Alan Lo's eclectic background is a driving force behind the Press Room Group, writes Andrea Zavadszky.
You would be hard-pressed to find a common denominator between battery manufacturing, architecture and the food and beverage industry. However, for Alan Lo, co-founder of the Press Room Group of restaurants, these different strands are nicely woven together in supporting his successful career.
A scion of the Lo family - well known in the region for battery manufacturer Gold Peak Group, which was set up by Lo's grandfather in 1964 - Lo was influenced by many different people growing up. This eventually saw him set up a clutch of restaurants and cafes profiling six different unusual restaurant concepts, making him a pioneer in Hong Kong's food scene.
Growing up, Lo saw the development of the small family business growing into an internationally listed company with operations in more than 10 countries. He also witnessed his father Victor's attraction to the arts. The chairman and chief executive of Gold Peak Industries since 1990, Victor studied industrial design and is an avid art collector who also chairs the Hong Kong Design Centre's board of directors. "Victor wanted to study fine art. Industrial design was a good compromise," Lo says.
Lo says his upbringing was liberal and there was no pressure on him to go into Gold Peak, as his father never really believed in running the company as a family business. He studied classical Chinese painting with the renowned Lingnan School painter Zhao Shao'ang, but although he liked arts, he decided to study architecture at Princeton University in the United States.
"As much as I was interested in art, I never really saw myself as an artist," Lo says. "Probably, I would not have done well in manufacturing."
Architecture trained him to make things from scratch. He learned to cross-examine different aspects and ensure they were not only aesthetically pleasing but also functioned well, while understanding the conceptual side of architecture and the relationships between different requirements.
"I think this was one of the most valuable experiences I had," he says. "This way of thinking became very useful. The sky is the limit if you have the reasons and the facts."
He was eventually won over by the F&B industry after spending time in New York and trying different restaurants. He was amazed by the variety and the high standard of restaurants, which were things not matched by Hong Kong back then.
"New York is such an amazing place, at the forefront of food concepts," he says. "It was just fascinating; back then, you didn't see this level of sophistication and creativity in [Hong Kong]."
He says that at that time, if people wanted to go to a good restaurant in Hong Kong, they went to a hotel. But he felt there was a demand for good independent restaurants in the city and he was keen to introduce them by using concepts from New York.
Opting to stay in London with the Mandarin Oriental for a year as an F&B management trainee, he gained a solid understanding of what the F&B business involved.
The following year, he joined Shangri-La's project management division. For three years, he practiced what he had learned studying architecture at Princeton - executing a project from start to finish, working on time schedules, dealing with costs and operations - and was in contact with architects and engineers.
As the most junior member of the team, he would get the simplest projects - often restaurant renovations - but for him it was an amazing experience. "Working with hotels for three to four years made me understand how it all works, all the details from lighting and furniture to temperature and setting the music," he says.
He was only 26 when he set up the Press Room Group in Hong Kong with two friends, Paulo Pong and Arnold Wong. He says the three founders complement each other with their experiences in exactly the same way Lo's experiences came together to prepare him for the job. While Pong brings his extensive knowledge of wines to the F&B table, Wong is the expert in finance.
The Press Room opened on Hollywood Road in 2006, and was - until its closure in July due to increasing commercial rents in the area - the kind of restaurant that fits into the neighbourhood and takes its cue from the style of its surroundings. This is the hallmark of the group, which now has 15 restaurants and a bakery.
Combining his respect for the arts and tradition with his experience in F&B and architecture, Lo plans to launch other projects which energise neighbourhoods and support, rather than destroy, their characteristics.