Steaming Ahead

Miele division managing director shares how he hawks luxury to the masses

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When Kenny Lam Cho-kan asked a friend whether he should accept a sales job at Miele, the answer was a resounding no. His friend had a point. The German white-goods maker, whose local office was established two decades ago, was a big fish in a small pond.

Lam, managing director of Miele Hong Kong and Macau, joined in 1999, a year after the local unit was set up. The aftermath of the Asian financial crisis could then still be felt. With everyone tightening their purse strings, selling high-ticket home appliances that few could afford was a struggle.

In those days, a washing machine from Miele could easily fetch five-digits. It may sound reasonable, given a notebook computer costs around the same, but it was rare for people to pay so much for electrical goods.

“People could not make sense of our prices. Remember, it was the time when iPhones didn’t exist. The It phone was a Nokia 8800,” Lam joked.

“And what’s called a kitchen was a counter top with a gas stove. It made no big difference whether you lived in Tregunter Towers at Mid-Levels or in public housing.”

Lam was tasked with selling dishwashers, washing machines and vacuum cleaners to retail shops. Vacuum cleaners sold best as they were a lot cheaper.

“A retailer told me that his shops would not carry our brand even if we supplied products for free,” Lam recalled. “Now it’s not uncommon to see households spending tens of thousands of dollars to install nice built-in branded cabinets and appliances in the kitchen.”

In two decades, Miele has added more than 100 retail locations in Hong Kong and Macau, and grown annual sales by nearly 50-fold.

The local unit is marking its anniversary by unveiling a two-story flagship store and experience center in Causeway Bay next week.

“The store will be our only flagship in Hong Kong and Macau. It is our biggest investment of the year,” Lam said. “We have also worked with two non-profit organizations to release a book about preserving Cantonese cuisine to deepen community connection.”

These days, property agents share a private joke: new housing projects equipped with Miele appliances can command a higher premium.

And when property developers organize show flat tours, as evidenced by the four recent residential sites in Ho Man Tin and Kai Tak, they do not shy away from highlighting the German label in their sales pitch.

“The wholesale market has grown quite substantially over the past 10 years. Residence Bel-air in Cyberport was the first large-scale, top-end project — not at The Peak, or in Clearwater Bay and Kowloon Tong — to equip their kitchens with our appliances,” Lam said.

“The Austin in Jordan set a record for installing the most Miele appliances. The developer ordered around 13,000 items for two blocks, using our full range.”

“That record will be broken by a new residential project in Macau. I cannot tell you which one as it hasn’t gone on sale. The demand in Macau is growing at an even faster pace. Developers believe that branded appliances add value to their properties.”

Despite their higher price tag, built-in home appliances are not a luxury any more. More families choose to replace the wok and microwave with a steam oven. The item is a source of pride for Lam as he helped modernize and popularize the concept in Asia.

The first generation of steam ovens, the DG160, had a steel tray on which one could put only a morsel of food. It could not meet the needs of Cantonese families for cooking a whole fish or a plate of meat patty.

Lam pressured Miele headquarters to develop one with a larger cavity. The steam ovens sold today can cook rice and several dishes simultaneously, saving time and making sure the food is still hot when served.

Lam was also the first person to introduce free-standing steam ovens to local customers whose kitchens often are not big enough to hold a built-in one. Miele now offers the most varied range of steam ovens on the market.

Lam has now two goals: to find the perfect steamed fish recipe and to grow a team to look after an expanding market.

“The team started off with eight employees. A repairman, a marketing officer who has moved to a regional managing director role, and I are still with the company. We used to do everything ourselves. But as managers, we have to know when to delegate,” he said.

“We now have 120 office staff and 50 or so front-line sales representatives. The real challenge is how to make people in a large team feel they are progressing professionally.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 30, 2017.

Amuse Bouche

Lai Yuen amusement park scion wants a bite of the restaurant business

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Before smartphones transformed treasured moments into pixels to be glazed over, local businessman Deacon Chiu Te-ken dedicated himself to entertaining a generation of people, and along the way, created numerous collective memories that will last.

“My father was a man of strong character, always inventing new ideas to run his cinemas and television station,” said Duncan Chiu Tat-kun, 42, the Far East Consortium founder’s youngest of eight children. “He has been a big influence on me. I am quite like him in a way.”

Of all his entertainment ventures, an amusement park in Lai Chi Kok, known colloquially as Lai Yuen, was a source of pride to the elder Chiu. The park was demolished in 1997, but lives on as an emblem of nostalgia, evoking many cherished memories.

In 2015, the Chiu family revived Lai Yuen as a summer carnival in the Central promenade. The carnival ran for 70 days and attracted 1.2 million visitors. Sadly, the elder Chiu did not see the HK$70 million project to fruition. He died in March at the age of 90.

“We intended to bring Lai Yuen back as an one-off project, but were overwhelmed daily with requests to keep it running,” the junior Chiu said.

“That convinced me to set up a company and find new ways to re-launch the brand. We cannot rely only on selling nostalgia.”

The past year saw a new Lai Yuen emerging: a mobile theme park that has pitched camp at Asia World-Expo, and at a trade exhibition in Guangzhou.

Two weeks ago, Chiu added a cha chaan teng in Tsim Sha Tsui under Lai Yuen’s name.

The tea restaurant serves the carnival food sold at the old Lai Yuen. Classic drinks, such as cream soda with fresh milk and coconut red bean ice, are also on the menu. Paintings of the tiger cub mascot and a carousel chandelier echo the amusement park connection.

“Lai Yuen was not a full restaurant but food was part of the fun. There were many stores selling frozen pineapple slices. As kids, we would buy deep-fried chicken drumsticks after riding bumper cars,” he said.

“We’ve tried to keep up with the times by offering different cuisine, more healthy vegetable dishes and nicer presentation at the restaurant. We are not going to host a carnival this year. We have to focus on running the new cha chaan teng, which will be a permanent project.”

Although Chiu assisted his late father at work after university, assuming the chairman’s role of Lai Yuen was unintended. His full-time job is that of a tech investor. He manages a private investment firm, Radiant Venture Capital, which he co-founded in 2014.

“When I got back from the United States in 1996, the investment holding company that I looked after for the family had a bit of everything – entertainment, shops, factories in China, stocks, and a golf resort. These assets were worth some money, but they were losing money as well,” he recalled.

“In 1999, I started looking into different possible investments. I thought, as a business, the tech sector had a future. Hong Kong and China could be a start-up launchpad. Luckily enough, some of the companies I invested in survived the bust of the dot-com bubble the year later.”

His first profitable tech investment was Chinasoft International. The internet business services provider was floated in 2003, and now has a market capitalization of US$10.14 billion (HK$79.09 billion). Chiu, an early investor, sold all his shares when the company entered the main board.

Venture capital fund and amusement park are two vastly different businesses. However, they require the same taste for innovation and originality, Chiu said.

He does not intend to be only an old guard of his father’s theme park but sees himself as a business founder like his father.

“A business is easy to start, but a brand is difficult to maintain and grow. Lai Yuen is more than a theme park. It’s a homegrown label, and we intend to make it last. To do that, you cannot do away with the spirit of inventing,” Chiu said.

“That’s why, in every project, we tried to make something new based on the old elements, right down to the last decoration details. And these new ideas have to be original. Create or perish – that is the rule we have to live by in the modern world.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 23, 2017.

Golden Heritage

Father-daughter team of jewelers shares about forging a gem of a partnership

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The rings made by Patrick Yuen Hin-tai and Vanessa Yuen Lai-lam are as unique as their relationship. Plenty of love has gone into producing the bands – a reflection of the bond that the father and daughter share.

In times when most jewelry is fashioned by machines, the Yuens belong to a tiny group of local goldsmiths who are still designing and crafting their pieces by hand. Most of the tools used for chipping and engraving are rudimentary. Only a few are electric.

“Not many people in Hong Kong are still making jewelry full-time like my dad does. Many goldsmiths have either passed away or switched to becoming security guards or taxi drivers to make a better living,” Vanessa said.

The senior Yuen, now in his late 60s, entered the goldsmithing profession through a cousin’s introduction five decades ago. He is a bench jeweler, specializing in patterning jadeite, diamond and pearl pieces.

“In the old days, we needed to pay the boss a guarantee to work as apprentice. As apprentice, we received a pittance of HK$10 a month. That was one- tenth of what I made when I was still working in a textile factory in 1966 or 1967,” he recalled.

Entry barriers were high, but the trade promised good prospects before its decline in late 1980s. Tse Sui-luen, founder of the eponymous label, made his fortune as a bench jeweler. The jewelry chain is now a listed company, with a market capitalization of HK$620 million.

Two other success stories are David Sin Wai-kin, chairman of Myer Jewelry Manufacturer, and Cheng Yu-tung, the late patriarch of Chow Tai Fook. Both expanded their reach to properties and hotels.

“Goldsmiths were considered prime husband material,” the senior Yuen joked. “During the most prosperous years in 1987 and 1988, I was making HK$30,000 to HK$40,000 a fortnight. A two-room flat in Tuen Mun then cost about HK$400,000.”

He now runs his own workshop. His daughter, a fashion and carpet designer, joined the family business and started an in-house label, Vanessa Bell, two years ago.

“I quit my job in 2014 to go on a working holiday. When I was in London, I became an apprentice at a shop selling hand-crafted jewelry. That made me realize an interest in my dad’s work,” Vanessa said.

