Hong Kong

My MBA study trip to Germany


The key personal learning from the Germany trip is anti-fragile. Travelling involves many uncertainty and randomness. Despite my flight was delayed in Helsinki at Finland and I was suffering from the stressful presentation with jet lag, the journey is worth it as I learned a lot beyond the classroom for my career in terms of management skills. The trip was full of insightful and informative lectures, with topics ranging from macroeconomy of Germany, European Unions, hidden champions, industry 4.0 and artificial intelligence. Our visit to deep tech venture, Wattx, and Daimler AG factory with BMW cars enlightened me. The history of Germany used to be fragile during the world war, but the prosperity of the countries these days is anti-fragile.


We learned from the trip that Germany has the largest number of hidden champions, which are either top three of the world or number one on the continent, yearly revenue over 5 million euros and low level of public awareness. The economy of Germany is mainly based on export as well as characteristics with many Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) that are specialized in deep technology. Among the 1307 hidden champions, these family businesses are clustered and decentralized in different areas in Germany instead of all focusing in Berlin.


In my opinion, this start-up scene and decentralization in Germany makes the country anti-fragile. Big corporations are robust with hierarchical structure and many rules to monitor staffs, but it is fragile with a higher turn over rate and slower adaption to change in the market with less flexibility. Meanwhile, SMEs have a lean structure to drive higher performance culture, higher staffs engagement and more people-oriented. It is anti-fragile for business to have staffs to be able to multifunctionality with more frequently transfer of personnel between functions than in large business. The SMEs’ employee can also have more regular customer contact than in large corporations, so they can have a better understand of the customers and react to the market changes more quickly. It is particularly important for the SMEs to treat the employee as a human instead of regarding as just a replaceable piece of resource in big cooperations. The design of a lean structure and decentralization system makes the business anti-fragile and with long term perspective in mind to keep the best talent.


Something that is important for us to learn is the way these hidden champion in Germany are able to survive in the market with resilience. They are focused in particular segments and do one thing better than others in the niche market. They have a global reach, such as the early entrance of the Asia countries and China market. They have a deep portfolio with no outsourcing of core competence and produce all parts with quality up to their high standards. They have a positioning of premium quality products, such as expensive Yachts. Last but not least, they have continuous innovation driven by customers and top managers. As a result of a high proportion of revenue spending in Research and Development (R&D), they have a higher amount of patients per thousands employee compared to large corporate. All these factors are anti-fragile and make them thrive and grow even with the exposure of volatility and uncertainty in the global market.


As a reflection, I notice a difference in mindset between Germany and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, most students have narrowed options to work in the same kind of sales-oriented job in banking and finance industry, instead of choosing to study in science and engineering. In contracts, due to the historical and geographical reasons, Germany has more sectors to work on, such as steel, iron, machinery, chemical industry, locomotives, cars, and electronics. The young generation has more options like vocational training for technical skills other than going to university as the only preferable career path. The diversity of career choices, the craftsmanship in manufacturing and innovation in technology makes the countries less fragile to risks.


Germany has economic stability with a low inflation rate, stable growth, trade surplus, and high employment. This is particularly important not to repeat the same mistakes for the economic crisis, great depression, and hyperinflation, contributing to the rise of Nazi in Germany with political instability during World War II and genocide. It is hard to imagine history before transformation to nowadays with social and political peace, democracy, no extremism, and weak military power. History matters for us to understand where do we come from, understanding the present and future challenges in order to have better risk management skills in chaos.


For me, one of the main reasons to study MBA is to seek an answer for my career in terms of management skills in the global economy. I was fascinated by how the huge gap between different countries’ wealth level. For example, after my study trip, I was travelling to Switzerland for leisure with the most expensive McDonald’s big mac meal I ever eat. It cost me 12 Swiss Franc, which is about $93 Hong Kong dollar! In Germany, the exact same quality big mac meal costs 7 Euro, which is about $62 Hong Kong dollar. Meanwhile, the world seems really unfair if you were born in a poorer economy within same Eurozone, such as Romania rural poverty with people suffering in horrors from human trafficking. During my visit to Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Frankfurt on this trip, I witness the success factors of Germany with anti-fragile.


In my career as in management level, I can apply what I learned to build an anti-fragile workplace. We need to build a company that is able to deal with randomness and uncertainty going beyond resilience or robustness in this digital changing world as we have seen in Germany. Small flat teams tend to be anti-fragile, large hierarchy structure tends to be fragile. Managers should worry about centralized power, leaders should give trusts to team members to solve complex problems and decision-making should be decentralized. Antifragile company is fostered in thinking that embrace experimenting yet avoids too-big-to-fail.


It is an exciting time to live in the age of artificial intelligence and automation. We witness our industry facing a fantastic mutation with the new frontier of unexplored opportunities, more connected hardware and more real-world data. I have gained the benefit with a different perspective from international experiences in Germany and continue to pursue my answer after graduating from my MBA study to be more anti-fragile in this rapidly changing world.


Case study: Li & Fung family business


In this article, I would discuss the lesson we can learn from this Li & Fung’s family. The insights we can get from this family to last over one thousand years is the culture to reinvent itself in order to survive. There are not many Chinese family businesses can last for so long successfully. Starting from 1906 in Guangzhou, Li & Fung was the first Chinese trader export company. Nowadays, it already expands in 40 different countries with over 20,000 staffs.


The succession of a family business is a big challenge. In Chinese, there is a saying that “Wealth could not last for over three generations.”. Even in the United States, according to a study of the family business by Brooklyn College, 70% of the family business cannot pass from the first generation to the second generation. 88% of the family business cannot pass to the third generation. Only 3% of the family business can pass to the fourth generation. However, Li & Fung’s family business is now already in the fourth generation as an exceptional case. Why it can break the rule? What are the success factors?


