We can work it out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2012, 12:00am


Peter Duncan's greatest achievement has not been leading the international design firm, Hassell, through exponential growth in China, or the design and delivery of high-profile projects. It has been the construction of a healthy life and leading the way for others.

Duncan, who heads Hassell's China practice and is chairman of the international organisation, has extended his personal ethos to the rest of the company. When redesigning the company's Shanghai office, Duncan included a dedicated spin cycle studio and offers free instructor-led classes for employees.

'At seven o'clock every night the music goes on and everyone goes for a spin,' says Duncan. 'It's a way to get people more enthused and has a great impact on the workplace.'

The company has also sponsored employees in Hong Kong and the mainland to participate in the Great Wall Marathon since 2008, which is taken up by about a fifth of its employees.

'Our employees love to exercise and train together,' says Duncan. 'It's a great way to connect people.'

The 51-year-old father of two finds time in his busy schedule to train at least 10 times a week: running, cycling, swimming and weight training.

Even though he travels up to half of the time and entertains often, he eats well and hasn't touched a drop of alcohol in years.

For Duncan, it's not just about keeping in shape, but developing a mind and body that can withstand the pressures of managing a flourishing business in China.

'Chinese cities are very polluted and present an extreme working and living environment. With training, I find I have developed more strength, balance and resilience.'

Australian-born Duncan has spent the past 22 years living in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He says that traditional Chinese principles of good health, good food, exercise and natural medicine - as well as a culture of hardiness - have had an influence on his approach.

Why have you made health and fitness a focus in your workplace?

I believe sport and fitness give us a strong sense of balance. Since working in China, I have found that projects are large, complicated and demanding. I could just work and work. But I got to a point where I realised that I couldn't maintain that pace; it wasn't sustainable. I needed something to give me the strength to continue. For me, being fit and healthy makes me more resilient.

What's the most surprising feedback you've received on your approach to health in the workplace?

It has come from our clients. They see the value in nurturing people's health. Ten years ago, business in China was geared towards indulgent activities such as banquets and karaoke. Being recognised and associated with a different path reinforces a point of difference in the culture of our practice, which I think is really important.

What led to your current philosophy on health and work/life balance?

Progressively, I found that I no longer enjoyed the distraction that indulgence created. I believe it inherently diminishes our capacity for good work. I found that it was more important to be focused on developing the business and doing good work, which takes enormous effort. As demands increased, I realised I could not take that level of load without change.

Do you have a fitness goal for 2012?

I'm doing the Phuket triathlon in November. We have professional goals and I think fitness goals are just as important. But when I compete, it is for the process and sense of achievement, rather than the competition.

How do you fit it all in?

You just do. I'm up early - usually by 6.30am. And I'm usually in bed by 10.30pm. It's not difficult. I get out every morning before work and usually fit in a session after work, too. My travel schedule often disrupts my routine, but that's when I find that the running helps, especially with the jet lag.

Where is your favourite place to run?

I love to run when I travel - it's a great way to see a city. And I'm lucky as I always manage to find somewhere pretty in every place that I've been. I love running in Chinese cities as they change so quickly; being able to explore a city with a morning run is a wonderful way to start the day. But if I had to choose one place it would be Hangzhou - it has a beautiful lake, hills and incredible wetland areas.

Do you think your healthy approach to life has aided your success?

Definitely. I think it has had a lot to do with it. For me, it is also something that I value in an employee. I think leading a healthy, balanced life really says something about a person.