Build a platform to win

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

When describing what it took to turn a small local firm into an international conglomerate, Y. C. Chow, chairman of the Chevalier Group, likes to use an analogy. He explains that if two people want to reach something on the top shelf, it will always be easier for the one who is 6 foot tall than for the one who is 5 foot 6 inches.

'So, rather than trying to grow taller or jumping day and night, the smaller person should take some time to build a platform,' he said. 'That will make it possible to reach up and get what you want.' This is exactly what he did after establishing Chevalier in 1970. Initially, as a 10-person operation, the company acted as the sole local distributor of lifts and escalators supplied by Toshiba, for whom Dr Chow had previously worked in Japan during the early 1960s.

'We didn't have the resources to compete head-on with the big guys, so we developed our business horizontally, providing a basis for specialisation and growth,' he said.

In the early years, there were inevitably certain frustrations, not least of which was when Dr Chow felt he was being held back by the head office. In Japan, he had proved himself capable of selling 100 lifts a year, but in Hong Kong, he was restricted to selling no more than 60 in the first year, and found it hard to understand why. Interpreting this limit as a sign of mistrust and a slight on his ability, he lodged a complaint with one of Toshiba's then vice-presidents.

'He taught me a valuable lesson,' Dr Chow said. The advice received was that it was one thing to be an excellent salesperson, but another to be an effective manager of an expanding business.

'I was told there are things that you have not seen as a boss. If you can prove yourself by meeting our quota in the first two years, then we will trust you entirely in your capacity as a boss and you may sell as many as you like.'

Accepting this point of view, Dr Chow focused on fulfilling the assigned sales quota in the first two years, but began to spend more time learning about the other challenges that running the business entailed. In due course, this led to rapidly climbing sales, more extensive co-operation, and subsequent expansion into areas such as construction, engineering, insurance, information technology and financial services. The group now has two publicly listed companies, more than 200 subsidiaries and about 6,000 staff spread around the world.

In creating all of this, Dr Chow has remained true to certain core beliefs. One is that people should first prove themselves in a series of small tasks before being entrusted with greater responsibilities. Another, drawn from the teaching of Confucius, is that you can tell a person's true colours from observing their smallest acts. And a third is that there are no short cuts to success. It takes hard work, commitment and recognition of the importance of building up a good reputation.

'Everything must be accomplished step by step,' he said, adding that, as a boss, when you have decided someone is trustworthy, you have to let go and trust that person completely.

Although Dr Chow has six daughters and one son, he sees no reason why one of them should assume control of the business.

'Chevalier must be taken care of by people who have the right aspirations and abilities, and they are not necessarily from the family,' he said. He added that he always had high expectations of his children and would set them a higher 'pass mark' than other employees if they were with the group.

'I told [them], when you are working in my company, I am not your father, I'm your boss,' he said. 'They have to come to the office earlier and leave later than other staff.'

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Y. C. Chow in a recent CUHK EMBA Forum. The EMBA Forum is conducted regularly to provide a valuable opportunity for EMBA participants and alumni to interact with key leaders

Personal Profile

I find there is always something to learn from the biographies of great people. You don't necessarily have to agree with their values, but there are usually certain qualities you can still admire

I used to love riding my Harley-Davidson, but my wife made me promise to stop when I turned 70

For exercise, I now walk whenever I have the chance. Sometimes, I use the stairs in the MTR, or I ask my driver to pick me up one or two streets away so I can walk to the car

You can offer different things at different stages of life, and now I like passing on advice, experience and whatever wisdom I may have to the younger generation