Dare to be different

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

There must have been whoops of delight in Ocean Park's publicity department when it was announced, back in 2004, that Allan Zeman had agreed to accept the role of chairman. Here was someone known for his entrepreneurial flair and vision, understanding of the entertainment business, and close contacts with the movers and shakers.

More important, from the PR point of view, here at last was a top executive ready to go the extra mile - such as dressing up as a panda, a Chinese vampire or a Brazilian dancer to promote a new attraction or special event.

Of course, being in the limelight is nothing new for Mr Zeman. Over the years, he has been at the centre of the action with a series of high-profile, profit-making ventures radiating from Hong Kong. These have ranged from the fashion business, Lan Kwai Fong's restaurant-and-bar scene and film production companies to holiday resorts in Thailand and an entertainment complex in Shanghai.

What has made all of these work is Mr Zeman's uncanny knack for scenting opportunities and hitting upon the right success formula. More often than not, it is the ability to 'stand out, be different, make people remember you, rather then being generic', Mr Zeman said.

So, if Ocean Park needed someone to face the cameras in makeup and costume to help boost visitor numbers, Mr Zeman was happy to oblige.

He discovered the importance of being different through instinct and necessity, as a boy growing up in New York and Montreal in a family that 'didn't have a lot of money'. At age 10 he took on a job as newspaper delivery boy, and on weekends he cleaned tables in a restaurant. Before long he was making C$50 a week - more than what his schoolteachers were earning, and as much as his friends' fathers were making.

At 16, he had a full-time job in the shipping department of a lingerie firm. Seeing that the big money was in sales, he talked his way into a role as a travelling salesman, before going into partnership in a business importing fashion sweaters from Hong Kong.

The first year was a big success and Mr Zeman was glowing - until the accountant said the taxman would be expecting roughly 50 per cent of the profits. 'I asked how much the tax was in Hong Kong,' he recalled. On learning that Hong Kong taxes were around 15 per cent, he knew right away where he wanted to be. 'My eyes lit up - I decided to move.'

On arriving in Hong Kong, Mr Zeman set up Colby International, a supply chain management company that grew to have 40 offices worldwide. Eventually, the company was sold to Li & Fung in 2001 for HK$2.2 billion - not a bad return for a firm that started from scratch.

By then, Mr Zeman already had another empire - Lan Kwai Fong. The entertainment hub was once a drab area of old office buildings and warehouses in 'fringe Central'. It took vision and imagination to transform the faceless neighbourhood into a trendy zone for people of different cultures and backgrounds. 'Slowly, I started buying up property in the area,' Mr Zeman said. 'Nobody knew what I was doing.'

He moved the offices to the upper floors, created retail space downstairs and tripled the value of the buildings. 'The banks were looking at me and saying: Whatever you are doing, keep doing it,' he said. 'We will lend you more money.'

You might think that someone who has come this far might have thoughts of slowing down. Not Mr Zeman. These days he is involved in new retail, hotel and casino projects.

'China's economy is zooming along, Macau is taking off and Hong Kong is in a very strategic position,' he said. 'In almost every industry, there are great opportunities, but you have to be quick on your feet and think ahead.'

This article is adapted from a speech Allan Zeman gave at a recent CUHK EMBA Forum. The EMBA Forum is designed to give EMBA participants and alumni an opportunity to interact with corporate leaders.

Personal file

I have a gym at home and I exercise for over an hour every day. It helps to eliminate stress

I subscribe to business magazines, and I read five or six newspapers a day. I never read books; I feel that if something is in a book, it has already happened. I always want to be looking forward

I enjoy what I do, and am happy just to come to work every day. Once you have a house, a car and a few luxuries, you realise there's not much more you really need. I try to preserve what I have. In my mid-30s, I stopped worrying about what I make

Since the brain has only X amount of capacity, I believe you shouldn't fill it with clutter