Give it that twist
The Allan Zeman take on life

By Eric Collins

Dr Allan Zeman, GBM, GBS, JP, and Chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group gave a CityU MBA SHARP Forum in April 2017. City Business Magazine Editor, Eric Collins, talked with Dr Zeman on how Hong Kong's younger generation can still succeed despite a challenging environment, and his vision for making Hong Kong a more liveable place.

Photo courtesy of Lan Kwai Fong Group

As Chairman of Ocean Park, he famously dressed up as a jellyfish. He carries a super-real aura - perhaps a result of working out in the gym every day for the past 37 years. In Hong Kong, the "Father of Lan Kwai Fong" is renowned for his success as a brand builder extraordinaire.

But for all his wealth, Dr Zeman remains socially engaged, and concerned about current levels of social inequality in the younger generation. He starts the evening on an inclusive note.

"Property is a fundamental right for human beings, and because of the high land values and property values, it is something that is causing a lot of polarization in Hong Kong right now."

"When I came here 48 years ago, the one thing that I realized was that even though land was expensive, I had to put my money as a down payment on an office, so at least I could lock in my rent."

Zeman started buying up property in Lan Kwai Fong, an area which was then dedicated to flower selling and refuse collection. Immediately adjacent to the Central business district, he spotted its potential, and it is now Hong Kong's entertainment district par excellence.

Expanding borders

With an eye for the current action, Zeman talks of unfolding opportunities in China. "Hong Kong will change because the 'borders' are going to get expanded in the next 4 or 5 years."

"It's going to be 25 minutes on the bridge to Zuhai, 10 minutes to Shenzhen on the high-speed rail, 45 minutes to Guangzhou. So, you will be able to work in Hong Kong, and live in China. This kind of expansion has happened in cities throughout the world. In New York people moved out to Connecticut and New Jersey."

"Keep updated on how infrastructure is going to change the city," he urges his youthful audience. "That will give you the edge. It will give you the ability to be somewhere where other people are not."

And on the new administration he is also upbeat: "Hopefully after 1st July with the new government, Carrie Lam will be able to find innovative ways to let people enter the property market, which now is almost impossible for many people."

Ocean Park

Besides his career as property developer and creator of Lan Kwai Fong, Zeman is well known for his flamboyant leadership of Hong Kong's home-grown theme park, Ocean Park. He took over the helm at a tricky time in 2003. SARS had just hit Hong Kong, the Park's revenues were down, and Disney was coming. Decisive action was needed. He takes up the story.

"Sometimes knowing nothing about certain industries is better, because you look at things differently. When I first went to the park it looked like it was falling apart. Paint was peeling, the pavement was broken, the food was inedible, everything was wrong. But the site was beautiful."

In the hospitality business, if a park looks like it is going out of business, customers are not going to come back. "The first thing I looked at was the uniforms of the staff. They were typical government uniforms of the 1950s. We had to give the staff a presence, give them confidence in themselves. The next thing was that I needed to find a good CEO with theme park experience who we could build a strong team."

"So, we looked around the world for people with experience, and found Tom Mehrmann. I liked him and signed him on the spot. And then we set out to build a team, using some Hong Kongers and some expats with theme park experience. Then we worked together to set out a world class vision."

"Give it that twist, make it a little bit different, be very critical, and think: How can I add value?"

Panda vs Mouse

Zeman and his new team made a chart. On one side was Ocean Park, on the other Disney.

"I realized that we were local, and that we had a ready-made customer base. Parents and grandparents had gone to Ocean Park. Disney had fantasy and at what they do they are the best. But I realized if I go back the next day it's still the same attraction because it is mechanical. On the other hand, Ocean Park is alive. It's about the environment, conservation; it's about all the important buzz words that young people care about nowadays."

"Disney's got a mouse, Ocean Park has pandas. One day I'll go to Ocean Park and the pandas are kissing, the next day they are fighting, the third day they are hanging from a tree! So, at Ocean Park it is 'expect the unexpected'. I realized that there really was a difference between Disney and Ocean Park. We started to create that difference in the mind of the public - and you need to do that in any business."

"Give it that twist, make it a little bit different, be very critical, and think: How can I add value? How can I separate from all the rest of the people?"

When the press asked Zeman what was the difference between Disney and Ocean Park, he came up with: "Disney has the fake mouse, we have the real mouse!"

"And it was true, and then I realized that Disney was not my competition."

