Mr. Shangkong

What does Starbucks say of your status?

There is a not-so-subtle pecking order to be observed among Hong Kong's big-money operators and the places they take their clients to talk business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 9:10am

It's an open secret in Hong Kong's business community that many of the best ideas and biggest decisions come together over a cup of coffee rather than behind the closed doors of well-appointed boardrooms around town.

Maybe that's partly because a lot of banks and asset-management firms, even some big names such as the large global hedge fund's premises I visited recently, haven't stretched their budgets far enough to provide sufficient meeting space in their high-rent premises. They prefer, instead, to make use of someone else's space, say a coffee shop with a buzzy atmosphere as opposed to a small conference room with four walls and no window.

So, when the money men meet their clients, they choose among the financial district's coffee shops, and where they end up speaks volumes about where the client ranks.

At Exchange Square in Central, there are two popular options in this complex that houses several banks and wealth-management firms: a branch of Starbucks, and the pricier Classified.

Some industry insiders say Starbucks is often occupied by junior, associate-level bankers conferring with clients who aren't considered rich enough to produce big deals.

"Starbucks coffee won't cost you too much and it's a comfortable place to start a casual chat with a client," said one of my contacts who works for a European bank in Exchange Square and uses the coffee house for "get-to-know" meetings.

More senior banking and fund industry workers - particularly those whose name card has "vice-president" on it - patronise Classified and are happy to shell out for their prospective clients.

What about director-level bosses and their VIP clients? Where do they camp out?

Drop by the coffee lounge in the lobby of the five-star Island Shangri-La in Admiralty during afternoon tea time. There you'll have a good chance of spotting some movers and shakers in the financial industry, whose offices are likely to be in neighbouring Pacific Place, and perhaps some famous Chinese entrepreneurs as well. I know of one important internet deal and a stock market listing for a mainland company that both grew out of informal chats over a coffee there this year.

Bankers housed in and around the Landmark building in Central frequent the two Mandarin Oriental hotels. Café Causette, whose name happens to mean "chat", is located in the older of the two. It is favoured by many veteran bankers at Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Standard Chartered.

The other popular choice is MO Bar at the newer Landmark Mandarin Oriental. But some bankers who are big believers in traditional fung shui may avoid it because MO (short for Mandarin Oriental) sounds like "nothing" in Cantonese.

So, if you are a client of one of these bankers, where you are taken for coffee may be a leading indicator of where you rank on the customer ladder.

Oh, and one last tip: the downside of holding a meeting in a coffee shop, no matter how fancy, is the risk of your potential deal being overheard. If it's top secret, maybe you would be much better off to skip the coffee and hunker down in a boardroom.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit