New World Development

A female touch to the family business

Since becoming executive director of New World Development, 31-year-old Sonia Cheng has taken her passion for the hospitality business further

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2012, 3:22am

Sonia Cheng Chi-man's profile really took off after her elderly grandfather Cheng Yu-tung laid out his retirement plan.

In February, Cheng Yu-tung, the founder of New World Development, one of Hong Kong's biggest property companies, announced he was stepping down and handing the reins to the second and third generations of Chengs. His son, managing director Henry Cheng Kar-shun, succeeded him as chairman on March 1, and Henry's son Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, already an executive director, was assigned to oversee the overall operations of the group. As part of the succession plan, Sonia, Henry's 31-year-old daughter, took on a more prominent role in the group and promoted to be an executive director of New World Development, whose businesses span infrastructure, telecommunications, real estate and hotels.

She is also chief executive of New World Hospitality, a division that has a worldwide portfolio of 27 hotels under three separate hotel management brands. (Separately, New World Development has ownership interests in 18 hotels in Hong Kong, mainland China and Southeast Asia that are managed by such brands as Hyatt and Marriott.)

While her brief as a company director calls for her to help oversee the group, Sonia's heart is really in the hospitality industry.

Armed with a degree from Harvard University, where she studied mathematics, she joined New World Hospitality in 2008 and became chief executive three years later at the age of 29. Since then, she has presided over the division's aggressive expansion.

Besides its New World brand, which operates business hotels in first- and second-tier Chinese cities, the hospitality division owns Pentahotels, a European chain it acquired in 2001. That was followed in July last year by the purchase of the management unit of Texas-based hotelier Rosewood Hotels & Resorts for US$229.5 million. The plan is for Rosewood to be the ultra-luxury brand in the division's portfolio.

Sonia is keen to expand Pentahotels, which now has two hotels in Asia, in Shanghai and Beijing. She describes it as a new concept lifestyle hotel targeting customers between 25 and 35 years old.

"We have a multipurpose lounge, not a lobby, designed as a lively bistro-style gathering place for meeting friends, and as an extension of the hotel's guest rooms," she said. "Nowadays Chinese mainlanders do not rely purely on services; they like stylish design."

Over the past few months, she has unveiled plans to expand the number of properties under the Pentahotels brand in Asia, with the opening of a 197-room hotel in Guiyang, Guizhou, next year as well as a 720-room hotel in Hong Kong, to be followed by a 390-room Pentahotel in Shenyang, Liaoning, in 2014.

Her move to cut short her honeymoon a few months ago shows how passionate she is about her job. Just a few days after she was married to Paulo Pong Kin-yee, grandson of Hong Kong's Shiu Wing Steel founder Pong Ding-yuen, on March 11, Sonia was back in the office preparing for the launch of the Pentahotel in Beijing.

Commenting on her grandfather and his decision to take a back seat in the business, Sonia said the 86-year-old, who also founded Chow Tai Fook, one of the biggest jewellery companies in Hong Kong and on the mainland, still visits the office to dole out advice. But retirement allows him to skip some routine meetings.


How has your job changed since you became an executive director?

As a director of the board, I need to provide input and oversee the whole organisation. But I spend most of my time in the hotel business.


Why do you prefer the hotel business, given New World has other divisions?

The hotel industry is very dynamic. It is not just a business, it is about culture, marketing, design, finance, operation and service. I have learned a lot.


New World, through its New World China unit, started expanding in hotels on the mainland many years ago. What's different now?

New World Hotel is a five-star brand focusing on business travellers. We now have two other brands under our management. They are Pentahotels, a modern chain targeting a younger generation of travellers, and ultra-luxury chain Rosewood Hotels & Resorts.


What changes have you made at New World Hospitality?

It has relaunched its brand to the public. We embarked on an advertising campaign to promote New World Hotel. Then last year, we acquired Rosewood. And we have the Pentahotels expansion. All these are big milestones for the group since I joined.


Where do you see New World Hospitality five years from now?

Now, we manage 27 hotels among three brands - 18 Rosewood hotels, seven under the name of New World Hotels and two Pentahotels in Asia. All brands have different targets. We hope to have 90 hotels in operation or in the pipeline across all three brands by 2017.


As a female chief executive, do you see any advantages or limitations in running the business?

After all, running the business relies on one's capability, knowledge and management skills, rather than the gender. I do not see any limitation.

Hotels are a "people business". You have to be very sensitive to service, design, people's interaction and guests' needs. Most of that requires detail-oriented skills. Probably being female helps, because a woman usually has a detail-oriented personality.


Are you satisfied with your performance?

It's okay. So far, so good. But there is room for improvement.