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Getting fired up

Published on Monday, 23 Jun 2014
Allen Ma
Photo: Berton Chang

HKSTPC CEO Allen Ma wants to give HK the spark to turn it into a world technology capital

When it comes to Hong Kong’s young people, Allen Ma Kam-sing would change what the late Steve Jobs said in a speech at Stanford University in 2005 from “Stay hungry. Stay foolish” to “Stay hungry. Stay curious”. This, he says, is the attitude needed to build the city into a world-class innovation and technology hub.

 
“Our students are not hungry or curious enough. We need to do something to put the fire back into them,” says Ma, CEO of Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTPC). “Children in Hong Kong families today don’t have passion and they’re not hard-working enough. I think parents bear a lot of responsibility.”
 
This is one of the reasons why HKSTPC organises regular activities for children – something Ma says is just as important as providing infrastructure and support facilities for Hong Kong industries and services, and incubation programmes for technology start-ups.
 
“We want to inspire the young generation,” he says. “We want to make them think of questions like: why are trees green? Why can we breathe effortlessly? Nature teaches us many things if we look around and think about what we see.”
 
He explains that such an attitude opens a journey of unlimited potential, as he himself has experienced during his 30-year career in the information and communications technology sector. Before taking up the role at HKSTPC in July 2013, Ma – an MBA graduate from the University of Toronto and a UK-qualified chartered accountant – had already worked with a number of multinational corporations, including British Telecom, Motorola and Cable & Wireless Hong Kong Telecom.
 
He says that in every role, he was presented with a problem at a critical point in the business, but his hunger to find solutions took him through each time.
 
“In 1993, I was invited to lead the customer service department at Hong Kong Telecom,” Ma says. “We knew that in two years’ time the government would deregulate the company’s franchise and open up telephone lines to the market. My task was to ensure our customers stayed with us.”
 
Heading a team of 6,000 people used to working for a monopoly, Ma knew he had to change their mindset to stay competitive. “I remember teaching them how to spell the word ‘customer’, because in those days we called customers ‘subscribers’. Putting customers first was a totally new concept for them.” When the deregulation took place, Ma says the company was able to maintain its customer base above 90 per cent.
 
Later he was asked to lead a team in devising a strategy for the company’s mobile business to prepare for more competition. “At the time, there were only five mobile licences in the market and we were the biggest provider,” he says. “But the government was going to issue six more licences. So I gathered my team and discussed all possible ideas. Everyone was highly motivated to solve the problem.”
 
Instead of entering a price war with other competitors, Ma and his team developed a new mobile brand tailor-made to appeal to a new group of customers, with an additional focus on service quality. “In the end, we continued to be the biggest and most profitable company. We also gained a good reputation in the industry … by coming up with our innovative strategy,” he says.
 
While motivation is important for success, he says, being able to spot the right time to do things is also critical to building a business. “Timing is everything. You won’t succeed if you are too early or too late. That’s why you need to be aware of what’s happening and to spot the coming trends.”
 
Ma ensures he stays tuned into world mega trends. He believes there have been three particularly important trends that have affected his career: digital networks facilitating the transmission of large quantities of data in the 1980s, the more recent ageing population and the rising middle class.
 
“Whenever there is a growing trend, there are implications on the kind of services and products needed in the market,” he says. “The ageing population, for example, will see the introduction of more medical services, health-care equipment and drug development because there is a need to maintain the quality of life for the elderly. The rise of affluent middle-class people, like the mainland tourists we see, will mean a lot of opportunities for the tourism industry and upscale markets.”
 
Those who can see these trends before others, and time things well within the business cycle, will make the important breaks, he says.
 
To raise the profile of Hong Kong as a leader in innovation and technology, Ma thinks it is vital for the government to formulate new policies. He was pleased when chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his 2014 policy address that Hong Kong would relaunch plans to establish an Innovation and Technology Bureau.
 
“I hope this new bureau will play an important role in creating an environment conducive to the development of innovation and technology,” he says. “I hope to see more diversity in our economy, rather than the emphasis on finance now. And I hope the policy will [help] attract more students to consider taking up engineering science at university again.”
 
He mentions a 2013 article in Forbes magazine which said Hong Kong was the top tech capital to watch after Silicon Valley and New York. “People outside Hong Kong are optimistic about our future in the area,” he says. “We could be the next Silicon Valley. We have the best infrastructure and the best IT services. We have support from the government. The real ‘stuff’ is here. The part that’s missing is people. We need to develop talent in the field and stimulate young people to take up the path.”
 

 
MANY MINDS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
 
In an era where connectivity is everything, the ability to learn from others is a great asset. Allen Ma offers some tips on getting the most from fellow business people.
 
Play the circuit  “Socialise with people on a regular basis. Show up at business events, gatherings and happy hours. Remember to bring your name cards and establish contacts.”
 
Mabel Sieh 
 
Seek new perspectives  “Talk to people in different industries. Cross-platform communication helps you see a problem in a different light. You will be surprised at the different solutions to the same problem offered by people from different walks of life.”
 
Get involved  “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and offer suggestions. Be open and brave in your interactions with others.”
 
Open up to learning  “Believe that everyone has something to teach you. Someone young can inspire you with their passion, while an experienced executive can be your best mentor.”
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