Natural Resources

The fashion industry’s junk is this woman’s gems

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Fashion can be a wasteful industry. And Jeanine Hsu, who started in the industry, was so bothered by the waste that she decided to launch a sustainable accessories label more than a decade ago.

Her hand-crafted jewelry, whether it costs hundreds or hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece, are all made with offcuts from furniture factories, recycled precious metals, and abalone shells collected from local restaurants.

The designer, who honed her skills at theater arts workshops, as well as with fashion houses such as Alice Temperley, Diesel and Vivienne Westwood, is also exploring unconventional raw materials: fish skin and faux leather made out of vegetables.

“The goal is 100 percent recycled material and zero waste,” the half- Austrian, half-Chinese founder of jewelry label Niin said. With plans to enter China next year, the Hong Kong label has a global retail network, as well as celebrity fans, such as supermodel Kate Moss.

It’s hard to imagine it had its start as a flea market stall, where Hsu sold bone and wood jewelries that she had found in Paris.

“I would go and queue up at the Portobello market every Saturday at 5am to make sure that I got the corner spot that I wanted. And on Sunday, I would do the Spitalfields market in east London,” Hsu recalled.

“The switch from fashion to jewelry design was a subconscious thing. After working for years in fashion, the waste really bothered me. I lived near the Portobello market so I thought I could sell something and make my own cash.”

Although Hsu grew up in an artistic environment with her parents being avid art collectors, and her grandmother being a fashion designer as well, her choice of occupation had always worried her father, a Hongkonger who owns a private security systems company.

Hsu’s Austrian mother is now married to former Hong Kong stock exchange chairman Ronald Arculli. “My mum has a good sense of style and her home is always beautifully finished. Attention to details is something that my sister and I got from our parents,” Hsu said.

Interestingly, Hsu’s sister Claire also picked a career in the arts. She co-founded Asia Art Archive, a non-profit organization that preserves and makes accessible reference materials on contemporary Chinese art, and sits on the museum and acquisition boards of the M+ museum.

“My dad came to visit me once. He was horrified – after all the money they spent on my education, I was a market stall trader,” Hsu added, explaining that she spent her formative years at the German Swiss International School, and later attended a boarding school in Surrey, and eventually graduated from Central Saint Martins with a degree in womenswear.

Hsu took a leap of faith, opening her first physical store in Sheung Wan three years ago. The shop has since attracted a steady stream of customers who share a belief in ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion.

A case in point is the recently launched collection named Alaria. Hsu partnered with Austrian label Aenea Jewellery to produce nine seaweed-inspired designs made with conflict-free gemstones and recycled palladium.

“The challenge to be eco-friendly is authenticity – where you are buying from, and how to be transparent in your production process. Transparency is the hardest. It can come down to even just to keep my wood separated from the others’ in a workshop,” she said.

Hsu said her creative inspiration comes from everything in her daily life: spirituality, female identity, modernity and solidarity. She also draws on the amalgam of Austrian, British and Cantonese cultures, incorporating in her design crystals that bear an auspicious connotation or are deemed to have a healing power.

That said, she does not work with materials from endangered animals such as ivory and rhino horn. She also does not pick those that conflict with the cultures of the source country – for example, cow bones from India.

“I am designing an emblem for an American family living in Hong Kong. The dad appreciates all the materials that I use, and he wants to have a family crest for his family. It will be made into rings and necklaces,” Hsu said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on September 1, 2017.

Neat Fix for the Cash-Strapped

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A digital wallet might be considered an alternative payment option, but it is fast becoming a choice for cash storage too. Local start-up Neat is using the technology to help millennials and small businesses access traditional banking services not available to them.

Neat services the “underbanked” – students, freelancers, first-time jobholders and expatriate entrepreneurs with difficulties opening a bank account. It allows them to receive and pay money with a digital bank account and a prepaid Mastercard.

Traditional banks often see these customers as “unprofitable” because they tend to earn low incomes, have a low credit score, and have no interest in purchasing high-value products, such as structured investment products.

“A student has no money so banks do not really care about them. And typically, banks don’t give a credit card for businesses on their first year. That’s a big problem,” said David Rosa, a former banker who founded Neat in 2015.

“We went through the same emotions everybody has as a start-up. We had a long dialogue with the bank before we managed to open an account.

“Even if businesses have corporate credit cards, the cards have very low limit. The statement comes once a month. It’s like driving a car using just a rear view mirror.”

Neat is one of the 13 mobile payment companies that received a license under the “stored value facilities” regulation introduced by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in November. It is the only company that targets the “underbanked” segment.

The “underbanked” segment is largely underserved worldwide. It is estimated that 12 percent of Hong Kong’s population, and close to 1.2 billion people in the Asia Pacific, lack adequate access to formal banking services, according to local start-up Fintech HK.

With Neat as an alternative banking option, users can make deposits to their digital account through internet banking or the Bank of China’s ATM machines. Each Mastercard that Neat issues has a deposit limit of HK$100,000.

Opening a digital account, peer-to- peer money transfer and real-time balance check are done entirely via a mobile app.

To open an account, users have to provide passport details and proof of residence, as well as taking a selfie to verify an account applicant’s identity. Neat will do due diligence and turn down applicants who might use their accounts for money laundering and terrorist financing.

Neat does not charge individual account holders, but fees will apply to corporate account holders. Many users are expatriates currently working in the SAR. And since the start-up was launched in December, it had a 55-percent monthly growth on new registration.

“We are 15 times cheaper than a bank in terms of acquiring and maintaining a customer because we don’t have a physical branch. That’s meaningful because we can afford to deal with customers who are not normally attractive from a revenue point of view,” Rosa said.

The start-up’s monetization model relies on taking a cut of the transaction fee paid by Mastercard merchants, selling anonymized users’ behavioral data, as well as pushing promotional deals to users on its mobile platform.

It is adding a multi-currency account service, allowing customers to pay in US dollars when they shop online or travel overseas. More currencies, such as the British pound, Japanese yen, as well as the euro, will be included in the near future.

If travelers to Britain use Neat’s Mastercard and pay in local currency, they can save two to four percent on transaction fee, Rosa said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on August 7, 2017.

Pure Grit

A rainy-day interlude led Colin Grant to start the Pure Group, a phenomenally successful fitness and yoga chain in Asia

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It pays to have a hobby. And for Colin Grant, doing what he loves has also turned out to be rather profitable. Starting with two teachers and a studio in Central, his fitness and yoga chain now has outlets in Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan and New York.

“We didn’t start with 27 locations. We started with one. It was a pipe dream after taking a yoga class. The success is not my doing. It’s the yoga, and the fact that people want to stay healthy,” the co- founder and chief executive of The Pure Group said.

Grant is opening next month another 10,000-square-foot yoga studio on the ground floor of Pacific Place on premises that Burberry used to occupy. Three additional venues have also been planned to open next year in Causeway Bay, Singapore and Beijing.

The studio in Admiralty will offer yoga and meditation classes, designed for office workers. Retail stores will be included, selling cold-pressed juice, salad, smoothies, as well as athleisure wear from the group’s spin-off Nood Food and Pure Apparel label.

“What we are trying to do is to build a lifestyle awareness. People don’t just come and practise yoga. They can come an hour before their class, or stay after their practice, to meet friends and socialize,” Grant said, describing his ideas.

Grant, a tennis whiz kid, founded The Pure Group in 2002 with Bruce Rockowitz, chief executive of Li & Fung’s Global Brands Group. The pair have a long-standing friendship, dating back when Rockowitz was the teenaged Grant’s tennis coach.

Grant moved to Hong Kong when he was 11 as his father was posted to work for the MTR. The teenager was a top seed, representing Hong Kong in many international tournaments, including the Davis Cup.

He displayed an entrepreneurial spirit even when he was young. At 12, he started his first company in racket stringing. Before Pure, his most successful was video rental shop Movieland, which he started at 18. His store at the Aberdeen Marina Club is still operating today.

In 2001, a golf trip to Canada led Grant and Rockowitz to establish Pure.

“Bruce and I were exercise nuts. We could not play golf because it was raining. So someone suggested that we did a yoga class with Patrick Creelman. It was totally different from weightlifting. It felt good. The next day I practised yoga again instead of golfing,” Grant recalled. “When I came back after the holiday, my body and mind actually missed yoga. I quickly returned to Canada for another week and took more classes.”

After that week, Grant and Rockowitz decided to open their own yoga studio. It took them only five months to open their first outlet at the Centrium.

“We were the first tenant in that office building. We got there before Gilbert [Yeung, Dragon-i founder],” Grant joked.

In hindsight, the opening was incredibly risky. An investment of US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) went into the project. The pair set up a venue equipped with locker and shower facilities that no yogi would think were needed. Advertisements that featured Almen Wong Pui-ha, former model and now yoga instructor, were everywhere.

And in the days when only a few would go to the gym, let alone to yoga class, Pure’s monthly membership was HK$800, double what California Fitness charged.