“I named the label after a park built in remembrance of the painter Vanessa Bell. I walked past that park every day in London. My customers and I have very similar tastes. We like simple, affordable, vintage-inspired 18-karat pieces that can be worn daily.”

Vanessa designs all the pieces, and her father realizes her creative visions. The Vanessa Bell series comprises mostly rings set with gemstones, with a few bracelets and earrings. All are made to order. A simple ring, priced from HK$1,400, can be made in one day.

Her father also makes crowns, pendants, bridal bangles, and engagement rings – which can come to HK$600,000 a piece. More intricate designs can take six months to finish.

“My dad and I have vastly different tastes in jewelry. But he never second guesses my vision.” Vanessa said. “We do argue about the design. He might think that the stones I choose are too small, or the ring is not chunky enough. But I will press on with my ideas.”

The two complement each other. He contributes artistry and experience while she brings in fashion sense and online marketing skills.

“I get anxious when business is bad,” she said. “My dad taught me two things. First, it takes a full year for results to show and second, some will like my design, some won’t.”

Vanessa is full of praise for her father. “My dad is a shy person. He never tells others what he has done. I know he is secretly hiding away some bridal bracelets,” she said. “He made me a ring when I was 18. Since then, my sister and I get a birthday gift from him every year. His gifts will be our dowry.”

He said: “I am a goldsmith. Naturally, I want the best jewelry for my daughters.”

“If my boyfriend proposes, I will want my dad to make my engagement ring,” she said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 16, 2017.

Time in a Bottle

In life, as in wine making, patience is a virtue

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Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Christophe Salin started life with a drop of wine, thanks to his grandfather. The champagne vintner reminded his daughter-in-law: “Don’t give him too much milk. We don’t want to raise him like an animal.”

The Frenchman, born in Epernay, grew up to deviate slightly from his grandfather’s expectations. He became the president and chief executive of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), owner of world-famous wine label Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

The first-growth estate in Bordeaux has been in the Rothschild family since 1868. Banker Eric de Rothschild, now acting as chairman, is the fifth generation.

Salin joined the winemaker in 1985 after a stint in construction. Thanks to his job, he has developed a sophisticated palate for red. He only drinks good wines. His most memorable was a non-selling vintage bottled in 1959.

“Bad wines should be illegal. If you find one, you should call the police. Wines have to be good,” the Champagne native joked. “I also like to enjoy a Cuban cigar from time to time. This is my contribution to communism.”

It’s often said that the vintner’s personality has a big effect on how the wine turns out. If that is true, the richness of Lafite will come from Salin’s dry sense of humor.

“Eric de Rothschild went to engineering school. As an engineer, he likes to be precise and as a wine lover, he knows exactly the style he likes,” Salin said.

“But we did not change Lafite. Lafite changed us. You have to listen to the vineyard and follow its advice. Viticulture is a long term business. To get the best out of a vineyard, you have to wait 25 years. We are only viticulturists. God decides and we execute.”

The 30-odd years of Salin’s career has been spent building the Domaines Barons de Rothschild business and its brands. The business has expanded beyond Bordeaux, and now owns chateaux in other wine regions in France, Chile, Argentina, and China.

In those years, the industry has gone through dramatic changes, marked by the rise of China and its voracious appetite for wine. A taste for fine wine, introduced by British merchants two centuries ago to the country, has become a widespread phenomenon.

In 2000, Eric de Rothschild consigned his private collection to Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, sold at US$233,972 (HK$1.82 million) each, became the world’s most expensive wine ever auctioned. The entire lot fetched over US$8 million.

However, that fascination has evolved. “Before, people were buying labels. Now, they are drinking the wines. They are not buying to offer as business gifts. That happened in Japan and Korea. It’s a normal evolution,” Salin said.

“Hongkongers are very knowledgeable about wine. And the mainlanders are fast learners. I have seen them, especially those under 35, moving from all the top chateaux in the 1990s and 2000s to the cheaper wines.”

In 2008, Domaines Barons de Rothschild bought its first Chinese vineyard in Penglai, Shandong province, in partnership with state-owned enterprise, CITIC Group.

“We did our first harvest in September. The quality, so far, meets our standards. Hopefully, we will release our 2016 vintage next year.”

The weather conditions in the past year saw a heavenly opportunity for all Bordeaux winemakers. On the fine wine front, Salin said the 2016 vintage will be a highlight in the history of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Affordable wines from other Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s vineyards will also be carried in local restaurants and wine shops. A case in point are Chateau Duhart- Milon and Chateau Moulin de Duhart – produced in a vineyard near Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Salin has learnt to enjoy a good life through winemaking. And like making good wine, the secret is being true to yourself and having the patience to wait for plans to come to fruition.

“Be honest, be open to opportunities and be balanced,” he said of his philosophy in life. “Whatever you do, don’t be in a hurry. Think twice, and always make your plans long term.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 9, 2017.