The secret to successful flat sales in Hong Kong? Be crazy

Cheung Kong's executive director Justin Chiu Kwok-hung was a hit with his costumes at sales events, now he lets his staff run with their ideas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 4:02am

What do James Bond, Elvis Presley and an Arab sheikh have in common? Justin Chiu Kwok-hung.

The Cheung Kong (Holdings) executive director single-handedly made the city's property launch events more colourful and fun in the early 2000s, dressing up as these characters and attracting both media coverage and buyer interest.

Now a mellow 62, Chiu these days tends to take the back seat in project launches, giving his staff a free hand to host the shows.

"This is the management philosophy of Cheung Kong. My boss [Victor Li Tzar-kuoi] gives me a free hand in marketing our properties, and I give my subordinates a free hand," he said.

Chiu graduated from Trent University in Ontario, Canada, in 1978, with a degree in sociology and economics. After a four-year stint at Sino Land and 15 years at Hang Lung Group, he joined Cheung Kong in 1997, starting with retail, commercial leasing and property management, before being put in charge of property sales in 2000.

He currently also chairs four listed real estate investment trusts - Prosperity Reit, Fortune Reit, ARA and Suntec Reit - in Hong Kong and Singapore, all of which are controlled by Cheung Kong.

As his job responsibilities have increased, the man who likes to describe himself as "crazy" and "young at heart", has given up many of his passions, like motorcycling, but refuses to give up one: swimming.

In an interview with the Post, Chiu discussed the property market, Cheung Kong's marketing strategy, his philosophy and retirement plans. Here are some excerpts:


How do you rate the sales team at Cheung Kong?

I was promoted to executive director in 2000 and then took over the sales team when former director Katherine Hung Siu-lin retired. Hung trained up a group of young and solid sales managers such as Francis Wong Si-chung and William Kwok Chi-wai, both of whom are now real estate directors at Cheung Kong. The team is now about 150-strong. I am a bit older than the rest, but I am still young at heart. We function well as a team.


What was the driving force behind those creative marketing ideas during the 2000s?

In 2002-2004, the property market slowed down and gloom set in. What we had to do was make ourselves the talk of the town, we wanted attention. That's very important in marketing.

In the beginning, I tried to use Mao Zedong's poems to market our projects. That got attention all right, but the problem was that we failed to get any pictures in newspapers. That was when I hit upon the idea of fancy-dress campaigns. I asked Francis to dress up as James Bond, but he refused. So I did it. That set a trend.

I haven't worn much fancy dress since 2007 as the rest of the team had by then picked up the art of innovative launches and could handle such events all by themselves. I gave them a free hand.

It's difficult to quantify the effectiveness of these marketing strategies, but it is a fact that we consistently beat our rivals with our campaigns. We ranked No1 among developers in terms of annual property sales in 2002, 2003 and 2004. In 2003, we sold more than our three rivals put together.


What is your management philosophy?

I did not bring anybody with me from my previous company when I took over the team. I kept the existing team, I believed in them and built up trust with them. I give them a free hand. As the department head, I take responsibility if anything goes wrong. As long as I can afford the consequences that the ideas will cause, I will let them go ahead. But I will disapprove of any idea if I cannot afford the consequences - like getting me sacked [he chuckles].

I accept new and crazy ideas. But sometimes their ideas are more conservative than mine. When I say crazy, I mean creative and innovative, of course.

Freedom is our company culture. My boss Victor Li Tzar-kuoi allowed me to do what I wanted, I do the same with my staff. There were some noises in the company when I proposed dressing up like James Bond but Victor Li gave me the go-ahead. He gave me a free hand as long as sales improved. If I were not in Cheung Kong, I probably couldn't have carried out those crazy marketing ideas.


How do you come up with these crazy ideas?

Basically I am a crazy person.


What's your view of the Hong Kong property market?

Hong Kong has become a global market. When things went bad in 1982, it was difficult for developers, ditto in 1997. This was because at the time, mainland capital was not allowed to come to Hong Kong. But the property market recovered much faster after the 2008 crash thanks to mainland money. After the Lunar New Year in February, we will get a clearer picture of whether the new buyer's stamp duty [a 15 per cent tax announced in October for corporate and non-local buyers] is affecting mainland buyers.


Any retirement plans?

I am not going to retire in the near future. But when I do, I have my own set of do's and don'ts: do not pick a place that has a nice scenery but nothing to do. Some of my classmates and friends who went to Vancouver for retirement were bored to death, literally. They died soon after they retired. When I retire, I will probably live in Hong Kong for a month, a month in Dubai and a month in Shanghai.