The energetic Jim Mellon is a man of many parts, writes Charlotte Parsons

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 February, 2000, 12:00am

He's been called a pirate, a vulture, and a buccaneer. Britain's Sir Chips Keswick declared him 'gratuitously rude', and his local detractors claim he's unprincipled.


But if Regent Pacific's chairman fits any of those descriptions, he doesn't show it.


Jim Mellon has a boyish face, frequently transformed by bursts of sudden laughter.


His movements betray an energy level that hovers on the edge of hyperactivity. Just listening to him can be exhausting. He's planning the launch of an insurance business in South Korea, running a marathon in Las Vegas, promoting his new Internet wine site in Hong Kong, and plying Nordic seas aboard a Russian freighter.


And that's just February.


The chairman is excited about all of these topics and flits, hummingbird-like, from one to the next.


'Last year I was a passenger on a cargo ship that was picking up banana shipments in the Caribbean,' he says when conversation lights on his impending holiday.


'But that was too smooth.


'I want it to be like the Atlantic convoys in the Second World War. I've always wanted to be on a big boat in rough seas.' But he's had his fill of rough skies. A qualified pilot, Mr Mellon hasn't flown since coming within two metres of death.


'I had my head down in the instrument panel,' he recalls. When he next looked up, another aircraft was right in front of him.


He veered off, and missed it . . . just.


'It was so lucky,' he says soberly. 'So lucky.' Mr Mellon's fund management group had its own brush with death.


Two years ago, Regent Pacific's Russian investments placed it on a collision course with financial disaster.


When that country's economy went into a nose dive, it dragged Regent down with it. Holders in its Russian and East European funds saw the value of their investments fall to almost zero.


The firm had successfully seen that after four years of soaring gains the Russian stock market was due a correction and pulled money out of the market. Unfortunately it stuck most of it in local currency bonds on the bet that the government would not devalue the rouble and would not default on its debt.


That proved a terrible miscalculation.


Financially crippled, its bottom line haemorrhaging red ink, the firm's future looked dark. To Mr Mellon's enemies, it appeared that the man behind the infamous 'vulture fund' was at last getting his come-uppance.


But two years later, that vulture looks more like phoenix. Regent has risen out of the Russian ashes - and into cyberspace.


'Business in Korea is wonderful,' Mr Mellon says of the ventures that have refilled his coffers.


'Over all, Regent Pacific is doing very well. Now what we have to do is make sure the Internet investments are successful.' He flashes a contagious smile. 'Which is why Bigsave.com is where you should do your shopping as often as possible.' A late convert (he concedes that he used to short-sell Internet stocks and lost a small personal fortune) Mr Mellon has jumped on the Internet bandwagon and is now fighting his way into the driver's seat.


Bigsave.com is the name of Mr Mellon's biggest personal Net venture, (Regent Pacific has a stake of less than 1 per cent) but, with a UK listing imminent, he is barred from discussing it with the media.


But Bigsave.com is only one of countless irons in the chairman's fire.


In Korea, Regent is about to complete the buyout of an on-line vehicle insurance company.


Back in Hong Kong, another of Mr Mellon's Internet brain children is being christened. Willbeready.com is going to specialise in on-line wills.


'Let's say you have an argument with your wife, and think 'I'm not giving her anything!',' Mr Mellon says. 'You can just change your will on-line without having to ring up a lawyer.


'That's the one I'm going to try and work on next. The death site. Basically, it's a little hobby.' A quick volley of laughter, and then it is on to the next subject: how he plans to build Asia's biggest astrology and numerology sites.


AstroEast will feature personalised readings, as well as specialised number-picking services. It is here that brides-to-be find their optimal wedding dates, and gamblers their lucky numbers.


Then there's the supermarket in Bulgaria, the house in Spain, and the hotel chain in the Isle of Man.


Mr Mellon has a special fondness for the little island, and is its biggest land owner.


He even has a home there - a 13,000-square-foot house overlooking the sea.


'I'm very proud of it,' he says, eyes lighting up.


'It's got a dome with Chinese dragons on the side, and a great big terrace.


'There's a huge living room and only two bedrooms. My father said it was the biggest bachelor pad in the history of the world.' And Mr Mellon is surely one of Hong Kong's most eligible bachelors. At 42, the charismatic, fun-loving tycoon has never been married.


