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Scion of the times

Published on Friday, 23 May 2014
Howard Chao
Photo: Gary Mak

Cheuk Nang executive director Howard Chao has learned that being the boss’s son only gets you so far and it is essential to earn the respect of staff

One might expect the second child of colourful property tycoon Cecil Chao to have interned in the family conglomerate, or use his father’s contacts to land a coveted management training position in a big firm. For Howard Chao, executive director of Cheuk Nang (Holdings), however, his early work experience occurred in a tutorial centre and as a bank teller.

“My father is a very tough person,” he says. “When I was studying in the US, I had a lot of part-time jobs because other than studying, he wanted me to be just like anyone else – to have [work] as well as academic experience. So I’ve worked as a bank teller, a tutor in a class of 25 grade 3-11 children, and as a travel agent.”

After graduating with a degree in business management from California State University, Fullerton, Chao applied for investment banking positions. But it was a deep conversation with his father that set him on his career course. “He said, ‘Son, dad is getting old. If I still have the energy and am still capable, I’ll teach you more things that I experienced.’ So I thought maybe going back to help the family was an option.”

Chao joined the family business in January 2006. “It was then that I discovered my interest in real estate, because it’s very much an all-round discipline. There is a lot of variation involved: marketing, planning, engineering, architecture and design.” His interest prompted him to study a master’s degree in real estate from the UK’s University of Greenwich.

Chao’s role in the leasing and sales department saw him cover the mainland’s burgeoning property market. “Back in 2007, before the Olympics, I spent a lot of time there pitching projects,” he says. “That is the year I learned the most.”

His knack of putting strangers at ease proved an asset in the mainland, where he says the mentality towards business is very different. “I like meeting people. The first thing [people should do when meeting people] is drop their pride. Don’t say, ‘I’m from Hong Kong,’ thinking you’re better; you’re not. Take it as a different culture; understand them. This is very important. I saw a lot of people fail in China because they did things the Hong Kong way. You have to understand how business works there, how to set up a company and run it. The way you manage these people is completely different,” he says.

“You can sit in a meeting for two hours making small talk and doing nothing productive. To [mainlanders], a meeting is more like a way to understand each other. It’s about building trust. If they want to get down to business with you, the first thing they want to know is your personality and your background.”

Being Cecil Chao’s son, though, means people often view him through tinted glasses. “Of course they see me differently, both good and bad,” he says. “I would be lying if I said no. But I just be myself because no matter what you do, you’ll never please everyone. Take action on what you believe in and what you think is right.”

He says that if he could go back in time, he would do things differently. “I would spend a little longer working somewhere else. That’s very important because people will respect you more. I had a hard time when I first came back here to manage my staff, because they could see I was just the boss’s son. But as time passes, with achievement, people start to respect you,” he says.

Despite the recent media glare surrounding his father’s HK$1 billion offer to the man who could win the heart of his lesbian daughter – Howard’s sister Gigi – Chao does not see his family as a burden. “You don’t have a choice. The thing is how you manage it,” he says. “How are you going to make it beneficial to what you’re doing and minimise the damage that may hurt you?”

Chao instead tries to use his name to do good and make positive change, such as through charity. He is working on a project to provide a channel for artists and photographers to promote their work. His passion is interior design and he has set up his own property consulting firm, but insists on not putting high price tags on good designs.

“I believe in affordable interior design. In Hong Kong today, if you talk about interior design and construction, a lot of [designers] are very unreasonable,” he says, explaining he finds it disappointing that many interior designers, having become famous, are too business-orientated and less hands-on.

“Design should be something the clients want,” he says. “If you put your name on that paper, then you should be responsible for it. Everything should be your masterpiece.”

Already the father of a two-year old son, Chao likes mingling with people older than him. “I’m far more mature than [my age]. You are who you hang out with. My friends are in their 40s. I’m the youngest one. I love talking to them because you learn more. They’re experienced and the way they think is more practical,” he says.

He is especially grateful to two mentors. “When I first came back after graduation, I knew absolutely nothing about construction. So luckily I got two mentors, one of whom used to work here. He’s an architect and taught me a lot about architecture, construction and design. The other mentor, whom I met through work, is more on the property-marketing side. [Now] I understand how the tricks work.”

Chao says that working in real estate requires knowing the business inside out. “It’s good to start at the bottom and know all the procedures. In future, you can delegate but you still have to know. In real estate especially, there are too many grey areas – construction, design – and people can do all kinds of dirty work. If you don’t understand it, they can play a lot of tricks,” he says.

He adds that working in a tutor centre at 19 years old and managing a group of easily distracted children gave him invaluable experience for when he started working with some of his young employees. “You have to find a way to communicate with them, especially the post-’90s [generation]. If you tell them, ‘Hey, this is what you’re going to do’, they won’t be interested. So you have to find their language or something they are interested in and start a conversation they will want to listen to. This is very important because adults are like kids sometimes.”

He believes success doesn’t come by default and advises other scions of prominent families not to take things for granted. “This is especially true of second-generation people like us because no matter how famous you are, at the end of the day if you don’t have the knowledge and experience to run [a business] when the baton is passed to you, you can’t manage and people take advantage of you.” 

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