Rising Son

Jonathan Zeman, cheif executive of Lan Kwai Fong Group, is happy to let his father steal the limelight

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Halloween in Hong Kong would not be complete without Allan Zeman’s cosplay. And this year, the “Godfather of Lan Kwai Fong” has a new partner in crime: his son Jonathan.

Low-profile Jonathan Zeman, 40, is chief executive of Lan Kwai Fong Group, the entertainment, hospitality and property development conglomerate founded by Allan after the latter quit the garment industry. Allan remains its chairman.

Last month, Jonathan launched the group’s first mobile game, called LKF Monster Mash, produced by a new business unit – a virtual reality and mobile gaming start-up. The ghost-hunting app has a geo-location feature that players use to capture ghouls, witches and zombies in Lan Kwai Fong. Players can also add stickers to their selfies.

Although Jonathan has been involved in running the family empire for almost two decades, it’s hard for people to immediately associate him as Allan’s son as he resembles his fashion model mother Charmaine.

“My father has brown eyes. I have green eyes. We have similar hair color, similar height, but he is skinnier than me. He exercises a lot so he manages to keep trim. And so far, I have more hair than my father, but in a few years, it will be the same,” joked Jonathan.

A sense of humor is perhaps one recognizable trait that Jonathan has inherited from his father. Another is their taste in clothes. Father and son favor a simple and clean style. They don’t like to wear ties.

Personality-wise, they are polar opposites.

“We are very different but an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said. “My father is very energetic, very outgoing. He wants to get things done very quickly. I am much more reserved, much more quiet. But I also want to get things done very quickly, and get things done right. That’s basically my character.”

Jonathan joined the family business as a management trainee in 1998 after university. He majored in East Asian studies at the University of California in Los Angeles and had thought of becoming an architect or a film producer.

“It was the Asian economic crisis, which had a severe impact on Hong Kong. There were no jobs out there, and it was not the time to start a business,” he recalls.

So he agreed to work at one of his father’s restaurants, Baci Italian Restaurant. A month later, he walked into his father’s office and offered to quit.

“I was working around 80 hours a week. It was a great experience, but it was also one of the most tiring in my life,” he recalled. He had to deal with patrons who would name-drop, claiming they knew Allan Zeman to get seated right away on a busy night. “That put me in a difficult situation.”

As it turned out, the elder Zeman was the better salesman that day. He convinced his son to stick it out. The rest is history.

Over the years, Jonathan has made his mark on the company, from setting up the first e-mail server, to managing the operations of 17 restaurants at one time, opening a second Lan Kwai Fong in Chengdu, and setting up the Andara Resort and Villas in Phuket.

However, the renovation of California Tower, which reopened last year, cemented his position as curator of the group’s future. He had to win his old man over on modernizing the entire building.

Allan Zeman opened his first restaurant, California Bar & Grill, in 1983 on the ground floor of that building, where Ciao Chow, an Italian cafeteria, is situated today. He had a strong emotional attachment to the building, making him reluctant to see any changes.

The younger Zeman said his focus now is to add more businesses within the Lan Kwai Fong Group such as online media platform LKFtv, which will produce content about culture, fashion, food, music and lifestyle for the millennials. The platform will be accessible on social media, mobile app and the group’s website. Jonathan wants to expand its reach to include internet-delivered TV channels.

As for the group’s property arm, two major projects in the mainland are due to be completed in 2018.

First, a third Lan Kwai Fong will open in Wuxi’s central business district in southern Jiangsu province. The 170,000-square-meter plot will have shops, as well as bars, clubs and restaurants modeled after the ones in Hong Kong.

Second, the Lan Kwai Fong Group has partnered with DreamWorks Animation, China Development Bank and mainland mogul Li Ruigang’s China Media Capital to turn an old cement factory in Shanghai into a mega office, shopping and entertainment complex named Shanghai DreamCenter.

The article first appeared in the Standard on October 28, 2016.

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