How City’superman Masaaki Ogino brought some of the world’s biggest brands to Hong Kong
Fenix Group Holdings chairman got on the path to success by turning an early career setback to his advantage
Getting any business off the ground takes planning, determination, financing and sheer hard work. But before any of that comes the ability to spot good opportunities. In a near 50-year career in Hong Kong, Japanese-born Masaaki Ogino has proved himself a grand master of that particular art. In doing so, the chairman of Fenix Group Holdings has moved with the times, shifting from supplying yarn for knitwear factories to being an astute entrepreneur and a leading player in the local retail sector.
As the inspiration and driving force behind stores such as City’super, Anteprima, Marimekko and Cocktail, he has also brought overseas brands to Hong Kong and, at all times, focused on providing quality and ensuring he understands customers’ needs and aspirations.
Along the way, Ogino has built a considerable business empire. But in typically modest style, he is quick to share the credit with others, from his wife – especially for her help in launching Italian fashion brand Prada in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s – to his long-term business partner Anthony Keung, and generations of loyal and dedicated colleagues.
“I look back with a touch of nostalgia on the good old days, for instance hiring an argumentative 18-year-old messenger boy who is now CEO of the group,” Ogino says, who while still chairman, has taken a step back from close involvement in day-to-day operations. “But there is also a lot to look forward to.”
His Hong Kong story goes all the way back to 1966, when he first arrived as the branch office manager of a small textile supplier based in Osaka. The mission was to sell knitting yarns to sweater manufacturers and, for four years, things seemed to be going well. There was intense competition with other suppliers, but the customer base had grown, a good team was in place, and profits were creeping up.
Then, out of the blue, Ogino was summoned back to headquarters and informed he had to close the Hong Kong office and dismiss all the staff. “It was like thunder on a sunny day,” he says. “Even now, I don’t understand the reasons. I had been thinking about ways to develop the business on a much bigger scale and move into different categories – maybe to open branch offices in the Middle East and Africa to sell Hong Kong and Japanese exports to less-developed countries.”
However, while hoping for explanations and waiting for a new assignment – presumably back in Japan – an idea formed: why not take over what head office no longer wanted and ask the existing staff and customers to stay on? Backed up by an offer to forfeit his lump-sum severance entitlement, the “buyout” plan was put to the company and accepted.
“Until then, I was the sort of person who never thought of changing career path, becoming independent or being an entrepreneur – all these things were not for me,” Ogino says. “In this, I was very much influenced by my father, who suffered financial disaster after leaving a company and trying to start something by himself. He always said: ‘If you get a job with a good company, stay there for life.’ But at the time I thought: ‘I have already been running this business for the past few years, why not take the chance?’ And I could see instantly that it would work.”
However, despite the resolve and optimism, the initial period was anything but plain sailing. Fashions were changing rapidly and factories in Hong Kong wanted the acrylic yarns produced by three or four big Japanese companies, not what Ogino was used to supplying from smaller mills. For a while, everything was a real struggle.
The turning point came with a stroke of luck. One day, while flicking through Hong Kong Enterprise, a magazine primarily advertising factories, suppliers, products and services that might interest overseas buyers, he spotted an inquiry from a French yarn mill looking to expand sales in Asia. An expression of interest led to two boxes of samples, together with colour cards and price lists – and a corner was turned.
“In two months, we were able to sell almost US$1 million worth of French yarn and I got to keep 5 per cent, which at the time was a lot of money,” Ogino says.
That bonanza was relatively short-lived, but he was now able to develop a range of other ventures. One was supplying fine woollen fabrics for English-style tailoring. Another was the export of plastic goods and the hands of watches. A third, in the 10 years from the mid-1970s, was to open a factory and become the biggest supplier of knitwear to Japan. And a fourth was securing a contract in 1986 to open a first Prada store in the Peninsula Hotel.
“Almost no one in Hong Kong knew this name, but my wife was so confident it would be a success that she acted not only as store manager at the start, but also as spokeswoman for the brand,” Ogino says.
In due course, the agreement expired, but in terms of process and standards, it paved the way for other fashion chains to expand in Asia. “In starting any new business, it is very important to do something others are not,” Ogino says. “When the idea of City’super was brought to us, we didn’t wonder at all and, with our partners, agreed to go for it in three days.”
Masaaki Ogino shares five tips to finding success as an entrepreneur
Be honest “You don’t need a ‘fancy’ idea to get rich or become successful. The only thing you have to do is be very honest in your approach and get the basics right.”
Prioritise the customer “In any business, you have to consider how you look from the customer’s point of view. Even the smallest things matter, like making sure the mat is positioned correctly in front of the door or that there is no dust on the floor.”
Take the plunge “Today, I am trying to assist young people who want to be entrepreneurs, but I can’t see many who are really prepared to ‘go for it’.”
Be your own person “When I started out in the 1960s, everyone – no matter their nationality – seemed to be talking about how one day they were going to make it on their own.”
From small beginnings “I did recently help a 40-year-old set up a 160 sq ft shop selling soft ice cream. It opened last December and, so far, the sales have been fantastic.”