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Moving Forward

Show must go on – just don’t use government money, says Jim Thompson

Hong Kong’s government is being urged to organise big events to attract tourists, but Crown Worldwide founder says it should learn a lesson from controversial HarbourFest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 10:00pm

Pop concerts by big international acts could help Hong Kong attract more tourists, but public money should not be used to put on such shows, says Jim Thompson, who helped arrange a series of concerts 13 years ago as the city looked to bounce back from the impact of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Visits by mainland tourists, who account for roughly 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s arrivals, fell 15 per cent year on year in March after falling 18 per cent in the first two months of the year.

That’s prompted many commentators to call on the Hong Kong government to host more events to attract tourists.

Thompson, the 76-year-old founding chairman of logistics company Crown Worldwide, was chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce when he helped the government arrange HarbourFest in 2003. The government spent HK$100 million on a series of concerts by big names such as Prince, the Rolling Stones and Santana in an effort to boost the city’s image after the Sars outbreak, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong.

I could not understand why there was so much negative publicity, which has prevented the shows from being held annually
Jim Thompson

The event proved controversial, with much criticism of the amount of money spent and questions raised about its efficacy in attracting tourists.

Thirteen years on, Thompson said he has no regrets about his involvement, and still watches a video recording of the concerts from time to time.

“I enjoyed the shows,” he said. “Prince, who has just died recently, was the first one to sing in the concerts. We had Santana. It was the only time the Rolling Stones came to perform two shows in Hong Kong.”

He said HarbourFest did not exceed its HK$100 million budget and the government had collected tax from the performers and show organisers so the actual cost was lower.

“It attracted tourists to come to watch the shows,” Thompson said. “It also showed the world the image of Hong Kong had recovered from Sars. I could not understand why there was so much negative publicity, which has prevented the shows from being held annually.”

Looking back, he said he believed the event came in for so much criticism because of its use of government funding.

“Whenever you use public funding, everything becomes political and sensitive,” he said. “It would be better to have private company sponsor the shows, just like the rugby sevens.”

Thompson said the city had the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which partly funded by the government and private sponsorship every year, and it had attracted classical music and theatre lovers to the city every year.

“In addition to the Arts Festival, we should also have big fest for pop concerts to invite all the big names to come here,” he said. “This will bring in tourists. It will also show Hong Kong is a city not just for business but also for cultural events.”

Thompson set up Crown in Japan in 1965 and moved to Hong Kong in 1970. He married here, has two children and six grandchildren and considers the city home.

“The best decision I’ve ever made in my 50-year career was basing my company headquarters in Hong Kong,” he said. “Our Hong Kong company is our best performer out of 250 operations around the world. I attribute a large part of our global success to being headquartered here in Hong Kong and building a strong network in Asia.”

For the city to move forward, he says it’s important to train young people in order to improve their English and international knowledge.

“I firmly believe that training is the key to providing excellence in service and Hong Kong is a service economy so we must pay attention to it,” he said.

Thompson often speaks to young students at universities, sharing his experience of how to start up a business.

“I started with the only money I had, which was roughly US$1,000,” he said. “At the time I didn’t feel any bank would lend money to a very young guy like me with an idea but little else so I didn’t even try to borrow from a bank or any other investors. I think they would have laughed at me.

“I asked customers to pay me in advance and their payments became my starting capital. The early days of development were hand to mouth but we managed to make ends meet. This, however, also led me to be very careful about spending, cash-flow management and cost control. This is important for young people when they start up their business, they should not spend too much on their offices and must not overspend.”

Thompson said it was also important for young people to learn to give back.

“At the end of the day, this is what success in any field is all about,” he said. “When any young people earn money from their business, they should recognise the importance of giving back to those who are not as fortunate as they are. This brings another form of reward for the giver as well as the receiver.”

A former member of the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s advisory committee on corruption, he said it was important to keep Hong Kong clean, which helped make it a good place for business.

“My worst decision was to try to open offices in countries where the government is very corrupt and that corrupt attitudes permeates the entire civil service system,” he said. “I won’t name the countries but there are several in South America and Africa that are very difficult in which to operate a successful business.”

He said he was also more worried about corruption in mainland China than its economic slowdown.

“China needed to slow its growth and also curb the corruption that was hurting the country so I think the steps taken by the government there were good in the long run,” he said.