I was born in Nigeria. My father is a Kiwi, my mother’s British. We lived in Nigeria for two-and-a-half years, then moved to the UK for five years. My father worked did work for a multinational company, designing roads and bridges. He came to Hong Kong to work on the MTR in 1977.
We loved it so much that he decided to join the company. We originally came for six months, and I’m still here more than 40 years later. People say, “Where are you from?” And I say, “Actually, Hong Kong.” It’s my city.
I came here when I was about 10. I’d started playing tennis when I was in England – my dad was a keen tennis player. Within my first week or two of being in Hong Kong, I played my first tournament. It became a big part of my life. Because I didn’t finish university, I always say that tennis was my education, my university.
I played in the Hong Kong Open in the late ’80s. I beat three pros – I beat the top seed [in qualifying], ranked about 140 in the world. I lost in the qualifying stages, but to beat three touring pros in succession was pretty good. Playing in the Davis Cup for Hong Kong between the mid-80s and mid-90s was probably the greatest honour. I stopped playing competitive tennis in 1995.
When I was 13 years old, I bought a stringing machine – I would string my own rackets and other people’s. That was a business for about five years, and at the Hong Kong Open I was the official stringer. I would string until my fingers literally bled – 50 rackets a day. For a 15-year-old, it was good money.
I won my first senior tournament in Hong Kong when I was 18 and I used the prize money to invest in my first business: Movieland at the Ladies Recreation Club, where I proposed that I run the video club. Then I brought it to the Aberdeen Marina Club, and then to Repulse Bay, Mid-Levels, Happy Valley, North Point, Pok Fu Lam … we ended up with nine stores in total. We started with VHS videotapes, then laser discs and then DVDs. It’s been almost 30 years now and it’s still going. My brother runs it and it’s a testament to him.
I also had a go at making tennis clothes. I had some samples made in Korea, but it didn’t really work. Mr Bean Coffee I did when I was about 20. We set up coffee shops in the World Trade Centre (in Causeway Bay), Central Plaza and China Hong Kong City. Pacific Coffee bought it a few years later.
Tennis has played a big role in the businesses I run. Take all the characteristics of playing professional sport and you can adapt them to running a business: work ethic, discipline, resilience, not being afraid to fail. If someone’s beating you, what do you learn, how do you change your strategy? How do you not predict the future, but plan for the future? I learned to do it from the age of 10.
When we hire, we don’t hire based on education or background, we hire primarily based on EQ. It’s character and personality that count.
I can play tennis with somebody and within five minutes I can pretty much tell you the kind of character they have in terms of honesty, integrity, work ethic – what they’re like as a person.
I started Pure with businessman Bruce Rockowitz, who I knew from my teenage tennis days. When he first came to Hong Kong, he was a tennis coach. We started playing together when I was 12 or 13 years old. I think it’s had the same positive influence on how he looks at things.
Bruce and I were on a golf holiday in Whistler, Canada, in the summer of 2001. We were meant to play golf but we couldn’t because it was raining, and someone suggested we do a yoga class. Neither of us had ever done one before.
Having been a tennis player, I had reasonable body awareness. I used to go to the gym and I would come out thinking, “That was a good workout, I feel good.” But it was a totally different experience coming out of a yoga class. You feel lighter. There’s a physical and also an emotional benefit. The next day I cancelled golf and did another yoga class. I came back to Hong Kong and decided to start Pure Yoga.
When we first opened there were about four yoga studios in Hong Kong, and their combined area was probably about 2,000 square feet. We opened with 6,500 square feet, so we more than tripled the yoga space in Hong Kong in a day. We offered towels, mats, changing rooms, showers, lockers … we wanted to offer the whole experience. We didn’t know this, but that had never been done. It was the largest yoga studio in the world at the time, with multiple studios, multiple classes.
We weren’t yogis, we didn’t come from the traditional way of running a studio. We just felt that kind of environment and experience would open up yoga to so many more people.
Our first studio opened in January 2002, in the Centrium, above Dragon-i nightclub [in Hong Kong’s Central business and entertainment district]. At that time, hardly anyone was doing yoga: only about 100 people a day. Within a month or two we had over 400 people a day. Now we have almost 6,000 a day in Hong Kong. For the first few years, I would always get asked, “The studios are busy, but when do you see this trend ending?” I don’t get asked that question any more.
I guarantee that I wasn’t the first person who came out of a yoga class thinking, ‘That’s amazing, we should open a studio.’ The only difference is, we did it. And we did it the right way. We had to send the Immigration Department a stack of books about yoga – no one had applied to get a visa for yoga teachers before. We took huge risks and I worked 15-hour days for six, seven years. I didn’t take a holiday for five years. But it wasn’t a sacrifice because I enjoyed it. It’s what I loved, and I still love doing it.
A natural progression was to open a fitness centre. In December 2003, we opened our first Pure Fitness gym, in Kinwick Centre (Central).
The market has definitely matured, especially in the last three or four years. It’s become far more mainstream, with a lot more people looking to lead happier and healthier lives. It’s more than just going out and sweating. For people to exercise, they’ve got to be ready, you can’t force it on them. This is something I’ve learned through yoga. It’s about being tolerant of others, and not criticising other people for their beliefs and attitudes. Some are vegan, others eat dead stuff. That’s their choice. So what?
Yoga has shaped a lot of my thinking. I’ve become more open to different things. I definitely believe that what goes around comes around, in terms of karma and how you live your life, on and off the mat. Life’s too short to be angry. Don’t have any regrets. Do what you love and don’t be scared of doing something because it might not work.