A taste for enterprise developed in the kitchen

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2011, 12:00am


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Hong Kong-born Jennifer Chan Pui-kwan grew up helping her migrant parents in the kitchen of their family-run restaurant in the Netherlands. That not only helped her find a husband but gave her a great work ethic.
The 44-year-old is fluent in seven languages - Chinese, English, Dutch, German, French, Latin and ancient Greek - allowing her to carve out a successful career as a banker for 10 years and set up her own consultancy business in 2002.

Chan, a mother of two daughters and chief executive of ANT-SINOVA (Hong Kong), was born into a poor family in Tai Po in the New Territories. Failing to find employment in Hong Kong, her father borrowed money to buy a ticket on a ship to the Netherlands where he worked in a restaurant for three years in The Hague. He later brought his wife to Europe and they set up a takeaway shop in a small town called Heerenveen. They then opened a larger Chinese restaurant in the even smaller town of Appelscha, where Chan joined them from Hong Kong.

Chan had just finished fourth year of primary school and as the eldest daughter of five children, helped cook fried rice and vegetable in the kitchen after school at night.

'That was a bonus skill as being a good cook helped me get a good husband - I could beat other Hong Kong ladies as not many of them could cook,' she said.

Few Chinese migrants were living in Holland at the time and her parents had the only Chinese restaurant in a town of 4,000 residents. It was a place where everybody knew everybody and was a good opportunity for a small migrant family to make a living serving simply fare such as fried rice and sweet and sour pork.

As a young child with no Chinese speakers at her school, Chan picked up the local language quickly and learned other European languages as well. She also kept up with her mother tongue, reading Chinese newspapers and magazines at home.

She later studied economics at a university in Rotterdam in pursuit of her ambition of becoming an international banker. In 1992, her dream came true and she returned to her birth place to work. 'As a banker, you have to work in an international financial centre and Hong Kong was a natural choice.'

She worked in several European banks including Rabobank, ABN Amro and Belgian Bank, which was taken over by Fortis.

She enjoyed banking, although working hours were longer and harder after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. After marrying her husband Edwin Yu and giving birth to a daughter, Rachel, in 2001, she decided to quit banking to set up her own business. This means she had to abandon a stable income of almost HK$1 million a year but it allowed her to be her own boss and have more flexible hours for her daughter.

The idea for her own business came when she was a banker and she had found many European companies were interested in the burgeoning China market. After spending HK$100,000 and signing up with three customers she founded SINOVA in 2002 to provide consultancy services for European businesses investing in China and also helping Chinese firms to invest in Europe.

From one staff member at the start, the business has grown to 36 staff in Hong Kong, six in Shanghai and two in the Netherlands.

Between running her busy schedule, she had another daughter, Jessica, in 2007.

After running her business for nine years, ANT Group merged with SINOVA last year. ANT Group offers many secretarial services for companies and fund houses, and wanted to use SINOVA as a platform to enter into Asia and China market.

Chan will stay on for three years to take charge of Asian business development.

Why did you decide to merge SINOVA with ANT Group?

ANT offered me a good price to take over my firm. In addition, they allowed me to stay on for three years to focus on strategies and business development for the Asian region, which suited me well. In a sense, I am back to working as an employee again, but I think it is good as financially it is more stable. In addition, now being part of ANT, which is a big trust company, the platform is bigger and we can grow our business to a bigger scale in Asia.

Overall, do you think it is better to be the boss of a small enterprise or a banker in a big bank?

Being a banker was fun as I learned a lot from my diverse customers. But I like to be an entrepreneur more. I can enjoy more freedom and flexibility in deciding my own diary. I also have a greater sense of achievement. When I worked in a bank, I needed to get approval from the boss. But when I am the boss of my own small firm, I am the one making the final decisions.

Did you find any special difficulty setting up a business of your own as a woman?

All entrepreneurs face difficulties, be they male or female. I think women tend to pay more attention to details while male entrepreneurs may focus more on the bigger picture. I have never had difficulty finding customers as a lot of European firms want consultancy services to help with their investments in China and many mainland firms are interested in investing in Europe. Finding staff who can speak both Chinese and a European language is the most difficult part of the business.

Did the global financial crisis affect you? What made you lose sleep?

The financial crisis hit many businesses hard and our firm felt the heat, too. At the time, we had to worry about the staff's year-end bonuses. We eventually made it, though the payments were delayed. But I never lost sleep as I am an optimistic person by nature.

Do you think the government has given enough support to small enterprises like yours?

The Hong Kong government has worked with banks to offer some guarantee loan programmes, which are helpful. But most importantly, Hong Kong has a good administration and legal system in place for business. In the Netherlands, one may need to wait for three weeks to complete an application for doing some business, but in Hong Kong, it might take three days to do so.

How do you balance your personal and working lives?

I am lucky as my husband Edwin Yu always supported me to do my own business. When I need to fly to Europe for business, he takes care of our two daughters.

Running my own business means the same long hours as I worked in the bank but it is more flexible. I can have breakfast with my daughters before coming back to work as I do not need to be back at nine o'clock sharp. Sometimes I accompany my family to dinner and then go back to the office to work until midnight.

Every year, the whole family will spend one month in summer in Europe, which is a good combination of work and family. In Europe, I can visit my customers and do the networking while my daughters can meet their grandparents to have a nice family reunion.

What type of companies in the Netherlands like to invest in China? Likewise, what type of Chinese companies like to invest in the Netherlands or Europe?

Most of the Dutch companies we have been assisting are companies that buy goods from China. They are from very diverse industries: from shoes, textiles to toys, and electronics to building materials. After the financial tsunami in 2008, more and more European companies are selling to China. For outbound China business, so far we are mainly dealing with manufacturing companies that want to set up their own distribution in Europe, or acquiring renowned European brands. Services companies in the financial and logistics fields are also very active.

How do you compare the cultures and economies of the Netherlands and China?

The Dutch are called 'the Chinese among the European'. To a certain extent, it is correct. Dutch are like Chinese - very business and trade-minded and entrepreneurial. When doing business, they are both very flexible and pragmatic. Luckily, for consultancy firms like us, there is also a big difference. The Dutch are far more direct than the Chinese, for instance. Also less relationship-driven and to a certain extent less patient. Also the wine and dine culture is different in the Netherlands.

For those who want to set up their own business, what advice would you give?

Be prepared to accept hardships. Working hard, and being persistent and patient are the key to success. The youngsters who grow up in the internet era want to do everything in a few minutes. This is different from setting up your own business because then you need to work for one to two years before you can make profit.