Moving forward

Moving Forward

Hongkongers must stop behaving like a dysfunctional family, says Hung Fook Tong boss Ricky Szeto Wing-fu

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 2:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 10:29am

There is a Chinese saying that when there is harmony in a family, it thrives; when a family wanes, there is endless bickering. In this instalment of Moving Forward, RICKY SZETO WING-FU portrays Hong Kong as that quarrelling family, looking at recent examples such as the widening divide between pro-democracy lawmakers and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and the mistrust between university students and administrators. But the general manager of Hung Fook Tong, abrand name famous for its herbal drinks and tortoise jelly, tells Denise Tsang he sees hopes for the city of his birth and good fortune to shrug off politics and improve people's livelihoods.


Leung Chung-ying's recent claim that the chief executive's status is "transcendent" - above Hong Kong's executive, legislature and judiciary - sparked a lot of debate. How do you see this from the perspective of the business sector?

The transcendence issue touched the bottom line of Hong Kong. Fortunately, two legal heavyweights - former chief justice Andrew Li [Kwok-nang] and his successor Geoffrey Ma [Tao-li] - were fast enough to cool down the heated debate. Li spoke of judicial independence in the city while Ma was saying everyone is equal before the law.

What the top judges said was an assurance about the independent legal regime. Why companies park their investments in the city is because of the legal system.

Do you still have faith in the city's legal system?

Yes, the system is still sound.

As the new Legislative Council season began earlier this month, the bickering between Leung and radical lawmakers returned. What is your take on how political leaders should move forward?

The chief executive and those radical lawmakers such as Wong Yuk-man appear to have gone into a vicious, opposing cycle - they insult each other, they will turn themselves into an "either-you-lose-or-I-win" situation. No, we don't need that. Why don't they handle things with a rational approach? Insulting words are unacceptable anywhere. Wong's question to Leung ,"When will you die?" [at the Legco question-and-answer session on Wednesday] is obviously an insult. In turn, Leung's answer, "beware of dying from too many grievances; wish you a long life", is equally insulting.

The exchanges reflect a sentiment of no mutual trust. This does not help Hong Kong at all.

After the government's political reform proposals fell through in June, Leung placed his priority on pressing ahead with economic and social development. Based on your observations in Legco, what is the likelihood of seeing Leung's mission accomplished?

I believe in the pendulum theory in politics, which is like a pendulum swinging back and forth from extremes. But there will be regression toward the mean, or averaging out, at one stage.

Pan-democrats such as Cyd Ho Sau-lan said they will be more moderate and do not expect to be bombarding Legco with filibusters.

It is too early to jump to a conclusion now. If they mean what they say, there is a good chance to see a more efficient year ahead.

How can Hong Kong break out of the current political stalemate?

Legco can resolve the sticky situation through the setting up of think tanks. Former pan-democrat Ronny Tong [Ka-wah] is the latest to set up one, and a few others we have seen in the past few months.

Tong set up Path of Democracy a few months ago while Jasper Tsang [Yok-sing] will launch his Advocacy group next year. Our Hong Kong Foundation is led by [former chief executive] Tung Chee-hwa.

They all aim to actively engage the public in their push towards their respective goals such as universal suffrage, good governance, prosperous development and seeking social consensus in highly-polarised Hong Kong.

Expect more quality discussions to take place in the coming year.

Many social issues have been stuck in Legco due to repeated filibusters in the previous session. Can social issues be separated from politics this Legco session?

No. Social and political issues are twin brothers. Many social issues are used as politicians' bargaining chips for their clout. This is more apparent in the lead-up to the district council elections later next month and the Legislative Council elections next year. There are trade-offs between social issues and politics.

For example, the proposed creation of the innovation and technology bureau is ultimately a socioeconomic issue, but it is hijacked by politicians through filibusters. The legislation of standard working hours is destined to be the next subject.

When you say Leung and some lawmakers have no mutual trust, do you see a similar situation between university students and their governing councils? We have seen the dispute at the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University recently, with footage showing students storming or attempting to storm council meetings. What do you think of their behaviour?

At Hung Fook Tong, about half of our roughly 1,500-strong workforce are in their 20s to 30s. The younger generation has been suppressed by the existing education system - loads of homework and competitive school life. So, when they are in tertiary education, they own their souls again!

This generation grew up in an IT era, and their communication is simple and direct. But is there any other way, a better one, to express their thinking other than storming meetings?

Last year we saw the younger generation express their emotions and anger in the pro-democracy Occupy movement. Recently, we have seen students clash in university council meetings.

If one has to find a root problem, the education system is primarily to blame.

Name two of the most burning issues the Hong Kong government should deal with as top priority now.

Housing and an intelligent city. We need government policies to tackle the crux of the housing problem. I support the policy to give priority to Hong Kong buyers whenever the government is putting up land for sale, which is the so-called "Hong Kong land for Hong Kong people" programme.

