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Moving Forward

Allan Zeman has some advice about winning and what millennials can do for a better future

The property and entertainment mogul behind Lan Kwai Fong acknowledges the deeping social divide and urges compassion, innovation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 10:01pm

Hong Kong’s government and its companies should listen to the views and desires of young people if they want to see the city move forward, according to Allan ­Zeman, the entrepreneur behind the city’s hugely successful Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district.

“It is important for us to listen to the young people and to what they want. We cannot neglect them, we need to let them see they have a future in Hong Kong: we have to let them win sometimes,” Zeman told the South China Morning Post.

“Many young people graduate with a university degree but cannot find a job, while many others cannot afford to buy their own homes. Many young people are unemployed or only earn low salaries. They may need 75 years of salary to repay a mortgage and they feel they can never catch the boat and that things are hopeless,” he said.

Zeman, who started his first business at the age of 19, said the government has to help young people to get jobs or to set up their businesses as well as help improve living conditions.

“Living in a decent place is a basic human right. For young people who are living in subdivided flats, it is impossible for them to feel happy. When they are not happy, it gets easier for them to join protests like the Occupy Central movement or others to show their unhappiness,” he said.

Zeman called on the government to help start-ups.

“The Shenzhen government has offered a lot of incentives for start-ups and it has now become Silicon Valley of China,” he said, referring to the booming mainland city just across Hong Kong’s northern border.

“The Hong Kong government can afford to offer funding and loans for youngsters to start up businesses,” he said.

“It is true that many would fail and the government may lose some money, but it could help young people to achieve their dream.”

He said young people should not only consider doing business in Hong Kong, but should also expand into the mainland. He has taken Lan Kwai Fong to several mainland cities in recent years.

“I have been doing business in Hong Kong for more than 45 years and first went to the mainland 35 years ago. I have seen the miracle of many Chinese cities developing so quickly,” he said.

The key to success in business in the mainland, he said, is to understand the latest trends in what local customers want.

He has expanded Lan Kwai Fong to Chengdu, Sichuan, where people like spicy food, and in a nod to the local culture leased restaurants which offer spicy hotpot. Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong, in contrast, is more western style.

In addition, Hong Kong is a faster paced city where service in restaurants needs to be very quick, while in Chengdu there is a more relaxed lifestyle so the pace of service could be slower , he said.

He also noted how technology has changed the way that retailers and restaurants do business, he said.

“The younger generation are growing up with the internet and technology, they are more tech savvy. Those who are doing business would need to pay attention to these trends,” he said.

Traditionally, a mall would have 70 to 80 per cent of its shops as clothing and other products and only 30 per cent as food and beverage outlets.

Now the ratio is starting to reverse. Lan Kwai Fong is planning new projects in Shanghai and the nearby city of Wuxi in 2018, which will have 70 to 80 per cent of outlets as food and beverage and only 20 to 30 per cent traditional retail.

“Young people like to buy goods via the internet or mobile phone. They go to the shops to try the clothes on but do not buy them at the shops. They would rather buy the same style of clothes online to enjoy discounts.

“However they do like to go out for meals and to watch movies with their friends, and shopping malls would need to fit into this lifestyle change,” he said.

While Hong Kong and the mainland have both undergone an economic slowdown since last year, Zeman, who has been in the city for more than four decades, believes the city can get through the current problems as it has in the past during the 1987 stock market crash, the 1997 Hong Kong handover and the Sars outbreak in 2003.

“The beauty of Hong Kong is that the people are very resilient. People bounce back from every crisis very quickly and overcome problems, and they always have the can-do spirit,” he said.

During Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, which saw the city’s restaurants and leisure facilities empty, tourists stay away, business meetings and conventions cancelled and property prices tumble, many landlords were willing to cut rents to help tenants get through the difficulty.

Likewise, Zeman believes landlords will do the same during this economic downturn, helping tenants by cutting rents.

This would present opportunities for young people to start up businesses.

He also urged youngsters to appreciate the mainland government’s support for Hong Kong. Zeman gave up his Canadian passport, becoming a Chinese national as he is very positive about the country.

“The Chinese government has always been willing to help Hong Kong, like a father. After Sars, the central government relaxed regulations on sending tourists to Hong Kong to help rescue retail businesses,”he said.

What made the current crisis different from the past, he said, was that Hong Kong people used to work together to cope with difficulties.

But in recent years, society has become more divided and not all people share the can-do spirit.

“Hong Kong people are now very divided. Those who have property and assets have been getting richer over recent years when interest rates have been so low, while those who do not have assets are getter poorer,” he said.

“This is something we need to worry about.”