Veteran HK broker in right royal move
Insurance brokers may impress clients with an office overlooking Victoria Harbour, but such a vista pales into insignificance when compared to the grounds of a royal palace.
When Denis Ko Chi-chiu lands in Riyadh, he is whisked to King Abdullah Palace where he runs Central Orchard Insurance Brokers (Middle East) and has daily contact with the Saudi prince who oversees US$600 billion worth of construction projects.
Ko, a former civil engineer who changed career as construction went into decline when rioters took to the streets of Hong Kong in 1967, is seen by the Saudis as a pioneer. By working closely with the Saudi Business Centre, based at the consulate in Wan Chai, he is now president and chief executive of the first successful Hong Kong-Saudi joint venture insurance company.
His office in the business centre of the King Abdullah Palace complex did not come easy, despite getting a royal seal of approval from the prince. The whole process took 14 months because, as an insurer, his company had to meet the stringent compliance rules of the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority (Sama) and Sagia, the kingdom's investment body.
'If you want to set up as a trader or other company it's easier, but because this deal had a royal connection and involved a huge amount of money, the process was a lot more painstaking,' said Ko, who runs TA Insurance Brokers in Hong Kong and previously worked as a consultant with Cheung Kong and other leading companies.
'Because of the royal connections, it also had to be shown we were going through the same processes that an ordinary citizen would. The path was a long one, but now it's finished and the result is quite special for Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia business.'
The process all started when Ko, who has notched up more than three decades as an insurance broker specialising in construction, decided to 'try something different' and look overseas for projects.
The place to be for construction companies during the boom times was Dubai, but Ko admitted he was unfamiliar with the Emirates city, so decided to learn more. With the downturn having brought construction in Dubai to a grinding halt, Ko felt this was a lucky move.
'To me, Middle East construction opportunities simply meant Dubai - but when I learned more I heard about Saudi Arabia, and I approached the consulate. I never really knew the difference.'
He got the chance to meet King Abdullah's grandson, Prince Fawaz, who was the 'principal leader' for the construction of economic cities and development around Jeddah and along the coast with the Red Sea, when he visited Hong Kong in February last year.
The consulate's Saudi Business Centre arranged a personal introduction and an initial agreement with the prince was signed in Hong Kong. A final agreement was signed at the palace in Riyadh the following April, which gave Central Orchard Insurance Brokers exclusive rights to civil engineering projects once full compliance had been met and licences granted.
'Mr Ko has gone through many twists and turns,' a spokesman for the Saudi Business Centre in Hong Kong said. 'First of all he needed to submit full documentation for the feasibility study in regards to the set-up of the joint venture brokerage company.'
Ko said his experience in the insurance industry, and making the transition from an engineer to a broker, taught him the value of attention to detail and negotiation. This helped with the series of visits to Saudi Arabia for interviews with the monetary and investment authorities.
'A statutory fund was required to be deposited in a Saudi Arabia bank for the issuance of Bank Guarantee to the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority,' the business centre spokesman said, adding that after Sama approved a licence, all documents were then passed to Sagia for 'permit and commercial registration'.
But 'the last steps' of sending 3 million Saudi riyal (about HK$6.2 million) to Sagia were some of the most testing for Ko, who said: 'It was during the financial crisis and there was a very tight deadline and, of course, with that amount of money questions were raised. All this, after 14 months' procedure, did make me feel a little desperate, but I was helped all the way by the Saudi Business Centre at the consulate.'
With a sigh of relief, Ko added: 'Then the resident permit took only two days.'
The most important step was the feasibility study, which Ko said companies operating in Saudi Arabia must go through, even if they had a royal seal of approval.
With a huge amount of infrastructure being built along the coast either side of New Jeddah City, Ko and his colleagues affectionately refer to the area as 'Pudong', after Shanghai's banking and finance hub, which also attracted droves of civil engineers.
Ko is opening an office in Jeddah and, in addition to dealing with multiple re-insurers based in Europe that specialise in fields ranging from tunnelling and railways to power stations and ports, he will be training the next generation of insurance specialists in the kingdom. Some of his Hong Kong team will be flying to Jeddah in mid-October to set up the office where clients will be able to visit. He said security restrictions at the palace grounds made arranging business meetings there more difficult, but he would use the royal facility for higher-level meetings
'We're the first layer of [construction] insurance in the kingdom and my mission is to train more local insurers,' he said. 'We employ the whole company when we appoint the top re-insurers, and so raising awareness of health and safety to minimise the risk of accidents is key.'
Ko also wants more Hong Kong businesses and investors to seek opportunities in the kingdom.
'Saudi is becoming my base and I'm pleased to help Prince Fawaz as well as give the industry there consultation on the technical side as well as insurance,' said Ko, who feels comfortable donning Arab dress and headwear and also likes to visit the local antique markets.
'There are a few things to get used to. The working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday, with a half-day on Thursday and whole day off on Friday. I was impressed with the gentle and helpful manner of the people. They actually meet few Hongkongers compared to Koreans, Japanese or mainland Chinese - so more of us should go there.'