Breaking New Ground

Global groundwater expert shares his life-long misson and the legacy he wants to leave behind

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Canadian groundwater scientist John Cherry has long been trying to answer questions that everyone takes for granted: how he can get to the water under the ground we stand on? And more importantly, what flows in it?

Groundwater, which is found in the cracks of sand particles and stone fragments underground, makes up 96 percent of the world’s usable freshwater supply.

In China, 60 percent of the population living in major cities use water extracted from wells. In Hong Kong, although groundwater is not the main source of water supply, it is going into the harbor, which brings about many ecological implications.

So, what flows in the water that affects us so dearly? Fertilizers, improperly disposed chemicals and sewage are correct educated guesses.

Surprisingly, groundwater scientists have also detected in other parts of the world traces of artificial sweeteners found in soft drinks, caffeine, cosmetics, and the pain and fever drug Tylenol.

“Groundwater is a repository for our way of modern living,” Cherry said.

To study the makeup of groundwater and its flow, scientists will drill boreholes as deep as 30 meters below ground. The depth is where farmers usually have wells.

“This is what I have been doing for 50 years,” said Cherry, 75. “One of my main thrusts has been, and continues to be, figuring out a better way to put things in these drill holes so we learn more.”

His vision and dedication eventually led him down the path of winning this year’s Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, which honors outstanding individuals or organizations that have contributed to solving global water challenges through innovative technologies, policies or programs.

Among the significant findings derived from Cherry’s works, one proves that natural chemical deposits and contaminants found in an aquitard – a clay-rich zone 20 to 25 meters deep underground – can spread by diffusion to another zone called an aquifer that is directly underneath it.

Before the discovery, groundwater scientists believed that aquitards were impervious. So in theory, groundwater that runs through an aquifer – a layer of rock or sand that can absorb and hold water – is unspoiled. The theory turned out to be false.

The new findings changed the way groundwater is studied.

And two separate researches that Cherry carried out in 2010 and 2013, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Hong Kong and Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, have changed perceptions about water management in the Pearl River Delta.

The researches debunked a long- held assumption that attributed the use of fertilizers as the cause of the abnormally high concentration of ammonium found in the aquifer in the area.

The presence of ammonium in groundwater can turn nearby rivers or lakes eutrophic.

“The ammonium comes from the mud that was laid down by the river thousands of years ago. The mud accumulated nitrogen which gradually gets converted into ammonium, and it seeps down into the aquifer,” Cherry explained.

“That means the problem is not a human-induced problem. From the point of view of management, government just needs to realize that that source of ammonium going into the rivers and estuaries will go on forever. You don’t want to dig deep ditches and make it worse.”

In terms of teaching achievement, the 1979 textbook Groundwater, which Cherry co-wrote with Allan Freeze, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is widely considered “the bible” for students reading hydrogeology.

Today, Cherry, who is the distinguished professor emeritus in hydrogeology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is still an active field researcher. He and his team of students travel all over the world to study groundwater.

A continuing project is to further the investigation into aquitards, which is a field still in its infancy.

“There are dozens of cities around the world along the coastline that are sitting on top of the soft, mud-type of material. The Pearl River Delta is typical, and it just so happened the chemicals found are ammonium and arsenic,” Cherry said.

“In other areas, the chemicals will be different. And as in many coastal cities sitting on a delta, it’s the aquifer where people get water. Our message is if you really want to understand the chemistry of the water in an aquifer, you have to understand the water in the aquitard, which can be easily done.”

Another project that Cherry is working on is a “living textbook” that he wants to put on the internet, and keep revising its content, for free. It will be published in April on hydrogeologistswithoutborders.org.

The GW2.0 textbook will contain updated chapters from his 1979 publication, as well as new texts and videos co-authored by two dozen other groundwater experts. The aim is for the book to be a teaching tool to help professors and undergraduate students.

“We hope that this field – groundwater science and engineering – will have a common denominator of advanced information. Right now, there is a lot of confusions out there,” Cherry said. “We want a book that students from wherever can feel a relationship to it. So, there will be professors from China involved, and we will have section on every country.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on August 23, 2016.

Aging Well

Meet the Bordelaise vintner whose purpose in life is to win

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Bernard Magrez : this name can trigger strong reactions in Bordeaux. While some in the wine industry admire the octogenarian’s ambition and marketing savvy, a few eyebrows are also raised over his lavish lifestyle and powerful circle of friends.

The multibillionaire vintner is the dominant estate owner in the wine capital of the world. His properties also span Rhone Valley, Languedoc and Provence in France, to Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Japan, Morocco and California.

“Altogether, there are 41 vineyards,” said Magrez. “In Bordeaux, we have four grand cru classe. We own the largest land area of grand cru classe in the world. The classification exists only in Bordeaux.”

In June, Alibaba boss Jack Ma Yun bought his second and third wine estate in Bordeaux – Chateau Perenne and Chateau Guerry – from Magrez for a reported 12 million euros (HK$104.8 million). The merlot grape harvested at Chateau Perenne is said to be used for French actor Gerard Depardieu’s wine Confiance.

But tycoons and celebrities only make up part of Magrez’s clientele. Ordinary drinkers should be no strangers to his premium labels: Chateau Pape Clement, Chateau Clos Haut- Peyraguey, Chateau Fombrauge and Chateau La Tour Carnet.

Born in Saint Seurin near the city center of Bordeaux, Magrez is a self- made man who accumulated his wealth by selling mainly whiskeys, cocktails and ports through the spirits company William Pitters.

Having survived the German occupation at six, Magrez stopped school at 13 because of bad grades. His father, who had a small building company, decided the boy would have a better future learning carpentry at a technical college away from home.

“The mission of this school was just to teach you how to saw wood,” Magrez recalled of the days in the Pyrenees. There, he met Francois Pinault, another self-made billionaire who founded the luxury goods retailer The Kering Group.

“I started working in several small companies since I was 16. At 20, I started William Pitters. It was a very, very small company with three people. After 30 years, I sold it to a big company at a good price. Then I bought some grand cru classe.”

For a man with “zero experience,” the decision to run a wine making and wine export company seemed like a daunting task, but Magrez said he had long wanted to venture into the export business because of the traditions in his hometown.

Was he not afraid of losing his hard- earned fortune in his middle age? “Why would I?” he countered. “It’s always possible for me to begin again. It’s normal in business to make a bad decision. I know immediately after [a bad decision], I would make some good decisions.”

Over the past 30 years building his namesake wine company, he has made a few bad decisions – such as an unsuccessful vineyard project in Qingdao in China.

“Another one was a fruit juice business. I stopped production after three years and sold the factory,” he said. “But a good decision was to buy Chateau La Tour Carnet in 2000. The terroir is extraordinary.”

This year at the Vinexpo Hong Kong exhibition, Magrez announced that he will introduce in Asia the “Luxury Wine Experience,” which provides guests with exclusive tours and stays at three of his four prime properties in Bordeaux.

He will also open up his private boy’s toy collection. Visitors of the experience tour will get to see his eclectic arts collection, two vintage Stradivarius violins if they are not on loan to musicians, and even take a ride in his helicopters and vintage Rolls-Royces.

“It’s not really a tradition of Bordeaux to share like that, but I am not like others,” said Magrez. “Now, people will see only a part of my arts collection because I have too many. I collect modern art, contemporary art and street art. I particularly like figurative art.”

On new vintages, Magrez said that 2015 is the best year Bordeaux has had in the past five years. Another region which has produced good vintage in 2015 is Languedoc.

Reading through his wine labels, it’s clear that the 80-year-old still has many unfulfilled dreams. Magrez has named one of his latest bottles Jamais Renoncer (Never Give Up).