There is an urgent need to provide lower-priced housing for first-time home buyers, especially for younger people who want to get married but cannot afford housing. But I have second thoughts on pushing through the supply of youth hostels because young adults should take the opportunity to stay with their parents for quality time, as sooner or later we have to assume they will get married and move out from their parents' homes.

To improve quality of life, the government should develop Hong Kong into an intelligent city. We may not know when the proposed IT bureau will materialise but this does not mean Hong Kong cannot create an intelligent city. For example, why can't we develop some apps for the availability of public and private car parks, and for traffic jams so that we drivers can avoid getting into traffic deadlocks? Other apps such as for where to go for a hike or a walk in the countryside or for food or drinks during weekends would be most welcome.

What about tourism issues? The mainland Chinese tourist who died after a beating during what could have been a forced shopping trip to Hong Kong last week has fuelled debate on how Hong Kong should reposition itself for more sustainable growth.

Tourism still remains a pillar industry, but it has to reduce its reliance on shopping. There is too much advocacy on consumerism in the city. I went for a week-long holiday in late July to southern France, a more laid-back destination to me. I relate it to attitude towards life, a soul-searching trip. Travelling is not all about shopping, especially shopping for luxuries.

Hong Kong must provide soil for local tourism to thrive. The side effect of advocacy of consumerism, especially on luxuries, pushes up rents in shopping districts such as Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui and squeezes out smaller businesses.

There are many local historical heritage attractions that are worth more than a [shopping] trip. There can be religious tours on Lantau Island and cultural tours to the New Territories, for example.

What kind of paradigm should be created in Hong Kong to make it a better place to live?

The district council elections are due soon and next year we have the Legislative Council elections. Hong Kong people are sick of the bickering paradigm.

It is time to create a paradigm that is like going home - a place you want to return, no matter how many teething problems there are.

I had a chance to migrate to the United States in 1996, but my wife and I chose to stay back in Hong Kong. No matter how many challenges and issues every day, I call Hong Kong home - a home I love to come back to. This is what Hong Kong people need.

Hung Fook Tong chief Ricky Szeto's herbal recipe for success

The experience of a trainee Ricky Szeto Wing-fu recently came across in his office stirred up memories of his own past.

The newbie, a fresh graduate from the University of Hong Kong, had just joined herbal drink maker and retailer Hung Fook Tong and was assigned to familiarise himself with the company's operations as part of training for future leaders.

His tasks included making deliveries and retailing products such as tortoise herbal jelly, Chinese herbal drinks and Chinese soup at one of the company's more than 100 shops in Hong Kong.

After being on the job for a month, the trainee was spotted one day sobbing in the back street outside a Hung Fook Tong shop and questioning why a degree-holder from a top local university should be reduced to delivering herbal jelly to customers.

Szeto, the executive director of Hung Fook Tong, knew exactly how the trainee felt as he too had been there before. But Szeto made a decision: "I told my staff to let him go because even if he came back, he would still feel unhappy about what he was doing. He was too good for me."

Szeto recalled that when he first joined Hung Fook Tong in 1999, he himself felt uneasy and out of place delivering drinks and soup. It was a big change from his previous job as a banker with Ka Wah Bank in Central.

"When asked what I was up to by friends and other folk at that time, I said I was in the health drinks business," he said. "I dared not mention Chinese herbal tea."

Szeto was offered a position at Hung Fook Tong to help modernise the household brand that founders and directors Tse Po-tat, Kwan Wang-yung and Wong Pui-chu launched in 1986. At that time, Szeto himself was facing his own career downturn as he licked his personal investment wounds from the Asian financial crisis. He was on the verge of going bankrupt, so he decided to give the new job a try.

"I had nothing to lose at that time, which was the most difficult," he said. Today he looks back on it as a lesson that would only train and produce "a better me".

"It's like what Hong Kong underwent during Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] in 2003, which left the city in an economic downturn and confidence crisis," he said. "Because of this, Hong Kong knows how to handle Middle East respiratory syndrome."

During the past 16 years with Hung Fook Tong, Szeto has helped grow the company from starting its first shop along an MTR rail line in 2002 to now having about 100 branches around train stations. It also runs about 20 mainland shops, mostly in Shenzhen and Shanghai.

The company reported a net loss of HK$14.2 million last year from a net profit of HK$40.4 million in 2013. The loss stemmed from costs and compensation in relation to preparation of its listing in Hong Kong, according to its latest annual report.

Away from his job as general manager and executive director of Hung Fook Tong, Szeto is chairman of the Society for Rehabilitation. He is also the administrative head and associate professor at Shue Yan University's department of business administration. He graduated from what was then Shue Yan College in 1984 with a diploma in economics.

Prior to joining the company, Szeto was a deputy manager and acting head of the personnel and training department at Ka Wah Bank from 1987 until 1992.

In 2006, he finished a doctoral degree in business administration from Bulacan State University. In 1995, he obtained a doctoral degree in philosophy in education administration from the University of Southern Mississippi.