Agency chairman aims to make headlines

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 12:00am

Centaline partner will launch a free newspaper later this year and will give the publication 12 months to sink or swim

Outspoken property agent Shih Wing-ching's plan to start a newspaper from scratch has astounded the market because of his roots in the real estate brokerage business, especially as online publications eat further into the newspaper market.

But the former teacher, who once followed Marxism and dreamt of changing the world, likes a bumpy road.

'Some people like driving fast on a straight empty road, but I like the excitement of overtaking slower cars on the road. It feels really good,' said Mr Shih.

He started teaching in an evening school in 1968 and set up Centaline Property Agency with his partner Wong Man-yee in 1978.

'And it won't look too bad if I slip up because everyone expects a new newspaper to fail anyway,' said the agency's chairman.

'Ever since Apple Daily hit the market, it seems that a lot of newspapers still can't adapt to the new media ecology, and we are talking about a 10-year adjustment period,' said Mr Shih, adding that some newspapers were not making money because readership was plunging. 'So, I believe there must be some market gap to fill.'

Mr Shih said he would invest about $100 million in the newspaper, which would be available free of charge. He has already hired high-level editorial staff and plans to launch in the fourth quarter.

The renowned property investor has a knack for finding gaps in the market.

'I want to follow the successful example of Metro. I have already started talking to the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp about my free newspaper being distributed at railway stations [as Metro is],' said Mr Shih.

'I will target readers that are about 25 to 40 years old, especially people who have just started their career, people who hope to see a future in Hong Kong. Some newspapers project a pessimistic view of Hong Kong's future.'

He is also keen to experiment with his libertarian management philosophy in his newspaper business.

'My philosophy has proved to be a success in the real estate business. I would really like to see if it can be applied to the media business,' he said.

He wants to give staff editorial freedom and is ready to share profits of the newspaper with staff - a business model similar to that of running a real estate agency.

'I will not expect my staff in Centaline Property Agency to favour my newspaper as their choice of advertising medium,' he said. 'Their decision should be based on the effectiveness of an advertisement because agents only earn when they make a net profit for the firm.'

Last year, Centaline (Holdings) saw commissions rise 74 per cent from 2003 to $2.96 billion, while the company handled a 37 per cent increase in transactions.

Centaline Property Agency is the second biggest agency in Hong Kong.

Mr Shih was adamant that the newspaper must show a return on investment. 'The business must show me its potential to sustain itself within one year. If not, I will quit,' he said.

However, he denied claims that the newspaper was his stepping stone to politics.

'I already have enough channels to voice my opinion. There is no need to go through the hassle of setting up a newspaper just for that,' Mr Shih said. He is already a regular newspaper columnist and makes television and radio appearances. 'I have no plan to become a politician. I think business can bring more changes to society.'

Mr Shih said his partner was not obligated to invest in the media venture.

'That is up to him. He does not have to,' said Mr Shih.

Raising the funds for the newspaper business would not dilute Mr Wong's share in Centaline Property Agency, he said.

'The newspaper will only be funded by Centaline (Holdings), which does not hold any share in Centaline Property Agency,' said Mr Shih.

While he no longer dreamt of changing the world, he still wanted to contribute to society.

'My newspaper will provide a new viewpoint for society,' he said.

He will have his own column in the newspaper - Viewpoint C - a play on words of his last name.

Mr Shih said his point of view in the column would differ from the views of (a) Apple Daily and (b) Beijing.