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Career AdviceSuccessful High flyers’ story

Staying in print

Published on Saturday, 03 Aug 2019

As head of one of Asia’s largest printing firms and children’s book manufacturers, Matthew Yum is buzzing with ideas for new lines and further expansion.

His empire already includes manufacturing facilities in seven locations spanning Hong Kong, mainland China and Vietnam. But a new packaging facility in Hanoi, to be commissioned by the end of this year, and an in-house innovation centre, which is launching a series of “print plus digital” products and integrating the latest design and technology features, will help to boost sales and ensure the company remains competitive in an era of fast-paced change.

“Twenty years ago, the business environment was relatively steady; the system was set up and could almost run automatically,” says the executive chairman of Hung Hing Printing Group. “But nowadays, there is no such luxury. The world is changing so fast with new technologies that we need to adapt to survive. That means changing not just the business model and machinery, but also the mindset of the team and the leadership style. Whatever we are able to achieve is a group effort and, for that, we have to keep looking for opportunities to grow in size and to do things in a better or smarter way.”

Allowing for some seasonal variation, the Tai Po-based firm has a core workforce of about 9,000 along with 10 dedicated sales offices around the world. Roughly 70 per cent of the business is export-oriented, but domestic sales have also been increasing in mainland China. And while longstanding staples like printing books, manufacturing corrugated boxes, and consumer product packaging are still important, diversification into new areas continues to gather pace.

In one respect, this has seen the adoption of green technologies with things like soy ink, recycled paper, solar power, and a greater emphasis on energy efficiency throughout the manufacturing process. In another, it has inspired a move into fashion-linked stationery, toy development, funding start-ups, the acquisition of stakes in related international firms, and more focus on understanding what helps kids learn best.

“We know which directions we want to go in, but have to come with ideas to make it happen,” Yum says. “That means adding new talent and expertise and realising the team cannot think in the same way as five years ago. For me, it means staying on top of the existing business and being involved in the big new projects. I want to contribute my experience, find inspiration from meeting all different types of people, and show that flexibility and continuous innovation are essential to sustainable, long-term growth.”

While looking ahead, though, Yum never forgets where it all started and just how far the firm has come. His father founded the company back in 1950, starting out as a small printing works on a site in Central opposite PMQ. The early orders were for name cards, letterheads and invoice forms, with the time-tested combination of hard work and opportunism gradually leading to bigger things.

“I grew up in typical Hong Kong family business environment helping out at weekends and in the summer; I had no choice,” says Yum. “On normal Sunday mornings, we would do assembly work in the factory, perhaps making up packs of paper money for board games, then go for lunch in a teahouse and for a swim in Deep Water Bay. Later on, I did manual labour in the warehouse, operating forklift trucks and making deliveries. I learned that when there is work to be done, there are expectations. And, in business, nothing is given, you have to earn it.”

Yum’s father had come to Hong Kong in 1946 from a farming village near Jiangmen. Aged 15, he had just one year of formal education, but was naturally smart and was spurred by the need to provide for a widowed mother and two sisters. He found work with a retailer selling stationery and fountain pens, but quit after two months to become an apprentice in a printing shop in the hope of acquiring more practical skills. By the age of 20, he had his own business where he put in 20-hour days, first going out to secure orders and, after dinner, taking over from the machine operator to ensure they were completed.

“He would run six printing machines at a time,” Yum says. “My mother, who friends introduced and who came from a nearby village, would feed in the paper. They had a determination to succeed and put in a lot of effort to grow the business.”

Expansion saw subsequent moves to premises in Shelley Street, Hollywood Road, Kennedy Town and Aberdeen. And as the Hong Kong economy evolved, the emphasis switched to packaging, shipping cartons and paper trading. It was clear, though, that the basic management system was becoming overstretched, so on his return from the University of Toronto in 1983, with an applied science degree in industrial engineering and an MBA in marketing and finance, Yum stepped forward.

“I wanted to see the world, but felt my destiny was to be in the family business,” he says. “I had witnessed the hard work my father put in and wanted to build on this foundation. We did have disagreements, but he would bear with me, the way I do with my two sons and my daughter who are now working in the business.”

Inevitably, there were ups and downs. For instance, in 1984, a fire in a neighbouring unit in Aberdeen caused a six-week shutdown, but ultimately meant more space was available for expansion. A new plant in Tai Po opened in 1988, a stock market listing followed four years later, cheap land and labour in China opened a new frontier, but the fallout of the global financial crisis necessitated a restructuring.

“There were some tough times, but we got through,” Yum says. “A bad turn can have a positive outcome depending on your attitude and the understanding that teamwork is about compromise and giving people a chance.”