The answer lies in the global view and opened-mindset of the founders and successors so that the family business was able to ride on the big trend and wave in the macro-economy. For example, at the end of the Qing Dynasty, China was opened to trade. Li & Fung was able to be the first Chinese middle man, who is better than Westerners for Chinese goods. The founders had more opportunities to widen the horizon compared to other traders in mainland China through interactions with foreigners with better English language advantages. Then after World War II, the family business was about to grow together with Hong Kong as a rising manufacturer and clothes export. They also import ball pens and rename it to atomic pen (thanks to the atomic bomb to end the war) in order to make a good profit. Later on, due to the China reform, China became the factory of the world, Li & Fung was benefited from this trend, and the Chinese business contributed to more than 51% of total sourcing business.


However, in the fourth generation these days, it is facing a lot of troubles due to its failure to foresee the digital trend. It can be shown from the fact that Li & Fung refused to invest in Alibaba for three times. The family business was a dominant trade middleman for sourcing and they stuck in their comfort zone. They did not realise that it has a dead business model and start to made irrelevant by Alibaba. The third generation, Victor & William, were happy with a traditional and profitable business so that they have the inability to grasp the e-commerce and internet trend. Figures show that Li & Fung’s profit continues to decline and struggled to boost profit and revenue as global brands change the way they manage their supply chains with the decline of the middleman. From 6th March 2017, Li & Fung was removed from Hang Seng Constituent Stocks, signalling the big challenge of the family business.


Throughout history, it was not the first time for the family business to face challenges and they were able to survive by reinventing itself and pass-through this success factor to the next generations. During the Korean war, the United States had embargo to China, which greatly affected the Hong Kong re-export business of Chinese goods. The family business was able to change direction from focusing on re-export to export Hong Kong local goods in clothing.

During the early days, the family was a traditional family business without international corporate experience. The two brothers of the third generation were studying at Harvard business school in the United States and bring the knowledge of new modern management theory into the old traditional family business. They did not follow the old rules but improve the family business in a professional way. They brought high efficiency and robust system to the family business so that it was able to go public in the stock market, due to their initiation to separate ownership and business management, as well as good governance.


Li & Fung was able to transit from One Boss / Employees system to the proper management hierarchy. The management was improved from family members to professional managers with university degrees. The return of Hong Kong to China during 1997 was also a historical crisis of family business since many Chinese family businesses were immigrant to oversea countries. However, they were still able to survive with the mindset to change and ride on the wave of macro-economy.

Nowadays the fourth generation, Spencer Fung had also success this important family values. He also studied aboard with master in MBA from the United States. He is entrepreneurial with startup experience to co-found an online marketing platform in Silicon Valley. Even with the threat of trade war between the United States and China on tariffs with a lot of small Chinese factories shut down, the family business was able to find to diversity itself out of China to Vietnam and other Asia Pacific countries.

Furthermore, the next big trend these days is on speed, innovation and digitalization. The fourth-generation was able to join as a latecomer with strategic investments to leverage new technologies, reduce the lead time of supply chain and rapid prototyping with 3D virtual design. Li & Fung also invest in advanced analytics to improve speed, cost, lead time and traceability. They have predictive analytics to enhance business performance.


Overall, the family business was successful with the merging of Western modernisation in management and technology with Eastern wisdom in relationship and family values. They have revolutionary ideas to implement change and constant improvement. The family business has a Western system but also Eastern human touch management style. In the United States, efficiency is the number one priority so that the employer-employee relationship is simply based on performance. However, Chinese people have the wisdom to treat human not as a machine. The emotional side with Chinese elements gives staffs a sense of belongings while staying professional. This is critical for the family succession and deals with the challenges faced now by the fourth generation.

Hello future Fin-Tech in Hong Kong

Once upon a time, my teacher taught me that Hong Kong is an international financial centre. Every day, we enjoy the economic success with a highly competitive business environment. But today, Hong Kong is being left behind in the fin-tech revolution. Singapore is ahead and moved aggressively with lots of support in spending and regulations. Mainland China’s fin-tech companies’ large customer-base has allowed them to grow in a manner that Hong Kong’s firms are not able to.

It is no question that here is the challenge: Hong Kong’s risk averse culture is a big obstacle for the fin-tech industry from moving fast enough. As an IT consultant, I heard a lot of friends who works in the banking industry worry about being digital disrupted by the fin-tech innovation, such as blockchain, Bitcoin and mobile payment. They are facing loss of their jobs, while big corporations are falling behind and not adapting to change.

But here is a choice: Hong Kong has lots of innovative and creative people. We have diverse thinkers, builders and leaders. We can bring together awesome teams that inspire and help to create the world’s best fin-tech scene. It is time to raise our awareness and re-imagining what’s possible with the power of financial technology to help companies make meaningful positive change.

And here will be the outcome: We shepherd global financial technology toward human. With the recent regulatory sandbox policy applied, it would allows startups to test their models in the market. These financial technology would be created to benefit people’s lives globally. Together we’ll use the language and tools of fin-tech to transform the way we build future commerce in Hong Kong.

6 THINGS I LOVE AND HATE ABOUT HONG KONG

The status is complicated. I love you. Cause you are amazing, just the way you are. Meanwhile, hate is a strong word, but I really, really, really don’t like you at the same time.

hk

I was born in Hong Kong. 23 years ago. Just 1 kid out of 7 million population in a city with only 1104 square kilometre. We were deeply in love, but ended with a painful struggle. There are a lot of things I used to love about Hong Kong. Here I tell you why we make things so complicated:

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