Success on show: Lawrence Chia on the evolution of family business Pico Far East Holdings
When eight-year-old Lawrence Chia was called in to do odd jobs at his elder brother’s fledgling commercial art business, he never dreamed of where it would lead.
As the eighth of 10 siblings in late 1960s Singapore, he intuitively knew the importance of pulling together as a family to make ends meet, help the business grow and steadily improve the circumstances of all those involved, and so he was ready to pitch in accordingly.
Now, as chairman of Hong Kong-listed branding and events company Pico Far East Holdings, he can look back with pride and satisfaction on each phase of the company’s journey. It has seen the company evolve into a leading player in the world of trade shows and exhibition services, with ambitious plans for further expansion in areas like brand activation and marketing. It has led to involvement with theme parks, including Shanghai Disneyland and tie-in projects for high-profile events such as Singapore’s 50th anniversary and Rio’s 2016 Summer Olympics.
It has also shown how, with hard work, dedication, foresight and a certain amount of good fortune, it is possible to turn a small start-up on a shoestring budget into a 2,500-strong organisation with an impressive track record and a presence in 30-plus cities around the world.
“I really got into the business because of a promise and an obligation to my brother, who trained as a commercial artist,” says Chia, who still vividly recalls the early days of hand-painting cinema posters, hoardings, ads on buses, and lettering for signage. “From the start, I worked for him after school and in the holidays, washing glasses and brushes, before moving on to base painting and doing some window displays for small offices,” Chia says. “There was no pay except lunch, but I enjoyed it and, all the time, was learning and developing more of an interest.
Later, in 1981, he loaned me some money to study in the US – and another brother came to the graduation ceremony with a one-way ticket home for me. There was a big project on and they needed my help.”
Holding a BSc in business administration from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Chia understandably had good job offers from blue-chip companies in North America. But returning to Singapore to help the firm’s transition into exhibition-related work – building booths, designing displays, and boosting international sales – was always going to win out.
A 30-month stint of compulsory military service, which included training NCOs and work on the nation’s air defence system, had further instilled that sense of duty. Along the way, it also provided many vital lessons in leadership.
“When commissioned as an officer, I was given a lot of responsibility for managing people and budgets, and the experience changed my outlook,” he says. “Before, I had always been ‘streamed’ into engineering subjects, but afterwards I was more interested in management and wanted to go to business school. If you study something you like and are passionate about, it’s a lot easier.”
Full time with the firm, he once again started from the bottom, working in the storeroom and warehouse before rotating through other departments in learning to be an executive. The first of a series of international assignments came in 1985 with a posting to mainland China. The country was just opening up and, with the advantage of fluent Putonghua, Chia played a key role in setting up groundbreaking motor and telecom shows. This led to a significant market share in Beijing and Shanghai plus an expanding portfolio of big-name clients keen to establish themselves in China, until the call came to transfer to London.
“In the beginning, it was tough there because I had to solve problems and turn the business around, which effectively meant starting from zero,” says Chia , whose father left school aged 12 to support his family by selling vegetables and, later on, worked as a minibus driver. “I found it was all about attitude, learning to adapt, understanding the culture, and seeing what it takes to become profitable.”
Similar roles in Germany and the US then followed before he was asked to take charge in Hong Kong in 1994. The company’s North Asia operations had been listed locally two years earlier, but the challenge was to restructure, inject privately held assets into the listed entity, and tap into new opportunities in China. Along with the essentials of opening offices, recruiting, and building new relationships, that has meant anticipating what the market will expect two or three years ahead.
“I always saw the need for innovation, so we were not just confined to the ‘box’ of trade shows and exhibitions,” Chia says. “For example, in providing 360-degree services, we now do a lot more with 3D technology, social media and the internet, which can be more important than a booth or display in conveying your customer’s message.
“We must constantly adapt to find the next ‘destination’ strategy for our business and be the ones who build it. That’s why, five years ago, we also positioned ourselves as a brand activation company, bringing in new services like content technology and PR, showing customers what they may need and providing it.”
Though never able to switch off completely, Chia makes a point of getting involved in church activities and getting away on family holidays to ski, golf or scuba dive.
Chia believes that in running the business it is essential to see things with your own eyes and meet people on the ground. “That way, you can sense the mood and atmosphere, see if people care about small details, and detect if something isn’t right.”
ENSURING AN EVENTFUL CAREER
Lawrence Chia gives advice on how to soar in professional life
Stick with it “I always advise young graduates not to hop around, but to commit to one particular path. Otherwise, you are always starting over and not giving yourself a chance to build knowledge and acquire useful experience.”
Follow your heart “Aim to find a job you can be passionate about – you can be born with it or develop it. If you just think about the money, you will find that remuneration alone won’t sustain you through the stress and the more difficult times.”
Do your homework. “In general, the more you learn about a job or industry, the more you will learn to like it.”
Think ahead “At the outset, it is vital to have discipline and to present yourself well. In interviews, some young people state their expectations about the role or remuneration package. But they should focus more on what they want to achieve in the next three to five years and be more organised in expressing their views – not all over the place.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Success on show.