Shy boss behind Penthouse cover

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 12:00am

The name is Gorges, Howard Gorges - publisher of Penthouse in Hong Kong and employer of 40,000 people in the mainland alone.

Yes, this is the same unassuming, avuncular Mr Gorges who is often found explaining the quirks and foibles of the stock market on radio and in print.

Most people know him as vice-president of South China Brokerage, not realising this is only a small part of the story.

Besides financial services, the South China group encompasses a travel agency, several businesses that manufacture toys, light industry and computer software all over the mainland, and the publishing house which produces Chinese editions of magazines such as Penthouse and Marie Claire.

All in all, the group he founded with Robert Ng and Christina Cheung in 1988 generates work for 41,200 people in Hong Kong and the mainland.

The surname Gorges is French, and owes its origins to a small village in Normandy of the same name.

Not that there is anything French about Mr Gorges, his passport is British and his accent South African.

Born in Johannesburg, his father's job as a mining consultant kept the youngster at school in Cape Town and the family on the move around South Africa and Rhodesia.

They headed for England when he was in his teens, when his father took a senior academic post at the famous Cambourne School of Mines in Cornwall.

The trend for outperformance was already apparent at Cambridge, where he read economics and law at Queens and represented the university at athletics.

He followed his father into the mining industry, working for part of the Anglo American Group. At 26, he switched to stockbroking.

'I didn't know where mining would take me and my mother needed me around after my father died. I felt I shouldn't be itinerant.' Broking in London was followed by fund management, specialising in overseas markets, but the Seventies was a tough decade and Mr Gorges looked East.

He joined Sun Hung Kai as a broker in 1980, then moved to a smaller firm, and back to Sun Hung Kai again.

'I had good friends there and we decided having seen the inside of other companies we could do it ourselves.' South China Brokerage was born. It grew like topsy and in four years was listed on the stock exchange with a market capitalisation of HK$800 million.

Rampant diversification since has taken them into joint ventures all over the mainland. There's investment, mostly in software companies in Shenyang, Beijing, Chong Qing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Toys are manufactured - chiefly for US giant Hasbro - in Shenzhen and Donguan, and there is light industry in other cities.

'We were pioneers in what we were doing. We learned how difficult it is to control what goes on in China,' he said.

How does he feels about employing all these people for wages that would be illegal in many countries? His companies tried to do things in a decent way, he said. 'We are providing jobs, we feel good about that.' So is it the thought of generating work for the masses that keeps his batteries charged after 20 years in Hong Kong? 'No, it's the satisfaction of making things grow,' he said.

But what really motivates a 50-something bachelor, who presumably could afford to retire tomorrow? 'I have no alternative,' he said. 'I have no dream retirement plans, we've achieved a lot here, seen China develop and change and its exciting to be part of that process.' Mention of retirement makes him wriggle inside his collar in that way British chaps do when they'd like to change the subject.

Retirement? 'Yes. I don't think about that though I know I've got to.' The prospect of dividing his time between Hong Kong, Britain and southern France, where many of his friends have retired, is appealing.

His free time is spent playing tennis and hiking, several times a week.

'I'm disciplined about my social life. I'm lighter than I was at university,' he said.

For a little light reading, Mr Gorges is chairman of the Best Annual Report competition.

'It gets taken very seriously, and I plough through about 140 reports a year,' he said.

How would he describe himself? More wriggling. 'Playful. I'm very competitive, I go for it. But I am a bit shy.' And what would his friends say? 'That I'm friendly but on the ball, they might say I'm kind or generous, but I'm not particularly anything. I'm a good mixer, but I'm a bit of a loner, I often walk on my own.' Mr Gorges has not settled anywhere for long, except Hong Kong. The childhood changes have created a rolling stone that gathers little moss.

He is attached to few possessions, though he's partial to antique wood.

'I like the look and feel, the different colouring and grain, it's friendly,' he said.

Home is Britain, he insists, a place where he has not lived for 20 years. 'It's the history and its values.' Values? He's stumped, but there are no ums or errs. That's because he's trained himself not to - hesitation sounds bad on radio.

'We have a good history, I feel comfortable there and I'm proud to be British,' he said.

Looking back, he's also proud of having done different things, of being the only European in the company and of having travelled in the mainland in the early 1980s when few did, which gave him the confidence to do business there. And of friendships, such as the 1980s deputy head of Xinhua, which gave him insights into mainland thinking.

We have skirted one subject - Mr Gorges' partner, or rather absence of one.

'When I'm older I'll probably look back and wish I'd been a father. I've had lots of long relationships but none has led to marriage,' he said.

It's a morbid question, but where will all the money go? 'If I do have a lot to leave the beneficiaries will be friends, family and school. I may set up a scholarship, but until you cash in your chips you don't know how much you have.' How would he spend his perfect day? 'I'd take a fast boat to the other side of Hong Kong, go for a long walk up a mountain and get lost in the exercise and the scenery.

'Then I'd have a barbecue on the boat and come back into the harbour at sunset. But it would be a toss-up whether I'd go alone, or with a friend,' he said.