Local Import
Engaged Fantasy
Living Mechanical

Crazy outfits

Zeman and his team went around the world looking at theme parks, developing ideas, and started working with designers to put the Ocean Park revamp together. "Not being a theme park person, I could think out of the box. When it came to the aquarium I said, why not make it like a Frank Gehry design, something that is very unique?"

Quickly confidence began to grow. "When you make believers of your staff, they will then be the best ambassadors to the customers. Even though Ocean Park was a local park, we could be the best."

Zeman also excelled as a showman, creating images that became famous in hierarchy-conscious Hong Kong. "When I was chairman of the park, you saw me dressed up in many crazy outfits. You saw me act totally off the wall, something that no chairman in the world would even dream of doing. But I did it because it was free advertising, it created energy, it kept people coming."

Dr Allan Zeman Photo courtesy of Ocean Park

Breaking rules

"One day the press was asking me what's new at Ocean Park? I didn't have anything to tell them. But I always felt that as Disney had hotels, why not Ocean Park? So, I said well we were thinking of building three new hotels."

"Next day the press went crazy. But so did the government, as I hadn't notified them! I said: Well if you are not happy, why don't you tell the press that we are not going to have hotels? So, if you really believe in something, I say just do it. In that way, let's follow Nike."

The Mouse Killer

Zeman oversaw a HK$5.5 billion revamp of Ocean Park between 2006 and 2012 and it is now one of the ten most visited theme parks in the world, consistently outperforming Disney locally. His efforts were internationally recognized when Ocean Park won the Applause Award - the highest international accolade in the theme park industry in 2013.

"That was a great honour. For someone who didn't know the business, to take over the park, make it into a brand, and beat the best. It made people believe that Hong Kong people can be the best in the world, and that's what keeps me here. Because if you have that determination, and you think out of the box, you can do anything."

Reporting on this success, Forbes Magazine came up with the headline "Allan Zeman: Hong Kong's Mouse Killer", a sobriquet that has stuck over the years.

Hong Kong Start up

Despite the high overheads, Zeman still sees Hong Kong as a good place to start up. "If you are starting in a place with low overheads, it is usually very sleepy, and so it is more difficult to do well. These days, with technology, with digital, you can start in your bedroom. Alibaba was started in a house in Hangzhou with Jack Ma and 17 friends."

"The beauty of Hong Kong is that we have a strong rule of law here, the judiciary is independent, and you have a low tax base of 15%. That's really what has kept me here all these years. In Canada, when I made my first million, I had to give half of it away on corporation tax, and then pay personal tax on top of that. I think I wound up with $425,000."

"And Hong Kong is safe. You know when you look at the news, Europe and the US don't feel so safe. In Lan Kwai Fong I can leave my car door open overnight, and nobody will touch anything. Trust me. I've done it!"

Beyond business

For Zeman, health is the most important thing in life. He has exercised every day for the last 37 years. "I was seven years old when my father died of a heart attack, and I learned at a very young age that health is the key to life, more important than money."

He sees limits to the work ethic as well. "Sometimes a business gets so big that it runs your life, and that's not good. Usually those are the people who wind up getting sick," he says.

A liveable future

Pollution remains an abiding concern to the people of Hong Kong and Zeman has ideas here too. "I was the first one to bring pedestrianization to Hong Kong. Of course, it's a very good thing. It lets people congregate. It creates a lot of style for an area. It gentrifies an area, changing it almost overnight. I'm one to urge the government wherever possible to create pedestrianization, especially as we lack green space here in Hong Kong. It allows you to relax, let your hair down and really let yourself go."

Complementing this vision, he fully supports the move to zero-emission vehicles. "I think e-vehicles are part of the future. I don't agree with the government doubling the tax on Tesla, because you can see how important it is to help the environment especially in Hong Kong. E-cars are really the future, and with the pollution in China and Hong Kong, we need to be very careful about the environment."

"Young people care very much about the environment, as they leave university and get older, acceptance of e-cars will be the norm, and I think e-cars will be the future of the world."

Zeman's parting words are upbeat. "To me, Hong Kong is still a very special place. I know times are difficult, the community is very polarized, a lot of people are complaining, but don't give up. This is really the place to stay."

"I have been here for 48 years. I can tell you, I'm not leaving. If I leave, then you have to worry!

Advice from Allan Zeman When you're starting out...

  • Secure your base
  • Know how infrastructure is going to change the city
  • Buy something - far out in China if need be
  • Use your property assets to borrow