Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Baldwin Ko made a leap into the unknown after a career as a surveyor, but it was a gamble that paid off

It takes something more than hard work and a good business brain to get a start-up off the ground. Also required is a fair amount of courage and blind optimism, especially if you already have a well-established career, including key positions with leading names in the property sector.

But Baldwin Ko, a qualified surveyor with 10 years’ diverse experience, was ready to take the leap. Prompted by a mix of ambition and adventure, he decided on a complete change of direction, first finding a way into the chocolate business and subsequently branching out into catering and restaurants, bringing new dining and retail concepts to different neighbourhoods around Hong Kong.

Now managing director of MRB Group, he readily admits that the constant round of challenges – and keeping all the balls in the air – means he can seldom rest easy. But what also shines through is the deep-seated sense of achievement that comes from turning hopeful ideas into concrete plans and successful businesses, and from creating jobs that support local families.

“It has been a very interesting journey,” says Ko, who started out as a management trainee with Swire Properties in 1996 after completing a master’s degree in real estate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. In due course, he came to specialise in commercial real estate, dealing in particular with the tenants of Pacific Place and Festival Walk. That gave him behind-the-scenes insights into the average revenues and monthly turnover of different types of retailer, including confectioners, and later provided a springboard for the move to a more analytical role at AIG Global Real Estate Investments.

Though tested, Ko gradually felt a need to do something more entrepreneurial. So, acting on a hard-to-explain inspiration, he started to conduct detailed research in his spare time into the business of luxury chocolates. On holidays to Europe, he scouted out possible partners and compiled a detailed shortlist of those likely to be well received in brand-conscious Hong Kong.

That led to productive talks with French fashion label agnès b. and, in 2007, the granting a licence to create an upmarket line of chocolates under its umbrella.

“I told them I was willing to give up my job to ensure the new retail venture was a success,” Ko says. “I’d done three years’ research and showed them my papers and projections, emphasising the aspects of gift-giving and lifestyle.”

The business basis was a 50/50 joint venture, with Ko putting up “a couple of million” Hong Kong dollars as his share of the initial investment. He hired an experienced chocolatier from a local five-star hotel and opened the first Delices store in Causeway Bay’s Paterson Street, where it proved an almost instant hit.

The plan was to have stand-alone stores along with shop-in-shop outlets and, over the next five years, steady expansion saw a total of 23 “chocolate boutiques” opened in Hong Kong and Taipei.

“After a while, landlords were coming to me with proposals,” Ko says. “My role became more focused on business development and working with the chocolatier on new flavours, but it also included work on design and packaging, sourcing ingredients from France, and keeping a close eye on production quality.”

When the licensing agreement with agnès b. came to its natural – and foreseen – conclusion in 2013, Ko took it as a spur to action and moved quickly to set up MRB Group. The aim this time was to explore different dining and retail options as owner, operator or on a franchise basis.

The last four years have seen a number of new names popping up around Hong Kong, targeting different tastes and market segments. So far, these include Italian dessert bar 2/3 Dolci; a premium food truck concept, the Lobintan, in Festival Walk; and Bread & Bistro, a Japanese-style bakery-cafe in Wong Chuk Hang, which is popular with local office workers.

“I was never a ‘chocolate’ or ‘food’ person,” Ko says. “I always saw it as a business.”

Admittedly, the current climate and, in particular, high rentals which are “killing” can make it a challenge to break even in each location all the time, but Ko remains undaunted.

“I’m not limiting myself to F&B,” he says. “I have a lot on the go already, but with the right help, I would like to try something in the digital world. In a sense, I’m living a childhood dream. My father worked for Hongkong Electric for 35 years and was a successful corporate person, but when I was young I told him I wanted to start my own business, so I was happy to quit a stable job. There have been ups and downs, but I have no regrets.”


(Photo: Lau Wai)


This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Catering for all.