Why not? 'Fear of commitment,' comes the reflex response.


He does, however, have a girlfriend in London. If the two of them were to marry, would Mr Mellon ask for a pre-nuptial agreement? 'Definitely,' he says with feeling.


'Not for money necessarily, but you can put in all sorts of other conditions as well.' He laughs wickedly.


'Like how much time you have to spend together.' Meanwhile, he shares his Hong Kong home with two dogs - a 'small psychotic dog incapable of moving more than 100 yards' and a 'running dog' that trots beside him on his daily marathon jogs around the Peak.


The spacious, Mid-Levels flat is a big improvement on his first home.


When Mr Mellon stepped off the plane 22 years ago, he was just another colonial adventurer in search of opportunity.


The son of a diplomat, he had always planned to leave Britain as soon as he finished university. The 20-year-old made his move after landing a fund managing job with GT Management (now owned by Invesco).


His first flat was a squalid, windowless affair in the heart of Causeway Bay.


'It was absolutely horrible,' he says.


'It sounds like one of those stories: 'I lived down a coal mine'. But it was pretty bad.' He didn't have to stay there long. Mr Mellon was transferred to San Francisco, where he remained for the next four years.


When his GT mentor, Richard Thornton, left to start his own asset management firm, the young fund manager went with him.


Mr Mellon returned to Hong Kong in 1984 as head of Thornton Management's Hong Kong office.


Six years and another employer later, Mr Mellon felt ready to start his own firm. In 1990, Regent Pacific was born.


The fledgling firm's successful raids on poorly performing investment trusts quickly earned it the nickname 'Vulture Fund', and Mr Mellon's methods branded him a 'buccaneer'.


Soon, people were muttering that Regent's tactics were unscrupulous . . . dodgy even.


'I've had to explain on several occasions that the view was it was ungentlemanly to attack closed-end funds,' Mr Mellon says.


'What I can say is that, unlike some of the great big names here in Hong Kong, this company's never infringed any rules.


'The idea that we are suspect or shady is kind of drawn from the fact that we are opportunistic.


'But that's changed now because we're in a different business.' Mr Mellon doesn't regret his controversial past.


He created his biggest furore back in Britain, when he attacked the aristocratic board members at merchant bank Hambros.


'It was 'sir this' and 'lord that', 'his honour this and that'. . . But the company was a disaster,' he recalls.


'I said 'the board room is beautifully decorated but the company itself is in urgent need of repair'. That establishment was very upset.' Hambros chairman Sir John Chippendale (Chips) Keswick declared his young detractor 'gratuitously rude', and Mr Mellon senior had to draw on all his diplomatic skills to calm the storm his headstrong son had whipped up.


Four years later, Mr Mellon is unrepentant.


'I don't regret it,' he says. 'I enjoyed saying it.' And history proved him right. In the end, the bank was broken up.


Mr Mellon appears to rather enjoy his battles.


At a costumed millennium party, he came dressed as an RAF fighter pilot. But he was disappointed that the dress theme only encompassed the past 100 years of history.


He really wanted to go as emperor Napoleon.


The chairman's own empire has expanded considerably since Regent's doors opened 10 years ago.


Back then, there were less than a dozen employees. Now the group boasts well over 2,000 worldwide. He expects to make about US$200 million profit this year.


'By anyone's standards its a substantial operation now and it has to be taken care of,' he says.


To deal with his firm's growth, Mr Mellon plans to split it in three: Europe, Korea and Hong Kong.


The chairman will stick with the local operation, focusing on technology investment and fund management.


He speaks of the future with the relish of a man who has put the worst behind him.


The trust-busting days have receded into history, the pain of Russia has faded to a dull ache, and Mr Mellon is standing at the helm of a 'kinder, gentler' Regent Pacific Group.


And it's been quite some time since anyone has called him a 'buccaneer'.


These days, he's known as 'the Comeback Kid'.


Jim Mellon is chairman of the Regent Pacific group. A graduate of Oxford University, he came to Hong Kong in 1978 as a fund manager for GT Management. From 1984 to 1987, Mr Mellon ran the Hong Kong office of Thornton Management. He then spent two years working for Tyndall Holdings, and set up the Hong Kong operation. In 1990 Mr Mellon founded Regent Pacific which quickly earned a reputation as a 'Vulture Fund'.