From a penthouse apartment in the Signature building on Kowloon, just across the harbour from Hong Kong island, it’s easy to get a taste for the scope of Adrian Cheng’s job. This skyline-altering tower is just one of many properties owned by the New World Group in Hong Kong. Part luxury apartments and part hotel, the building sits above K11, an art space meets shopping mall that Cheng launched in 2008. Look down from the window and there’s a harbourside construction site and look across to Hong Kong Island and you’ll see New World Tower, the Hong Kong Convention Center and the Grand Hyatt hotel, all owned by the group. Even some of the buses are under Cheng’s control.
Taking up the reins of any family business can be a daunting thought. But when that business is the behemoth New World Group, one of Hong Kong’s largest companies, the top job is a particularly intimidating task. Yet, for the charismatic and self-assured Adrian Cheng, who inherited the role of group ceo in March 2012, the scale of the operation he manages doesn’t seem to faze him.
“It’s all about how I divide my time,” says the 33-year-old, who, in a dapper polka dot silk dress scarf, a green cotton jacket and yellow trousers, seems more like a gallery director than a property tycoon. “I look after the New World Group and a number of different businesses. It might seem difficult to manage it all but it’s actually quite simple. I have two members of staff who are solely dedicated to managing my schedule.”
Cheng’s approach may be the only way to run a company of New World’s size. Started by his grandfather in 1970 as a property development company, New World now oversees an empire of department stores in Hong Kong and China, a fast-growing international hotel business (including the Rosewood chain), Chow Tai Fook, Asia’s leading jewellery retailer, and a network of roads, power plants and even part of a Hollywood production studio. With global assets totalling over €30bn, it’s no small family business.
Cheng wasn’t groomed as a classic property scion. He spent 10 years in the US studying art and humanities before getting to grips with the finance world at ubs and Goldman Sachs. When he returned to man the Beijing outpost of New World in 2006, he was ready with a fresh approach informed by his years in the art world. “I look for people who are extremely creative who can give me ideas rather than simply execute instructions,” he says, surrounded by a team of similarly well-dressed colleagues.
Art is still clearly a passion. Cheng is keen to talk about his gallery-cum-retail space K11, which has outposts in Hong Kong and Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. This month he is gearing up to open a third site in Shanghai and over the next five years, an additional seven will open. Each one will be eco-friendly and contain a selection of young, independent brands interlaced with artist-in-residence programmes and public art spaces. It’s a pursuit not only close to Cheng’s heart but also one he sees helping the company purse strings. “In 2008, we did a survey of all our VIP customers in Hong Kong and China and the younger ones expressed how tired they were of the region’s retail experience,” he explains. “I believe in supporting local artists and bringing art to the public, so I turned that into software that I can put into a space to give the customers what they are asking for.”
Listening to what the customer wants has paid off: K11’s sales have doubled over the first two years. Everyone on the K11 team, even the executives, is required to spend a few days working in customer service in order to really understand the business. “I don’t care where people come from or what graduate titles they have. The important thing is that your team understands your idea. If they don’t it takes too much time to train them,” says Cheng.
Unlike your usual ceo, Cheng is also a jewellery designer. As creative director of Chow Tai Fook, he’s pushing the boundaries of his family’s traditional jewellery business. Describing the new pieces he designed using classic materials that were recently shown during Paris fashion week gets him animated. Mixing China’s favourite 24-carat gold with rough and fancy cut yellow diamonds in a cuff or a highly polished green and ice jade brooch is what he sees as “revolutionary” in changing global perceptions of traditional Chinese jewellery.
He will soon launch another brand under the New World Residential umbrella to bring the same approach of creativity and commerce into the property business. “It’s important to serve our first-generation customers and also their children and grandchildren. I consider myself a family entrepreneur,” he says. “It’s key to learn from and respect the past and combine it with an understanding of what will move a family firm like ours into a new era.”
01.What time do you like to be at your desk?
Between 09.00 and 09.30.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership – an MBA school or on the job?
I’m not a big supporter of business schools. I believe in apprenticeship.
What’s your management style?
I try to unlock staff’s creativity rather than motivate them. I’m quite versatile – I can be a commander, a counsellor or a babysitter. You have to be all of them at different times.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person or a team?
Do you want to be liked or respected?
I like to be respected. Being respected means you have a vision.
What does your support team look like?
I deal with 30 to 40 people directly a day. Some of the businesses have independent operational teams so I can review progress whenever I need to.
What technology do you carry?
Do you read management books?
No but I read management articles.
Run in the morning? Wine with your lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
None of that.
Key management advice?
Build the right team. If you want to do anything, you may have a vision or value system or network but you need a team who can execute that.