“I like to win – not money, not to be the first, but belong to the group of people who win,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on August 19, 2016.

 

Right At Home

Why this Kiwi accountant was fated to become the head of an expanding houseware distributor in Hong Kong

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The six degrees of separation theory contends that anyone on the planet can be linked to any other person with just six introductions. It’s a simpler cobweb to trace how two strangers, Suresh Kanji and Ravi Gidumal, were connected to each other.

Kanji was an accountant from New Zealand before he met Gidumal, a Hong Kong-born Indian businessman operating Town House, a houseware and giftware distributor founded by his mother Mohini Gidumal in 1962.

The two had never had any business dealings with each other. Kanji, a Wellington native, didn’t even know Gidumal existed before they met. Interestingly, they shared two mutual connections – which turned out to be two important women in Gidumal’s life.

The first was Gidumal’s sister Anita. Kanji met her during a 10-week business trip to Hong Kong in 1994. They both used to work at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Four years later, Kanji met the second connection through work again.

“I moved to Hong Kong in March 1998. At that time, the company would send a staff member out to the airport to welcome you and show you around,” he recalled. “That was Shalini Mahtani.” Mahtani, whose grandfather is George Harilela, is Gidumal’s better half.

Despite that, Kanji and Gidumal met by chance – during a Christmas party.

“Anita invited me to her parent’s house for my first Christmas in Hong Kong. Ravi just happened to turn up on Christmas Day,” recalled Kanji. “Ravi and Shalini did not have any romantic relationship yet at the time. I wasn’t their matchmaker.”

The two later became good friends and discovered common interests: squash and wine tasting. Still in New Zealand, Kanji would often travel to his favorite vineyard Villa Maria in Marlborough and Mission Estate in Hawke’s Bay. He even went on a wine tour in Bordeaux for his honeymoon.

In 1999, Gidumal invited Kanji to a tasting event. He had started distributing Riedel’s stemware in Hong Kong and wanted his friend’s opinions on the varietal-specific wine glasses.

“I have never ever heard of such a thing as glass tasting. A glass is a glass,” recalled Kanji. “We sat down and we did the first wine, an ordinary sauvignon blanc. We tried it in a Riedel glass and non-Riedel glass.”

“When I first tasted it from a Riedel glass, I thought it was quite a nice wine. The flavors and the acidity were balanced with sweetness. But when we tried it in a non-Riedel glass, the wine was really average. It was bitter, overly acidic.”

“I was amazed. And then we moved onto chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet. I turned from being skeptical to ‘Wow! That is the most incredible thing I’ve ever been to.'”

Gidumal converted Kanji into a Riedel believer. In 2012, he invited Kanji to help him expand the business. Kanji is now the general manager of Town House.

Town House is now also engaged in the wholesale business, selling to hotels and restaurants. Its wholesale operations are actually bigger now than its retail business.

In its retail operations, Town House opened a second stand-alone store at K11 shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui in November. It has also expanded, since June, retail premises that it is operating in department stores. In Sogo in Causeway Bay, Town House has expanded almost fivefold the size of its retail shop. In Wing On department store in Sheung Wan, Town House also expanded its one-pillar shop to a proper shop-in-shop.

“Our performance in department stores has been solid. We are not as adversely affected as other retail companies by the slowdown in the local retail industry,” said Kanji. “It is very hard to get into department stores and space is at a premium. The fact that we’ve been able to expand is a testament to our product mix being right,” he said.

Last month, Town House signed with Alessi an agreement for the retailer to distribute the latter’s products in Hong Kong. The deal added to its portfolio of high-profile brands, which include Riedel, Maxwell & Williams, Nachtmann, Carrs Silverware and Britto.

“The design and range of Alessi products is vast. But it fits into our home and gift category quite well,” said Kanji. “One of the things that Ravi has always insisted on is a wide product range. Town House is a destination for buying gifts, for buying something for yourself, and which is not necessarily expensive.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on August 12, 2016.