Champion Reit CEO brings a touch of ‘grassroots’ to the tough world of Hong Kong retail
With Ada Wong Ka-ki at its helm, Champion Reit – operator of iconic Langham Place in Mong Kok – has applied her appreciation of the culture prevalent among local youth to help make the bricks-and-mortar mall a trendy and down to earth experience despite the shift to online shopping.
Having worked almost 15 years with Citigroup and JP Morgan’s investment banking arms in New York and Hong Kong, the 36-year-old was passed the torch from Adrian Lee Ching-ming, 64, to become the second woman and one of the youngest CEOs of a real estate investment trust listed in Hong Kong.
While most of her career was spent in the impressive offices of Wall Street, New York, and in Hong Kong’s prime Central district, she shared with the South China Morning Post her youthful affection for wandering around grassroots areas like Kowloon - from Tsim Sha Tsui to Prince Edward.
“When I was young I was always strolling around Mong Kok… I knew all the places in TST, Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Prince Edward,” she said at the event space in Champion Reit’s Three Garden Road prime office building, formerly Citibank Plaza, in Central.
A shopping lover herself, Wong said Langham Place, which she calls “representative of Mong Kok”, planned to welcome more stylish pop up stores that appeal to teenagers and young working professionals, while shunning luxury retailers that were “not too fun to walk into”.
She also talks about the company’s property investment strategies at home and abroad and future growth drivers.
What impact has the city’s ongoing retail downturn, driven partly by dwindling numbers of mainland tourists, had on Langham Place business?
About 80 per cent of the retail sales in Langham Place are generated by local consumption, and the latest downturn is mainly led by sluggish luxury sales. So we keep outperforming the market. The average ticket size of mainland tourist spending in the city has been shrinking despite a recovery in foot traffic – the slight increase in number cannot offset the decrease in spending power.
We added a lot of pop up and boutique stores in the high zone.The cosmetics stores have set up workshops so that customers must visit the stores to enjoy the services. We launched Lego’s first flagship shop in Hong Kong last month. We need to come up with ideas to keep them inside the malls because as long as they are in here we can get them to spend.
Online shopping is gaining popularity. How do you see it affecting traditional shopping malls like Langham Place?
I don’t think online shopping will take the place of shopping at malls. Hong Kong is such a tiny place and teenagers have to find a proper place to date. We don’t have to scramble to boost our foot traffic, but we want them to spend more, not necessarily a larger amount per ticket, but you tend to spend more when purchasing a larger number of items.
Do you have plans to reduce your retail rents given that many street shops in Mong Kok are slashing their rents?
At the moment we don’t have to cut our retail rents. We saw our foot traffic shoot up following the opening of the Lego store. The stores around it all recorded double digit growth in their foot traffic, so in view of such momentum we decided not to make a cut in rent now.
How do you determine the stores to introduce in the shopping mall?
We like stores that cater to youngsters. I try to put myself into a local customer’s shoes and often an idea would pop into my mind [when I am travelling abroad], for instance, ‘Oh wouldn’t it be great if Hong Kong also had such and such a store’.
Is Champion Reit also eyeing overseas property investment opportunities?
We are actively looking for opportunities. Our mandate is a global one but our focus is on Asia. We are looking into more mature markets such as tier one cities China, Singapore, Japan and Australia. We don’t have a very fixed timeline, and we are doing it on a case by case basis.
What sort of criteria do you have when picking an overseas property investment target?
What comes first is the location. If it is an office, the location should be a Central equivalent, and if it is retail it will be a Langham Place equivalent. It ought to have a landmark location. We would not all of a sudden switch to a so-called grade B or C asset.
Do you have plans to accumulate real estate assets in Hong Kong?
It is hard to buy great assets in Hong Kong right now. We can’t rest our success only on the belief that Central office rents will keeping rising or Hong Kong retail will soon recover. We can’t bet on that. So we need the next growth driver. If we want to grow the reit we need to set our sights overseas. We are actively looking for good retail opportunities but there are not very actionable ones in Hong Kong for the time being.
How do you see your career shift from an investment banker to a top corporate executive of a reit company? Are there any advantages that being a woman brings to your work?
It was quite interesting. In the past I was in investment banking and I was engaged in fundraising for the Champion Reit IPO as well as the injection of Langham Place into the company. We have known each other very well and I had covered this stock for many years. When the former CEO Adrian [Lee Ching-ming] considered retiring, he was working on a succession plan and he thought of me.
Investment banking is more about your own deal and your own revenue, but as a corporate executive it is more about the teamwork, when it comes to selecting tenants for example. And we feel the need to foster and maintain a long-term relationship with clients.
For retail, women definitely have advantages. We love shopping, eating out and we do better in spotting fashion trends.