Last week marked the end of one era and the start of another. The retirement of Hong Kong’s second-richest man, Lee Shau-kee, as chairman of Henderson Land Development means that the so-called Big Four property developers have all officially handed over the reins to the second or even third generation of their respective families.
As the old guard of these powerful companies recede from the stage, the new generation of family tycoons should seize the opportunity to chart their own paths and take the vast conglomerates that they have inherited closer to the people.
Hong Kong’s massive economic take-off in the 1970s provided the genesis for Henderson, Cheung Kong Group, Sun Hung Kai Properties and New World Development – the Big Four – to grow into dominant dynasties. Over time, they have spread their tentacles into all aspects of Hong Kong’s day-to-day life.
Living in Hong Kong, one cannot avoid having one’s money go to one of the Big Four developers. From electricity and gas to public transport and telecommunications, from supermarkets and shopping malls to private homes, estate management companies and new infrastructure projects, this quartet of companies is simply omnipresent.
The Big Four families create a fair share of Hong Kong’s wealth but have also been accused of discouraging competition and maximising profit over consumer interest. While ageing tycoons like Li Ka-shing were once feted as superheroes by the public, Hong Kong’s property magnates gradually came to be labelled as greedy, cheating devils.
With the leadership succession of the Big Four developers now complete, this is the prime time for the new owners to meaningfully clean up the image of their empires and make a break from the past.
What marks out this generation of tycoons is that, while they may lack the guts or Midas touch (and the not inconsiderable luck) of their fathers or grandfathers, they are all highly educated, often at Ivy League universities. They are supposed to be knowledgeable beyond doing just hard business, and they should have the wherewithal and courage to go where those before them chose not to or did not know how to explore.
Naturally, as individuals, the new class of tycoons have different styles. Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, Li Ka-shing’s elder son, is known to be conservative, while the Lee brothers now at the helm of Henderson will gradually step out of their father’s shadow.
At Sun Hung Kai, Adam Kwok Kai-fai has cut a fresh image as a cycling enthusiast who regularly takes part in road bike challenges and sponsors the development of local and mainland riders so they can compete in global races.
To date, the dapper Adrian Cheng of New World Development has perhaps made the most successful and coherent effort to cultivate a personal brand to distinguish himself from his forebears. As a third-generation company leader, Cheng is a prolific patron of the arts and culture globally and in Hong Kong. Together with his younger sister Sonia Cheng, they have tastefully revamped the Avenue of Stars on the Tsim Sha Tsui harbourfront, bringing a whole new level of aesthetics to urban spaces.
Outside the Big Four, Vanessa Cheung, managing director of Nan Fung Group, has transformed her grandfather’s former textile factories in Tsuen Wan into design hub The Mills.
Meanwhile, Katherine Lo Bo-lun, daughter of the hotel billionaire Lo Ka-shui of Great Eagle Holdings, has rebranded Eaton Hotel in Jordan by merging hospitality with promotion of social change. The smart-retro hotel is fast earning a good following with a strong programme of pro-women’s rights, LGBT and freedom of speech activities.
Beyond deepening their corporate social responsibility work and taking it beyond the staging of one-off charity events for photo opportunities, there are other obvious changes that the public would want to see.
In the past two decades, local property developers have made themselves very unpopular with a range of rapacious practices, the most notorious of which is probably the “square foot scam” which sold flats at exaggerated sizes.
The public are now looking for fewer “nano flats”, and for more environmentally-friendly developments that do not use up every last inch of the permitted gross floor area. Hong Kong has had enough bulky glass-walled apartment towers that block light and airflow – a ride down Eastern Corridor on Hong Kong Island should make that point clear. Given the influence of the Big Four developers, new initiatives from them could potentially lead to industry practice changes.
In addition, the new family tycoons should give more support to think tanks and non-governmental organisations in research subjects central to our quality of life, such as housing solutions, brownfield use, urban planning and heritage conservation.
As a new generation of family tycoons takes over the baton from those who, for better or for worse, have been key to Hong Kong’s economic prosperity, the city is, rightly, expecting more from them. Whether they succeed or fail could well hinge on their ability to deliver change.
Francis Neoton Cheung is the convenor of Doctoral Exchange, a public policy research collective, and a former member of the Land and Building Advisory Committee
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Breaking with the past