He's the life of the party district

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2012, 12:00am


Meet Allan Zeman, aka 'Mr Lan Kwai Fong'. In 1983, he saw the potential of the once-sleepy area tucked in the back of Central District, and opened his California Restaurant there. Encouraged by its success, he bought a whole block of buildings around the establishment, and thus was born Hong Kong's best known nightlife district.

Zeman has always been a man of diverse interests and enterprises. He is chairman of Hong Kong's non-profit, home-grown theme park, Ocean World. He got his start - and made his first fortune - in the garment industry, and built a thriving import/export business.

Today he is looking to export the Lan Kwai Fong brand, which is indelibly associated with Hong Kong's fevered, expat-heavy nightlife, to the mainland. He is launching a US$500 million fund that will help him build four new Lan Kwai Fong-style districts in mainland cities and, at the same time, he is rebuilding the tower that housed his first restaurant to give the original Lan Kwai Fong a revamp, arguably overdue.

But first things first. How did a guy who began his business career as a Montreal garment salesman peddling his wares to customers in small Canadian prairie towns become a billionaire nightlife entrepreneur in Hong Kong?

'Starting out as a travelling salesman gave me a diverse background dealing with different kinds of people. It made me think like an independent businessman. As a salesman, I learned that the toughest thing to do is ask someone for money. That's an important first lesson about business,' says Zeman.

Zeman had no formal education in business. 'I have worked for myself since I was 19 years old. Even when I worked alone, I understood the importance of imagination and developing a future vision of yourself and your business.'

His trip to Hong Kong was motivated by both worldly curiosity and business. 'I came out to Hong Kong when I was 19 years old in 1970 to meet my exporters and manufacturers. The city was just as exciting then as it is today. I immediately realised its potential and asked myself: 'Why service Canada when Hong Kong services the world?' Since then, living in Asia has been like living in a history book.'

In the years before Zeman became his own brand, he laboured in Hong Kong's highly competitive garment trade. But he stuck to simple principles.

'Visualise and develop a product or service that is different from or better than everyone else's. I make that happen by seeing myself as a typical customer, not an owner,' says Zeman. 'I instinctively think like a customer ... always looking for a reason not to buy what I am selling.'

In 1975, Zeman founded Colby International and acted as a buying agent sourcing apparel products, household goods, fashion accessories, footwear and gift items - not an unusual or even original business in Hong Kong at a time when trade was much bigger than financial services.

'Competition was fierce,' he recalls. 'But I think we had a better grasp and understanding of how to service overseas clients. We made buying easier for overseas buyers by showing them the value of understanding local cultural and business practices.'

Zeman strongly disagrees with anyone who claims it was much less competitive and easier to do business in those days.

'Overseas calls were expensive and needed to be booked three days in advance,' he says. 'There were no personal computers of any kind. Logistics were unreliable if not haphazard. There were many obstacles.'

By the time it was acquired by Li & Fung in 2000, Colby's net profit was about HK$134.5 million and had more than 1,000 employees.

'I look for young talent. I am a people person who enjoys meeting, engaging and interacting with everyone. I even hired a former tennis pro [Bruce Rockowitz] to join the team,' he says.

Many businesspeople claim to run an open management style; Zeman is the embodiment of the practice. 'All of my offices are designed as completely open-plan settings,' he says. 'My desk is visible to everybody so staff can hear me talking about everything. It's really important, especially as the boss, not to be arrogant or intimidating because that brings out the worst in everyone.'

Zeman is clearly proud of the new 27-storey California Tower, which is climbing skyward. He says the HK$4.5 billion structure is designed for entertainment with high (4.4 metre) ceilings, large balconies, a ninth-floor garden and a landscaped rooftop terrace.

Now the Lan Kwai Fong brand is coming to the mainland. 'About three years ago, a party secretary from Chengdu wanted me to bring Lan Kwai Fong to Chengdu,' Zeman says. 'So we developed a district and encouraged a mix of foreigners and locals, which created a new fit for local and international cultures. We promoted the area with Hong Kong celebrities and our recent Halloween festival lasted for four days with over 100,000 participants parading.'

However, he didn't anticipate the response from other officials. 'Other provincial governments liked what they saw,' he says. 'They requested their own Lan Kwai Fongs and offered ideal locations. It was then I realised the power and attraction of the brand.'

Zeman's proposed Lan Kwai Fong fund will establish entertainment districts in four (to be named) cities over the next five years. It will develop a mixture of retail, food and beverage, clubs, bars and entertainment. Zeman is planning to raise about US$500 million in equity and borrow the rest. 'It's exciting because it is more than a real estate investment; it's a domestic, consumer and retail play,' he says.

Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.