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MONDAY FACE

Monday Face: Lui Che-woo

Lui Che-woo took every chance that ever came his way, riding both luck - and misfortune - to lead multinational conglomerate K Wah Group

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 1:51pm

If you are not familiar with the industry, don't do the business - so goes the Chinese idiom intended as a warning to potential entrepreneurs not to start a business in unfamiliar industry and so avoid failure.

But for every rule, there must be an exception, and young, intrepid Lui Che-woo defied cautionary wisdom and successfully embraced every business opportunity that chance threw his way.

Now 83 and chairman of KWah Group, he forged a multinational conglomerate with interests in property, entertainment, leisure, hospitality and the supply of construction materials.

As a result of his contribution to the business development of Hong Kong, he was bestowed with a Grand Bauhinia Medal last Saturday.

Lui and his driving ambition got off to a fast start. He began in the car-parts industry and, by the early 1950s, he learned that rock-breaking machines and trucks used by US forces in Okinawa, Japan, were for sale. He jumped at the chance, imported the machinery and made what he called his first "first pot of gold".

He founded the first company in what went on to become KWah Group, and put the machines to use mining the mountains in Hong Kong for construction materials, quickly becoming one of the major construction materials suppliers in the city.

In the 1960s, he entered the city's real estate business and then expanded to the mainland, Southeast Asia and America. Ten years later, he diversified into the hotel industry in Hong Kong and the United States.

Despite KWah International becoming one of Hong Kong's major developers by 2002, Lui, with all the energy of a man half his age, set up Galaxy Entertainment, which held a gaming concession in Macau. Ten years on, and Galaxy is one of the three big operators in Macau after its casino and resort complex opened on the Cotai Strip in 2011.

But Lui is quick to correct any notion that one wave of his magic wand turns every opportunity he touches to gold.

"The road is not always that smooth," he exclusively told the South China Morning Post at his North Point headquarters.

"In the early 1960s, my company was one of the constructors that developed Yau Tong, Lam Tin, Kwun Tong, Ngau Chi Wan and Lok Fu," he said, viewing the districts from his office.

"Our job included the excavation of hills and reclamation of land to create building sites and build roads. Most of the developments were handled by us. It may have appeared to be a profitable business. But in fact, many constructors lost money and went bankrupt and we also lost money on the project. But at least we made a contribution to Hong Kong."

Another rocky patch came when he built his first residential project in Cha Kwo Ling Road in Yau Tong and the bruising experience led him to shift his focus back to the construction materials business. Perhaps there was wisdom in that old idiom after all, and opportunity came knocking once again when he won the first quarrying rights contract in Hong Kong at Anderson Road in 1964.

But transportation problems, poor quality of minerals and strong competition from foreign companies almost led to bankruptcy, he said, and so he decided to return to the Hong Kong property market in the 1980s, even though that meant competing with heavyweights such as Sun Hung Kai Properties and Chinachem Group.

"We decided to start with a small project and look for investment opportunities," he said.

In 2000 and 2001, KWah was the most aggressive bidder at land auctions, despite the fact that the property market had not yet recovered from the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Within two years, the group bought four sites, including joint-venture projects, for a total of HK$1.8 billion, a decision vindicated when the property market recovered in the second half of 2003.

Lui's foresight helped generate profits from the sites he bought at the bottom of the market, and turned KWah International, the property arm of KWah Group, into a major developer.

On property policy, he holds forthright views. "We shouldn't restrict foreigners from buying residential property in Hong Kong. Instead, we should attract elites from the world to move into the city. We could create new land in the New Territories and Lantau to satisfy the housing demand from local people."

On the outlook for Hong Kong, Lui said the economy currently depended heavily on the property and financial sectors and should be diversified. "The government should encourage the development of the exhibition and convention industries and tourism," he said.

Of his own future, he said that although he had announced succession plans in the middle of the year, he had no plans to retire.

His elder son Francis Lui Yiu-tung, vice-chairman of Galaxy, is to take over the group's Macau business, while his younger son, Alexander Lui Yiu-wah, executive director of KWah International, is slated to run the developer's business in Hong Kong.

"I hope my second generation could be creative and grasp opportunities that come their way," he said.

An entrepreneur to the last.

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