“At the time, there were only three or four yoga studios in Hong Kong. Their combined area was probably about 2,000 square feet. We opened a 6,500-square-foot studio. We did not even know that it was the largest in the world,” Grant said.

Even Grant agrees that his success was an outsider getting lucky.

“I wasn’t afraid of failing because every time I went on a tennis court when I was six, seven years old, I knew that I was going to win or lose. Losing didn’t scare me. It motivated me. If I lost, I would analyze why I lost. I would go and practise and try to win,” he said.

Today, the company is phenomenally successful. In Asia, it employs 1,600 staff, and 20,000 people attend its fitness and yoga classes every day.

In Hong Kong, the studio in Langham Place is the busiest, with 1,400 check-ins every day. Encompassing a floor area of 35,000 square feet, it’s also one of the world’s largest yoga studios.

“People who want to lead a healthy life will pay a premium for quality services. But to stay competitive, we are constantly evolving, and offering new offerings. The fitness industry is not a sprint. It’s a marathon,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 21, 2017.

To the Nines

Luxury food importer and restaurateur recounts how she got hooked on the business

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It’s not a replica of the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo – though the venue sells fresh produce from Japan, and you can walk into any sushi bar and restaurant and ask the chefs to prepare the seafood you have picked.

The concept is really more of a “downtown seafood market, modeled after a similar one in Tuen Mun’s Sam Shing Hui,” said May Choi Shiu-ha, who opened a 50,000-square-foot specialty food market, named Nine Seafood Plaza, in Whampoa Garden last month.

“It’s a promise that I made to my father: to keep his seafood trading business going after his death, despite our family having diversified into real estate and other more lucrative industries,” said the managing director of Sun Wah Japanese Food.

The junior Choi is the eldest daughter of Choi Kai-yau, who founded the Sun Wah Group in 1957. The late businessman was born into a family of farmers in Zhongshan. Uneducated, he earned his fortune by exporting seafood to Japan after he moved to Hong Kong as a young boy.

The senior Choi saw a demand in Japan for flower and bamboo prawns that were processed and frozen in Southeast Asia. He lobbied for support from big firms to set up a wholesale channel before anyone else did.

“Japan was very affluent under the reign of Emperor Showa,” she said. “We could sell a 12-meter container filled with prawns for roughly US$300,000 in Japan.

“My family had had no local ties, and did not know Japanese or English but he managed to convince Mitsubishi and Mitsui to partner him as he would charge them only after they made a profit. This decision was risky but proved his vision right.”

The junior Choi joined Sun Wah after graduating with a literature degree from the University of Hong Kong. She helped her father with administrative, accounting and translation works, and then moved on to seafood trading and Japanese restaurants.

Her younger brother, Jonathan Choi Koon-shum, is chairman of the group, looking after the other business units.

Sun Wah is one of the largest seafood wholesalers in Hong Kong, importing tonnes of seafood from Japan every month, and selling it to more than 1,000 local restaurants. It also imports vegetables, packaged food and kitchen appliances.

“Except firearms,” she joked when asked about what she doesn’t sell. “We import everything you can imagine: aprons, cutlery, fruits and vegetables, snacks, shoes, the iron pot for cooking kamameshi (a traditional rice and meat dish), and even sushi bar counters. We have 11 freight shipments delivering perishables from Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka, and Okinawa every week. We also ship hard-to-find products from South Korea, and Central and North America.”

These specialty products include abalone, conch, Kamikomi pork, Mozuku seaweed, king crab, octopus, oyster and organic blueberries.

Choi is proud of the importing unit as she persuaded her father to include it in the family’s business. She established the logistics system, as well relationships with overseas trading partners, over the past decade.

“My first air cargo weighed 12 kilograms. Three clients separately ordered a fish, a tomato and some other vegetables. My father joked that he would have bought more stuff from the supermarket in a single purchase.

“I learnt Japanese by myself so that I can talk to the vendors in fish markets.”

She also had to overcome the double stigma of being a foreigner and a woman.

“I was once invited to an old fisherman’s home to have dinner with his family. He was in his 80s, and lived in Erimo, a small town in Hokkaido famous for its salmon.

“He knew that I wanted to buy salmon from him but did not take me seriously. He challenged me to meet him the next morning at 4.15 to go on a fishing trip, saying that he would decide afterward. It was winter, but I did manage to get up in the cold after two hours of sleep. When I arrived at the pier, the old man was putting on his boots. He was amazed to see me. We eventually became business partners.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 14, 2017.

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.