WHILE many of Hong Kong's famous trading houses have settled down to a comfortable life in property and manufacturing, a few continue to make their living plying other people's wares. One of these is Jebsen & Co, which began life on a damp New Year's Eve in Shanghai in 1894. Jebsen might be an unfamiliar quantity to many people, but the products it distributes contain a range of household names. It is the territory's agent for Rollei and Pentax cameras; Akai sound and vision products; Porsche, Volvo and Renault motorcars; Bosch auto parts; and Blue Girl beer, among others. Its JCL Airways division is the Hong Kong sales agent for six offline carriers, while its shipping service co-ordinates cargo being shipped through Hong Kong to ports across the world. Added to this are its divisions in chemicals, engineering and insurance. Despite this obvious diversity, all these areas can still be classified as the operations of a merchant house. Its adherence to its origins sets Jebsen's apart from the leading British hongs such as Jardine Matheson & Co and Butterfield & Swire, which have changed not only their names but also their essence. As the territory has altered, these companies have shifted their emphasis to land redevelopment and manufacturing, financing huge expansion by raising funds on the equity markets. Jebsen & Co, which was founded by Danish merchants Jacob Jebsen and Heinrich Jessen, has resisted making a public listing and, according to managing director Hans-Michael Jebsen, has no intention to do so. As it stands, the Jebsen group comprises three senior companies: Jebsen & Co, based in Hong Kong; Jebsen & Jessen (SEA), based in Singapore; and Jebsen & Jessen (GMBH), based in Hamburg. The centre of its operations remains firmly rooted in the territory. Ownership of the group is retained by the same two families which began the enterprise a century ago: the Jebsens and the Jessens. Five family members control the Jebsen group through the agency of holding companies. More information than this, however, the group will not disclose. Neither does it care to release financial reports, although it did announce last year that annual turnover had exceeded $6 billion. Helmuth Hennig, director of Jebsen & Co and whose father and grandfather worked for Jebsen before him, said this was not a conspiracy of silence, but rather a simple desire by the group to guard its anonymity. 'We have no intention of changing the corporate culture of the company from being family-owned, family-run and closely knit,' he said. 'We are not about to launch any bonds, because that is the way the owners want it.' Jebsen & Co's focus is on expanding its interests in China, and thereby in a sense is returning to its roots. Its assets on the mainland were seized after the 1949 communist revolution. It has, however, now set up eight liaison offices in the country and, according to Mr Jebsen, will spend $500 million there over the next five years to establish joint ventures in services and manufacturing. Eight such projects are under consideration. This expenditure will have to be carefully guided, however, as the group has not been immune to the economic slowdown affecting the region at present. '1994 was a record year for us in turnover and profits,' Mr Hennig said, 'But the slowing of the Hong Kong economy and the tightening of credit in China has meant that our business in 1995 has been slower.' He said there had been no growth in Jebsen's consumer businesses this year. While Jebsen will surely soon return to solid growth, one cannot help questioning whether it has always taken the right option. If it had broadened the scope of its business away from trade, then its operations may be several times larger than they are today. Its achievements are impressive nonetheless and, as Mr Hennig said, they are all its originators desired. 'The owners had a clear vision of what they wanted to do and they are very happy about what they have,' he said.