How about treating your client with respect, my (land)lord?

Life can be tough for a small tenant or when you set up a factory in an industrial building

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 3:17am

Teasing landlord's operatives is probably disallowed under the Basic Law but, trust me, it's harmless and almost certainly the only form of entertainment you'll get when dealing with these people. The person in question was one of many officious managers working for the owners of a building housing a restaurant in Kowloon my company has just closed.

As a tease I suggested that as we regularly paid his company quite a lot of money, he might like to treat us as customers as opposed to supplicants on the receiving end of instructions.

This is hardly the way this landlord sees things. It is a major property company employing a small army of clipboard-wielding operatives who made a habit of coming into the restaurant and issuing orders about this and that. When they wanted my company to do something, it was expected to be done yesterday, but when a request was made for them to do something, a great deal of time elapsed because of "company policy".

The concept of "customer" clearly bothered the tease-ee; he mulled the word as if it had somehow just entered the vocabulary. "Yes, customer," I said, "we never treat our customers the way you treat us." He thought about this novel idea and then mumbled something about us being tenants.

Well, I can't deny that we were indeed mere tenants, quite like other tenants from small and medium-sized enterprises that account for the bulk of Hong Kong's commercial property rentals.

If you want to use an industrial building for industrial use, you clearly need to be patient

Life being what it is means that being outside the charmed circle of large companies can be tough for corporate tenants. Yet property prices are said to be falling and vacancies in commercial buildings are said to be rising so you might have thought that landlords would be accommodating.

By coincidence, at the time I was dealing with the Kowloon landlord, I was also negotiating with another landlord in Central. This landlord adopts such a different attitude that it is hard to believe that these two companies are in the same business.

The matter in hand was a lease renewal. As you might expect, this meant a big rise in the rent but we managed to have an amicable negotiation. The net result is that a deal was done with a landlord that actually regards our company as customers. This is why we have rented its premises for more than two decades as opposed to just three years with the clipboard wielders in Kowloon.

I rather doubt my company's rentals will make or break a big landlord but even the mightiest may care to consider that when the going gets tough (a periodic occurrence in Hong Kong's turbulent property market), the tough might consider nurturing a good relationship with tenants who have the temerity to think of themselves as customers and could well decide to move to where they are better treated.

Meanwhile, if you've ever had to tackle a persistent and mysterious drainage odour, you will appreciate that dealing with landlords tends to require tenacity. Thus soon after recovering from one set of landlord trauma, another loomed into view. This time it involved setting up a factory in a so-called industrial building.

I am well aware that establishing a factory might be considered eccentric these days but for those of us in the food industry, with critical delivery deadlines, a factory across the border is not much of an option.

Anyway, to get the factory in operation required the building owner's co-operation in facilitating extra electricity supply alongside some other structural work.

Although these premises proclaim themselves to be an "industrial centre", the building management clearly regards industrial activity as a nuisance. They have got used to the idea that most industrial premises are either used for offices or storage or simply left unoccupied awaiting sales by speculators. Maybe the building owners prefer to break the law by using this building for residential or some other unlawful purposes?

So, if you want to use an industrial building for actual industrial use, you clearly need to be patient and ready for building management resistance. Then there's the even more tedious process of dealing with government bureaucrats over licensing. I don't have the heart to go into that right now; trust me, this is a major test of character.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster