Wine venture brings wartime bunkers to life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2006, 12:00am

Former diplomat turns Shouson Hill warrens into a unique cellar

A collection of dilapidated second world war bunkers 60 feet below ground on Shouson Hill might not seem a prime location for an upmarket private dining club and wine cellar.

And a less determined man than Gregory De'eb might have wilted when faced with the red tape and 22 government departments necessary to get the project approved. It was 2001 and the then acting consul-general of South Africa had reason to persevere.

First, having been the youngest and longest-serving acting consul-general in Hong Kong, he felt he had reached the glass ceiling of his diplomatic career in post-apartheid South Africa. He passionately wanted to stay in Hong Kong and make it home for himself and his wife, the renowned doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, Cecilia Xiu Ying The. But if he bowed out of diplomatic life in his mid-30s, he would need a new career.

A number of events came together to seal his fate. First, Donald Tsang returned from trips to Australia and South Africa in 1999 and early 2000 fired with enthusiasm to make Hong Kong the wine trading and distribution centre of Asia. But there were no proper wine storage facilities here.

At the same time, the government was under pressure to restore the city's few remaining historic sites but felt it couldn't allocate funds to this right after the Asian financial crisis. It was decided to marry the two together, by getting private-sector investors to restore old wartime bunkers that could be used for wine cellars.

In June 2000, Mr De'eb joined 400 business people, entrepreneurs and diplomats to hear the government's idea. He listened intently, but not having spare millions, or food and beverage experience and knowing nothing about wine cellarage, could do nothing. Nevertheless, he loved the idea.

Research showed there were no proper wine cellars in Asia. He worked on his dream of converting the bunkers, while still acting consul-general, beavering away at night. To succeed as an entrepreneur, he decided he should enter a business with zero competition and be a pioneer.

'The potential for screwing it up was huge, and the learning curve would be steep but, once on top, I could be king of my little fish tank,' he says. 'I only wanted a little fish tank, full of pretty fish that I owned.' The bad news was that several big firms had rejected wine storage before as unprofitable. But he was convinced Hong Kong had enough wine buffs to make it work.

By 2001, Mr De'eb was rueing his lack of financial expertise. Then, late one night after dinner at the home of Jim Thompson, founder, chairman and owner of Crown Worldwide Group, the world's largest privately owned removals and records storage company, the subject of wine storage arose.

Mr Thompson's wife Sally mentioned her husband had been interested in this since Mr Tsang's South African trip. 'Greg has a great idea,' she said, 'Why don't you consider historical sites, such as Victoria Barracks and Shouson Hill?' Mr Thompson refused to believe the Shouson Hill bunkers existed.

Being 'both as headstrong as each other,' Mr De'eb replied: 'Right, let's look and then you can apologise.' At 8am, Mr Thompson phoned a still groggy Mr De'eb, saying: 'Right, what time can we go?'

The Shouson Hill bunkers were chosen. Code-named 'Little Hong Kong' in wartime to confuse the occupying Japanese - this was the local name for Aberdeen - the 23 men guarding this secret military facility held out and were the last to surrender on December 27, 1941. By 2002, the bunkers were derelict and full of junk, but Mr Thompson was determined to proceed. Mr De'eb desperately wanted to be a shareholder in the venture, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Mr Thompson likes to own his businesses. He told Mr De'eb he would put up the cash, make it a limited firm owned by him. Mr De'eb would have free rein, but as an employee. Though dismayed, he accepted. 'I envisaged it, was out here day by day, chose everything from the special cooling systems to the toilets and designed the best climate-controlled system ever, so I feel spiritual, if not financial ownership.'

He soon discovered the difference between running a diplomatic mission and a business. 'As an entrepreneur, you always want your profit margin to be better than what's feasible, but actually we have beaten every budget target each year so far,' he said.

Start-up and operational costs so far have run to $30 million. This contrasted with his old life. 'If as consul-general I'd had an annual budget of $30 million, I'd be told to spend it, or there would be trouble and I'd get less next year.'

Now, under the eagle eye of Mr Thompson, 'it's a case of 'if you spend this entire $30 million you are in big trouble.'

Swapping diplomatic privilege and a house on the Peak for a new career proved extremely stressful. 'I took a big chance: Jim could have fired me any day and adopted the idea himself if he wasn't an honourable man.'

But Mr De'eb stuck with it and the first event of the Crown Wine Cellars, run as a private members club with bonded cellarage for 250,000 bottles, was held on February 25, 2004. They ended up salvaging four of the original 12 pairs of bunkers, with four-metre-high ceilings providing lofty dining rooms and 5,000 sq feet of cellars.

The idea was a club for wine lovers, with or without wine collections. The joining fee is $8,888 with a monthly subscription. Without advertising, membership now stands at 250, split between expatriates and locals. Crown Wine Cellars now has 120,000 stored bottles. Mr De'eb has branched out, attracting luxury brands and corporates to use multimedia conferencing facilities for product launches and functions.

To Mr De'eb, restoring the bunkers as a living museum is more than just a business. 'If I died tomorrow, my son could always say his old man was responsible for opening up the history of that important site. It's one thing I genuinely feel sentimental about.'