Realising the potential of database intelligence

Interview by Eric Collins

Andy Yan is Head of Database Intelligence Department at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, and a member of the Department of Management Sciences advisory committee. Here he talks about his start in the computer technology workplace, and through his experience at HSBC, Octopus and the HKTDC, how database management has evolved over the years.

When did you first use a computer?

I had never touched a computer before I studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Then, my family spent a small fortune on an Apple IIe, and that's my first memory of a personal computer. Somebody told me that if we had used that money to buy Apple stocks we would now be multi-millionaires.

How about the internet?

At university we started to connect some computers together, something like a PC LAN, and we had some limited access to the internet as students. Our initial impression was not very positive. It was difficult to surf because there wasn't a very good browser. And then we almost forgot about it when we graduated. But at work we started to use emails massively in the business world.

What did you study at CUHK?

I majored in computer science, with a minor in business management and I also took some elective courses such as fine arts, communication skills, and philosophy. This broadened my exposure. I also realised the most effective way to apply computer technology was to go into business management and marketing. So, I started as a management trainee at Cathay Pacific Airways, hoping to be part of the drive towards the application of computer technology. Looking back, I think that was the right choice.

Then you moved to HSBC at a very dynamic time for e-banking.

Yes, in the late 1990s there was a boom in internet applications in various industries but that did not start in the banking industry, which tends to be conservative. At first, top management and other colleagues hesitated to put banking services online, adopting a "wait and see" attitude. They let some small banks try first, and see which customers would trust to put their money on the internet. I was HSBC business project manager at that time, working on HSBC's corporate website and ebanking services. We were very aware of risk, so we did a lot of market and technical research to understand customer needs, service demand and the services available to see if they could protect customer transactions.

When did HSBC retail banking go online?

HSBC took an intermediate step called PC Banking in 1997. This had similar functionality to going online but it was riding on HSBC ‘s proprietary network. We needed to send an engineer to your home to install software, or we sent a disc and the customer installed some software on their own PC. It was extremely secure. Then we did some demonstrations to top management to show that even on the internet a similar level of security could be achieved, and finally we were able to launch eBanking service on the internet. By 1999, we were responsible for more than 20 countries in Asia, so it was a hugescale project. There were many sleepless nights!

Andy Yan (right) is the head of the Database Intelligence Department of HKTDC

Did this involve databases?

Yes, at HSBC I worked on the first customer database in Hong Kong's banking industry and started the database marketing, customer segmentation, and data analytics in the largest retail banking database in Hong Kong.

You then moved to Octopus, at a time of great growth.

Initially, Octopus was mainly used for public transport. But it was evolving fast to become a payment provider for retail, so we moved into vending machines, convenience stores, and then supermarkets. My mission was to create new revenue streams by establishing an information business. With my background in computer science, I could see how databases would help the business. My boss at Octopus was quite visionary and he could see that we held a lot of customer data and it could be a goldmine. So we developed a new kind of business. We carried out customer analytics for our retail business customers with the cardholder data/behaviour we had. We could provide business insights, track and give offers to loyal customers. And we then developed a rewards scheme based on Octopus cards.

What attracted you to Hong Kong Trade Development Council?

Well, I must say before I came to HKTDC, I wasn't sure what their main business was and I asked myself, "Why do they need me to manage databases?" It wasn't like Octopus where the role of databases was more obvious. "Could they really leverage my knowledge and experience?" I wondered. In fact, I discovered that HKTDC maintains a database with several million companies, and it is core to the business.

What is the HKTDC business model?

It's a B-to-B business, and the mission is to promote Hong Kong as a platform for international trade, and to explore business opportunities for Hong Kong businesses all over the world. In order to achieve this, we build up our own customer database by keeping track of anyone who has registered or joined our events and their profile details in order to do business matching. This means matching the suppliers and the buyers and HKTDC has been doing this for more than 50 years. So, our database is business-orientated, company-based, and it is global.

How do you leverage the database?

To my initial surprise, I found that we had quite a lot of targeted marketing technologies in order to serve event participants. Every year we host over 40 large-scale events in Hong Kong such as trade shows and conferences, book fairs and food expo etc., attracting more than one million people, and we also run more than 800 events worldwide. But our main offering is the trade fairs with exhibitors, suppliers and buyers from all over the world with growing emphasis on conferences which would end up as a conference and exhibition model.

How has database intelligence evolved over the years at HKTDC?

In the last five years we have been using more applied technologies to uncover the business opportunities hidden in our data base. Traditionally, our data source was mainly from our events, where we could track our customers' footprint in the physical events and our online eMarketPlace to see what they were interested in. Such analysis helped us understand each buyer's needs. We could also help vendors by analysing which buyers are interested in their products and their profile, etc. Nowadays, we aggregate online and onsite behaviour to give us a more comprehensive view of both buyers' and sellers' behaviour.

Is HKTDC migrating more online?

Yes, starting from last year, and partly because of the pandemic situation, we had to move all our events online. Before that everything was pretty much focused on physical events although we had some online services. For the future we realise that our events will be in a hybrid mode. The industry mode, and peoples' habits have changed.

How hybrid mode will HKTDC go?

For instance in the exhibitions or the trade shows, our focus will still be very much on the physical events. With the help of online interaction, we will extend the buyers' and sellers' interaction before and after the physical events. Of course, we will offer different kinds of packages for different kinds of customers in order to maximize our customer base, as each customer has different needs.

How does HKTDC leverage the potential of its database?

For the 40 large-scale events, we have totally more than 100 predictive models to identify potential customers, to increase the show-up rate, etc. We are also developing customer segmentation models based on their value prediction. Then we can offer tailored services to each segment of customers. Matching is our standout service, so we are developing a sophisticated AI engine for businessmatching recommendations.

What makes HKTDC's offering unique?

Our differentiator is the internationality of our events, and the matching of global suppliers and buyers for both merchandise and service trade. Instead of competing with others by event size or investment, we package our event as a brand-building and promotion occasion for business services and products. Similar to the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, the big companies rush to show off their products. We are constantly sharpening our matching algorithms. Our buyers and suppliers know they can count on us to achieve successful business outcomes.

What is Hong Kong's niche as a business service provider?

Diversity is one of the key competitive edges for Hong Kong. The international connections, along with the free flow of information, merchandise, and money. Also, the talents in Hong Kong and their flexibility. I believe we still have world-beating international exposure and connections with the external world.

What are Hong Kong's people's standout strengths?

In HKTDC, many of our colleagues start their career and spend their whole career here, which may help foster a unique culture in HKTDC. We have a strong "can-do" spirit because HKTDC always needs to develop new frontiers in order to capture business opportunities for HK SMEs in this ever-changing world. We are also action-oriented, attentive to detail, good at execution with accurate planning because we are actually in a show business which has no tolerance of failure. Even if there is a No.8 Typhoon signal or Black rain storm, "The show must go on!" How we surfed through the pandemic situation was another good demonstration of our spirit. We have a very strong can-do culture and I'm very proud of it!

Andy Yan
Head of Database Intelligence Department
Hong Kong Trade Development Council