Telecoms guru holds hope for Sunday

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2000, 12:00am

Not many people turn down a job offer from Li Ka-shing, but Craig Ehrlich, Sunday Communications group managing director, did. He had never heard of the Hong Kong tycoon.

When it was repeated, Mr Ehrlich, a Los Angeles native who was at the time running a United States cable-television company, decided he had better check this man out.

Soon afterwards, he swapped his Santa Monica beach house for a Hong Kong flat and was running Hutchison Cablevision, which was to be the first cable-television company in Asia.

Two roller-coaster years followed and the rest is media history. The germ of the regional satellite TV station buried in the concept of Cablevision then caught the beady eye of Mr Li's son, Richard Li Tzar-kai, who was looking for a business to grow. That was Star Television.

After a year of developing Star, Mr Ehrlich moved to Hutchison Telecommunications as group operations director.

He joined Rick Siemens, now chairman of Sunday, the man who had built Hutchison's mobile-phone presence from scratch to become the biggest player in Hong Kong before he fell out with Li Ka-shing.

Mr Ehrlich cut free from the Li family in 1993, a move which was 'a bit sensitive'.

At the time, Mr Li wanted to refocus the telecoms drive in the mainland, but was also concerned about becoming a big player in Britain and Europe with Orange.

'It was one of those things - a divergent view of the future - but I was treated very well. At the time, I did not realise what a good move it would turn out to be,' Mr Ehrlich said.

With years of cable and satellite experience, he decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge.

During his trips to India for Star, he discovered the sub-continent was so starved of news that wealthy people booked into hotels during the Gulf War to watch CNN. He decided Asia seemed ripe for cable and satellite picking. In 1994, he started Cavite Communications in the Philippines. Unlike India, there was no cultural resistance and English was spoken. Two years later, he sold it.

Instantly, Mr Siemens asked him to take on a start-up called Mandarin Communications - the legal name of Sunday.

Getting the right name was not easy and happened by chance.

Alan Chan, who was designing the logo, sighed during one hectic week: 'Oh, everything will be fine on Sunday . . . Sunday! That's it.' Mr Ehrlich loved it.

Going in to bat with the big telecoms boys, they needed a strong brand name and felt Sunday, with its positive connotation, was the answer.

Choosing the colour orange was a happy coincidence.

'Orange was a UK brand and Alan Chan had never heard of it,' Mr Ehrlich said.

The result was Sunday stole a year's march on Orange in the SAR and now Sunday is one of Hong Kong's best-recognised brands.

The satisfaction of running Sunday for three years now is proving the pundits, who said a small telecoms firm could not compete, wrong.

Sunday was only the second Hong Kong company to give stock options to all employees. When the share price slumped after the listing, Mr Ehrlich doubled the number of options issued to staff, this time at a lower price, to boost their morale.

However, the employees did not seem to appreciate it.

'They didn't appreciate the stock options as much as I thought they would, but I don't know if they really understood we were among the first to do it,' he said disappointedly.

Why did he feel the need to be so benevolent? 'I get a kick-out of doing the 'right' thing. Sometimes that might seem righteous, but that's how I see the world.'

This kind of comment would sound holier-than-thou from most people. But Mr Ehrlich is the sort of person who makes sure he calls his good friends every fortnight no matter how busy he is.

He has been married previously, and his biggest disappointment is having no children. But then he said he had labrador Max for company.

'But he is not a child substitute,' he added.

Recently, the Chinese newspapers have declared open season on his private life since he began seeing campaigning politician Christine Loh.

'They take an unbelievable interest in our relationship. I don't know how they get the information,' he said.

Does he find this intrusive? 'No, not so far, it hasn't crossed the line yet.'

What he does find objectionable is the trivialising of Ms Loh's public life that results from a prurient interest in her private affairs. He despaired when the first question asked at the press conference to announce she would stand down in the next Legislative Council elections was: 'Is it because you are getting married?'

News of their relationship has not reached Australia yet, however. They have been invited separately to talk at the same conference next month, with speeches scheduled for identical times.

But the organiser should soon get the picture. 'We'll be travelling together and staying together.'

It is a tense time in telecoms now, with consolidation looming and the new third-generation (3G) mobile licences coming up.

Mr Ehrlich thinks the Government will not hold a 3G auction as it does not need the revenue. He expects five licences in the SAR - four for incumbents and one for an outsider.

He predicted consolidation would come in three to four months and said a merger between New World Mobility and Peoples Phone would be great.

'That makes us even more attractive to outside players or others who want our help. We are a strong brand and a small company that's profitable,' he said.

Despite the skirmishes ahead, Mr Ehrlich sees a bright future for Sunday, expanding into seven or eight countries in a few years.

He remains a fundamental believer in telecoms, seeing it as a worthwhile business of benefit to mankind, unlike oil, tobacco and insurance companies.

'I could never work for one of those,' he said.