The hard way up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am


Jonathan Zeman, the son of business tycoon Allan Zeman, was not entitled to be handed the job of 'Director, Chief Operating Officer' of Lan Kwai Fong Group (LKF) on a silver platter. Instead, he started working in an LKF restaurant as trainee back in 1998, and for several years afterwards performed various functions within the group to get the 'groundwork' done.

As COO, he has helped double the group's size in the past two years, spreading the 'Lan Kwai Fong' brand across China. With more projects in the pipeline, including the new California Tower to be opened next year, his job responsibilities have intensified. Here he talks about his career in the lighthearted manner of an entertainer.

What is the key to entertaining?

I think it should be a high-quality experience with a creative twist, be it a plate of food, a cocktail glass, or the way the staff talk to customers. Everyone can do things from a straight angle, but at LKF we do things from another angle, a little bit differently. LKF staff are always a little bit wacky.

Was that the plan, to join the family business?

To join the family business was my last choice. Because once you're in, there's no way out. When I returned to Hong Kong in 1998 [from the United States after finishing university] during the economic crisis, there were not many jobs available.

Meanwhile, we [LKF] were opening a new restaurant, and my father asked me: 'Why don't you just try it out?' So I worked there as trainee for 80 hours a week. After the first month, I went to talk to him, and he convinced me to stay. So I stayed on, and worked for various departments, including construction and project management, operations management and IT - I set up the first e-mail server for the group, at a time when no one wanted to use it for work. I had to convince everyone to use it [e-mail].

Eventually I became the COO to oversee various group projects.

How important is a work-life balance to you?

That's very important, not only to me, but to my staff as well. Happy staff are very productive. I don't want anyone to stay late in the office. They should go home for two reasons: it should be more efficient doing work during the daytime, and secondly, of course you should go home to see your family because that's why you are working hard in the first place.

What are your 'Dos' and 'Don'ts' in the office?

I am not too strict on rules, working hours and things like that, as they would discourage staff creativity. But of course it needs to have some boundaries.

I really hate politics, especially office politics, gossip. Of course every office has that kind of thing, but I think everyone [at LKF] should treat colleagues as brothers and sisters, as we are a family business. You should not only care about your own success but theirs as well, as their success is your own. The workplace also needs to be kept tidy.

In what ways did your father influence you?

Many ways. For example, he taught me always to do something with 100 per cent of your heart, whether for our own projects or for projects with a partner. We treat it as our own thing, and so we must be successful and make it work. In the end, everyone is happy.

One important thing I also learned from my father is that just because someone has a degree, doesn't mean that he knows how to do it; on-the-job training is all-important.

In truth, I always like to say I did my undergraduate degree in UCLA, and got my master's degree in the University of Lan Kwai Fong.

What is your relationship with Allan Zeman at work?

At the beginning I didn't spend much time working with my father; rather, I reported to a few bosses. After getting good groundwork done, I worked more closely with him. Obviously, I have my own ways of doing things, but he also shows me many interesting ways to deal with things. What was the reason you chose to do East Asian Studies at university?

Because I didn't know what to study at that time, and I thought that it could be useful. And it has proved to be useful.

What are your hobbies?

I like photography - which I can do on the job or with my family - making video clips and designing things.

I also enjoy boating and hiking a lot.