, landed in Hong Kong 20 years ago with his own entrepreneurial dreams. Squibb had the idea to put ads on beer mats and coasters in bars, and approached Lan Kwai Fong Group's marketing department. During the meeting, Zeman popped in, by chance meeting Squibb and hearing the proposal.
association became, in Richard Feldman's words, a “one-stop-shop” for corporations or the government to contact, and a model for other districts to try.
“Allan has a clear vision of what he wants, and a clear vision of where his support is needed,” said Feldman, who was chairman of the association for ten years. “He always had good logic and was clear minded, and he made things simple,” said Rockowitz.
In 2000, Zeman and Rockowitz sold Colby to competitors Li and Fung, for HK$2.2 billion in cash and stock. Rockowitz stayed on with Li and Fung, while Zeman left the garment business behind.
Lan Kwai Fong went on to become Hong Kong's premier place for partying and late night dining. It was also where he developed an image of getting dressed up to promote his ventures. “If it's good for business, a charity, whatever, he does it,” says Feldman. “We used to get him to dress up in wigs and things all the time,” he says with a laugh.
Though Zeman himself says his days of dressing up and hanging from helicopters is mostly over, he's still willing to put on a costume. “Most people don't have the guts to do it,” he said. “I do it because it makes people laugh … it's not something I look forward to.”
While Lan Kwai Fong still retains its cache as a party place, Hong Kong has moved on from those early years, with F&B outlets spread all over the city, often in search of lower rents. Meanwhile, Zeman and his Lan Kwai Fong Group have expanded their business to include a Lan Kwai Fong-themed district in Chengdu, which is reportedly doing well.
A foray into Shanghai, the 460,000 square metre Dream Center, includes spaces for commercial offices, entertainment and F&B, retail, and a 38,000
“ALL AN HAS A CLEAR VISION OF WHAT HE WA N T S , A N D A CLEAR VISION OF WHERE HIS SUPPORT IS NEEDED” – Richard Feldman
Park's incredible surroundings to its benefit, refusing to copy the Disney approach.
And he gave the promotion of Ocean Park his personal flair. In one year, he put on a jellyfish costume, dressed up in drag, and donned on a silver wig to join a chorus of dancers.
“I was there as an icon for the park, dressing up in all these silly costumes that I didn't enjoy. You can't always enjoy it. It was free advertising for the park, and we didn't have the money that Disney had.” He recounts how he and Andy Lau did a helicopter landing dressed as Eskimos to promote a new exhibition, in front of then-chief Executive Donald Tsang.
The results of Zeman's bold moves were quickly apparent. By 2007, Forbes magazine dubbed Zeman “Hong Kong's Mouse Killer”. By 2014, when Zeman stepped down from the chairmanship (he said at the time that he was pushed out), visitor numbers in 2016 had reached nearly 8 million, up from just under 3 million in 2003. A HK$4 million deficit had turned into HK$127 million surplus.
The reasons for the success? “Have a good team with good vision. Always come up with something exciting, something new. In that kind of business, people are always looking for something new.”
Ocean Park made the news this year when the Hong Kong government's latest budget revealed a HK$310 million bailout to the park, which has lost money for the last two years in a row. Zeman remains circumspect about the park's current difficulties, suggesting that new rides and attractions are on the way, which will reignite interest.
Still, it begs the question: what would you do differently? “Do we have a few hours?” Zeman asked with a laugh.
The Hong Kong government has decided to make tourism a major business pillar, with the creation of numerous mega projects such as West Kowloon, the Kai Tak cruise terminal and to a lesser extent, Disney, all part of an effort to boost tourism receipts.
Zeman was on the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority for 12 years. “Right now, the hardware is being built. When it's the hardware, people don't pay attention. Once the content comes, you're going to see people get excited,” he says of the enormous project. Soft power – cultural content – is a favorite subject with Zeman. “What makes London, what makes New York? You go to Broadway, you see the shows. You go to London for the same things. That's missing, a lot, in Hong Kong.”
“I get approached all the time for many things. Right now, I'm working with Carrie Lam on an innovation and technology committee – I may join that. I'm very into tech these days. It's the future, and very important for Hong Kong. I sit on the Alibaba entrepreneurs fund.”
Though Zeman admits that property is the main source of his revenue these days, his passion for new tech is apparent, and his love of all things youthful and energetic hasn't waned.
“For me, it's about start ups and young people.” Zeman decries Hong Kong's high property prices (though as landlord, he certainly benefits), calling it Hong Kong's most serious problem and calling for “hard decisions to be made”.