How did a fancy wedding, grilled fish and Deng Xiaoping help make a billionaire?

Since getting his first taste of the good life on a trip to Hong Kong in 1986, hotel magnate and super-fit sexagenarian Chen Miaolin has never looked back

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 11:05pm

Inspiration can come in many forms. Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney has often told that the melody for his smash hit Yesterday came to him in a dream. Sir Isaac Newton might never have concocted his laws on gravity were it not for a falling apple.

And without the smell of grilled seafood and the gentle bobbing of a luxury yacht in Hong Kong harbour, Chen Miaolin might never have become a billionaire hotel magnate.

It was in 1986, on his first ever trip to Hong Kong, that Chen, then the manager of the state-run Xiaoshan Hotel in Hangzhou, capital of east China’s Zhejiang province, decided he wanted to be rich. Really rich. Big private yacht rich.

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“I’d been invited to attend the wedding of my friend’s son in Hong Kong,” the 65-year-old said from his office on the 17th floor of his flagship New Century Grand Hotel.

The groom’s father was a “seriously wealthy” old friend from Hangzhou, where Chen was born in 1952, and the wedding reception was held at the swanky Shangri-La Hotel.

“I couldn’t believe it when I found out the banquet cost HK$10,000 (US$1,300) for each table of 12 people. There were 45 tables,” he said.

At that time [Deng Xiaoping’s] policy of reform and opening up had just started and Hong Kong was still governed by the British.

“We mainlanders had no idea what was going on in the outside world,” he said.

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But the real epiphany for the wide-eyed 33-year-old was to come the following day, when his friend offered to take him for a trip on his yacht.

“It was fine weather as we left Causeway Bay and we stopped along the way to buy seafood, which we cooked on deck after mooring a little way out from the island,” he said.

“At the time I was the general manager of a state-owned hotel in Xiaoshan [a district of Hangzhou], earning 70 yuan (US$10.50) a month. In Hong Kong, the average wage was about HK$8,000 a month. After dining on seafood, drinking wine and enjoying a whole day on that boat, I told myself that one day I too would be rich, and have my own yacht.”

Chen realised that ambition in 2003, as chairman of New Century Tourism Group, the largest privately owned hotel chain on the Chinese mainland.

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The son of a businessman, Chen worked in a variety of state-owned companies before getting his first taste of the hotel trade in 1985, when he was tasked with restructuring and upgrading the Xiaoshan Hotel.

The wedding invitation he received the following year provided him not only with the desire to become successful, but also the knowledge he would need to do so.

“I learnt most of what I know about hotel management and development in Hong Kong,” he said.

On that first trip, and many others over the years that followed, Chen said he gathered masses of inside information and countless tips of the trade.

“I learnt so much about the efficient use of staff and things like customer service,” he said.

Hotels on the Chinese mainland in those days were staid and badly run, he said. Chen’s dynamism and willingness to introduce new ideas made him unstoppable. And business boomed.

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Every time he went to Hong Kong he would return with some new gadget, innovation or way of thinking.

“I introduced karaoke to Zhejiang in 1989,” he said. “In the 1980s people from the mainland were only allowed to take 200 yuan with them to Hong Kong. I’d seen this karaoke machine but had no money left, so I borrowed some money from a friend and bought it.”

The singalong machine was a smash in the hotel and drew huge crowds, he said.

“It was crazy, really, because it came with hardly any songs, just a couple of famous Cantonese pop songs,” he said.

A couple of years later, Chen did a similar thing with 10-pin bowling. After seeing how popular the game was in Hong Kong he arranged for several lanes to be installed at the Xiaoshan Hotel. It was another strike.

As the years went by, so Chen’s knowledge and reputation in the hotel game went from strength to strength. Yet despite a slew of great ideas and achievements, he remained a company man, the salaried boss of a state-owned hotel. He hadn’t forgotten the smell of the seafood, and he wanted more.

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His big break came in 2000, when as part of China’s continuing reform and opening up, the Xiaoshan Hotel was put up for sale. For the first time, it would be transferred from the state into private hands.

While he came from a relatively modest background, Chen had many wealthy and influential friends. With their help he was able to raise the 60 million yuan the government was asking for the hotel he had run so successfully for the past 15 years.

Together with a handful of close friends and associates, Chen established New Century Tourism Group and bought the business.

At the end of last year the group was worth close to 25 billion yuan, with 250 hotels offering 60,000 beds under management or contract. It is one of the world’s top 30 hotel groups, with properties in 26 Chinese provinces, and two in Europe – one each in The Netherlands and Germany.

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Chen’s personal wealth has hovered around the US$1 billion mark for several years. He was ranked by Forbes magazine as China’s 146th richest person in 2013, though he has slid down the list a little since then.

While he has never lost any of his passion for the hotel trade or his yacht, over the years Chen said he has also learnt that there are more things to life than just making money. His third great love is keeping fit. And it’s not unrequited – he could easily pass for a man much younger than 65.

“Being good at sport is like being good at business,” he said. “It takes willpower.”

He certainly has plenty of that, and a seemingly endless supply of energy. So far this year he has competed in six full marathons, and starts every day with either a 10km run or a 1.5km swim.

He also loves cycling – the two pro-quality bicycles that stand beside his desk are testament to that – and rides as often as he can.

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In June, he took part in an international Ironman competition in Cairns, Australia and finished seventh in the 65s and over category. He completed the three stages – a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km run – in an impressive 14 hours and eight minutes.

As for the future, he said he planned to remain fit and keep competing in sporting events. He stepped down as chairman of New Century earlier this month, but said he will remain closely involved with the group.

“When I started out, things were very different, especially between the mainland and Hong Kong,” he said. “Today, that’s all changed.”

“When I first started to going to Hong Kong, I would bring back things for the hotel and for myself that were just not available at home,” he said.

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Items that are now considered mundane, like plastic coat hangers and Thai rice, were once novel treats, he said.

Because of China’s opening up and reforms, life on the mainland has changed much more dramatically over the past 30 years than it has in Hong Kong,” Chen said.

And it was that opportunity that enabled him to capitalise on his creative vision and achieve his goals.

“I thank Deng Xiaoping for it all,” he said with a smile.