Light at the end of the tunnel as new boys climb the stairway to heaven

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2009, 12:00am

Crisis, what Crisis? was not only a great Supertramp album, it could have been the soundtrack for the 2009 Sevens.

The upper decks to corporate boxes parallel Hong Kong's holy-grail climb to living on The Peak. On these equivalent stairways to heaven, the higher up you go, the more successful you are.

The view from the top is good, but it's a long way to fall. And when the mighty fall, they fall very hard. Just ask the 'absent friends' in the box stakes this year, like financial heavyweights AIG, Lehman's and Goldman Sachs.

But for others, with crisis comes opportunity. And this year the corporate shuffle made way for some new box holders, who were not going to let recession - or rain - hold them back or dampen their spirits.

'Our box is about looking forward,' said Leighton Asia managing director Hamish Thyrwitt.

'Our company has increased business four-fold in the last 12 months in the region. While many companies spent much money, time and effort to come up with a box theme, in Leighton's case, the medium was the message, with the view almost an optical illusion of a tunnel curving around a bend.

'This tunnel is one our of our largest current civil [engineering] projects,' Thyrwitt said. 'We're building the Kowloon Southern Link for the MTR. This tunnel is actually being made under Hong Kong and is exactly what you see right now under Tsim Sha Tsui.

'The machine that makes it is called a Tunnel Boring Machine and is roughly the same diameter as a 747 jet.

'Symbolically for Leighton's, we are going through a tunnel of opportunities at this point in time.'

Wal King, chief executive of Leighton Holdings, said: 'I've avoided the Sevens corporate invitations until now, but this is the way to go in your own corporate box.'

Ian Edwards, executive general manager of Leighton in Hong Kong, added: 'This box design is about how we're moving through the future with large infrastructure projects.'

While the Leighton Asia box was like a futuristic scene out of Thunderbirds, it emphasised one pertinent point: In recession, in Hong Kong the building never stops. Hence the eternally popular phrase, 'It will be a great place when they finish it'.

The state of the economy also means some law firms are not exactly twiddling their thumbs, with much to do in litigation and infrastructure procurement.

'The government, through it's stimulus package, has 10 large infrastructure projects and there is a reasonable amount of legal work surrounding that,' said Sam Farrands, managing partner of Minter Ellison Lawyers.

For many, the fact the show goes on in building Hong Kong infrastructure means no matter what the rest of the economy is doing, they're busy.

Another new corporate box-holder who is on the upward side of the swinging pendulum is Tanner De Witt. The firm is strong in litigation.

'We were delighted when a box came up this year and weren't sure that we could count on it,' said Welshman Ian De Witt (decked out in a hat and shirt that looked more Caribbean than the colours of his rugby-fervent English and New Zealand legal partners). 'The recession meant a shorter waiting time.

'The others' loss is our gain. We'd like to have a box again next year. We can do more networking here than many other social means and it's a great way to spend time with clients out of the office.'

The boxes have always been coveted territory, and even in tough times De Witt has hit on one positive thought: Law firms and companies are thinking of their future and looking forward to booking the boxes again for the next Hong Kong Sevens. You've got to admire that optimism.

Optimism was also in the air on the west side of the stadium, where National Bank Australia (NAB) joined ANZ and Commonwealth Bank as 'corporate newbies'.

'We're delighted to take out a box for the first time,' said Andrew Macintosh, general manager (banking) for NAB.

'Going 'softly softly' in our approach has meant we are sharing the box this year with another company, Sea Air Logistics. We are very pleased with the position right over the South Stand in the Jade Club where we are right in the heart of the action.

'In tough economic times relationships are becoming more important than ever. And it's important to foster them. Clients and business partners alike appreciate being able to come here and enjoy this great position where the South Stand provides as much entertainment as the rugby.'

Also optimistic on the west side was BT. 'This is the mini Davos [the annual Swiss economic forum] of Asia ,' said Kevin Mi Taylor, chief operating officer, Asia Pacific.

'There's no better way to link suppliers and customers to help improve everyone's bottom line. Our box is 40 seats. Our customers sit, our staff stand! We want to have a bigger box next year to invite more customers. Our business is on plan, we're meeting our targets.'

Back on the east side, it was all good news in the box of old Sevens hands PricewaterhouseCoopers. 'The spirit of the Sevens is as good as ever,' said assurance partner Robert Gazzi.

Added financial services partner Peter Whalley: This is a fantastic Sevens, our box is as full as ever, you can't fault it this year.'

CLSA, which is a permanent fixture, also echoed the growth trend. 'We actually want a second box next year,' said country head Andrew Hartley. 'For us, it's currently all about growth. The theme of our box this year is the Australian beach, as we are opening an office in Sydney next year. Next year, we are also opening an office in the US, so there's no points for guessing what our theme will be next year.'

As he dined on Australian lamb and his guests drank Bundaberg rum, the proof was in the pavlova - not the pudding. The only meltdown CLSA has had was its ice-carving vodka machine a couple of years back.