THE PEAK IN­TER­VIEW

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Letter From Cape Town The Brief -

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”.

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