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Living on the edge

Published on Friday, 10 Jan 2014
Bernard Chan
Photo: Dickson Lee

Asia Financial scion Bernard Chan focuses on what he’s good at

For many people, success is built on years of vigorous planning and preparation. For Bernard Chan – non-official member of the Executive Council, president of Asia Financial Holdings and grandson of Bangkok Bank founder Chin Sophonpanich – he prefers to see where his life takes him instead of planning too far ahead.

Going to art school, working in insurance and getting into politics were never in Chan’s plans, yet whatever challenge he finds himself faced with, he manages to find his way through.

After finishing secondary school in Hong Kong, Chan went to the US to pursue a degree in economics. Everything was going well when Chan’s body suddenly gave up on him. “In the first three years of college, I was really sick,” he says. “I was too ill to attend classes, so I started earning credits from taking art subjects because those classes did not require me to attend lessons. I only needed to hand in coursework.”

As Chan learned more about art, the more he fell in love with it. He ended up graduating from university with a degree in fine arts. “If I had not been ill, I think my parents would not accept me graduating with a degree in fine arts,” he says. “Art turned out to be one of the greatest things that happened to me. It inspires me to think out of the box and this is a mentality that has helped me in my career, in life, in business and in politics.”

One life lesson that Chan learned from art is the importance of finding one’s competitive edge. “When I was in art school, every classmate had their specialty – painting, sculpture and so on,” he says. “If I competed with them in those areas I was at a disadvantage, so I came up with my own style of painting – pointillism – for my graduation project. Finding my competitive edge is my approach towards competing in the business world.”

It was this lesson that in 2006 helped him make the hard, yet logical, decision to sell the banking part of Asia Financial, his family’s business. “I made the decision because I saw that I had no competitive edge in the sector,” he says. “Banking is ultra-competitive, so I decided to move on to sectors in which I could thrive.”

One of these is likely to be health care. Chan’s family has spent many years in Thailand running private hospitals, a sector that remains underdeveloped in Hong Kong and China.

“With the ageing population and people’s higher awareness of health and wellness, health care will be my focus in the future,” he says. “Imagine the demand for health-care and wellness services that will come in the next few decades as the ageing population surges. My competitive edge is that I have family in Thailand who are experienced in running private hospitals.

“Education is another competitive edge for me. Local demand for education is sky high and my family has experience in running international schools in Thailand. Following the same concept, when I am developing my business in Thailand, I am involved in property development. In Hong Kong I lack the financial muscle to be a developer, but I can do it in Thailand.”

Returning to the earlier part of his career, after graduation Chan worked in the US for a couple of years before returning to Hong Kong to help look after his family’s business. In 1995, however, he embarked on a career in insurance – another move that he did not see coming. “My father told me to develop a business in insurance,” he says. “I was reluctant because all along I wanted to be a banker, but I had to do it because it was in the interest of the family business.”

Once again, the unexpected move turned out to be a good one. In 1997, at just 33, Chan was elected as a functional constituency member of the Legislative Council representing the insurance sector. “At that time, a number of international insurance firms had candidates in the election, but there was nobody from local firms,” he says. “There were voices among the sector asking my boss to be a candidate. But he said he was too old to participate, so instead he recommended me to join the election.”

Chan describes his election victory as lucky because he thinks he did not stand out compared to his competitors. “To begin with, I knew very little about insurance and I knew nothing about politics,” he says. “I was really lucky because back in 1997, Hong Kong people did not pay attention to politics. My rivals were also not seasoned politicians, so in that aspect I was not falling too much behind.”

Chan spent more than 10 years in the Legislative Council, leaving in 2008. He later became a member of the Executive Council in 2012. His experience has made him think that Hong Kong needs to be more than a one-trick pony with its economic development.

“No doubt, finance is our main pillar, but it is super competitive,” he says. “There is a need for the city’s economy to be more diverse. Besides health care and education, I see huge gaps in the construction sector and [the market for] funeral services,” he says.

Regarding the building of funeral facilities, Chan is disappointed by the selfishness of Hong Kong people. “People living in every district refused to have funeral-related facilities built near them, but facilities need to be built,” he says. “People need to think of the big picture. Society needs to have a respectful place for the dead to rest in peace.”

For career advice, Chan calls for people to have a long-term vision. “Finance may have a rosy outlook, but it can be short-lived,” he says. “A bank manager, which is widely considered a respectable job, gets around HK$40,000 a month. On a construction site, a safety officer earns the same amount and does not have to meet quotas or make cold calls.

“People need to be more long-sighted. Today, health-care workers’ pay is not considered high, but as the demand grows it will increase. The demand will not come tomorrow or next year, but it will come. You can be successful if you are able to gain that competitive edge when the time comes.” 


Bernard Chan explains what he thinks the city must achieve soon

Political peace “I hope the central government and the democrats will compromise on universal suffrage. Unlike in business, there is no winner takes all. Every party needs to give up something in order to gain something.”
Successful succession “There will be enough political talent to take over this generation of politicians that will retire soon.”
Sino synergy “Hong Kongers will have a better understanding about their role regarding the development of the mainland. Hong Kong and the mainland are dependent on one another – we have to find our competitive edge.”
Harmony at home “We need to improve quality of life – like the environment, education and food safety – to attract talent from around the globe.”
Respectful rest “We also need to improve the quality of funeral-related services. Hong Kong is a world-class city in many aspects, but the quality of these services is
no better than a third-world country. People need to be more open minded.”

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