Ho Kwon-Ping must rank as one of Asia’s more colourful characters. There aren’t many people who can claim to have slept (illegally) on top of an Egyptian pyramid on their 19th birthday. This is a man who started life as a radical left- wing red, only to establish the Banyan Tree spas and resorts as one of the world’s premier luxury brands.
Indeed, while the Singaporean national is now a firm part of the establishment and rubs shoulders with the city state’s elite – for example, he sits on the board of Singapore Airlines – those very same people jailed him for being a subversive in the 1970s.
Ho recalls that he was kicked out of Stanford for being too radical, which given it was the 1970s was no mean achievement.
The firebrand returned to Singapore just as the Tet offensive was being unleashed in Vietnam. He became a journalist but his opinions were soon too much for Lee Kuan Yew’s government and he was jailed for two months under the anti-subversion legislation.
The jail sentence was a sobering experience and he emerged somewhat less radical from his cell. He also says the jail sentence had a plus side. Having been kicked out of Stanford his family had enrolled him in the University of Singapore and being in jail rather than on marches, he finally found time to study. So much so that he ended up getting the top grade for the entire university.
“I have told my kids that if their test results are poor, they are going to jail,” he smiles. “It really is a wonderful place to study!”
He emerged from ‘the clink’ and decided that living in Singapore was perhaps not the best idea. He went to Hong Kong as a journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and on his meagre journalist salary, settled with his future wife, Claire, on Lamma Island. They set up home in the bustling fishing village Yung Shue Wan, which translates into English as Banyan Tree Bay. This distinctly unluxurious location would ironically inspire the name of one of Asia’s premier homegrown luxury brands.
He notes that his time in Lamma was a happy one, but the irony of the name is not lost on him. “Instead of aromatherapy oils, we had the smell of the shrimp paste factory next door, or the daily manure from the vegetable farms. Instead of pool villas we had the debris-choked harbourfront right at our doorstep. But they were idyllic years, and naming our hotels and resorts after that village is a reminder to ourselves that a Banyan Tree experience of romance and intimacy is about emotions and people, and not about luxury alone.”
His stint as a journalist ended with his father’s illness and a filial call for him to return to run the family business. He recalls that his parents had always been quite cosmopolitan and had given him encouragement to find his own path as a journalist. However, in this time of need he decided it was time for him to enter the world of business.
The family had been based in Singapore for several generations, but in fact many of their industrial assets were based in Thailand. The company had focused on making calculators at first, but soon found that the prices of these devices and the margins got worse with each passing year. It then moved into TV assembly, and host of other areas. Of his 15 years running the family business, Ho says: “We pretty much resembled the typical overseas Chinese mini-conglomerate. We were into everything imaginable – primary commodities, trading, food products, consumer electronics, property development – many things in many countries, but nothing dominant in any industry or country. Our competitive edge was cost.
“But for me the party ended when a brand new sports shoe factory which we set up in Thailand closed one year after opening because Indonesia had become an even cheaper place.”
Ho realised that being the lowest cost producer was a tough business strategy to follow forever and he came to the conclusion that he wanted to create something where he would be a price-maker not taker. This would require innovation rather than cheap labour.
Out of this philosophy was born the Banyan Tree in 1995. Ho saw that the Aman resorts had done an excellent job of creating luxury chic in Asia, but that it was targeted at Hollywood film star types. He saw that Banyan Tree could create something luxurious for the upper middle class in Asia.
The move also fitted with he and his wife’s love of both ethnic design and environmental causes. The present laguna site of the Phuket Banyan Tree was a former tin mine and was an ecological disaster. Ho set about rejuvenating what man had sullied before.
He also innovated. The Asian spa concept was born at his first resort, although he recalls there was friction. “We hired spa consultants from the UK, but they were aghast at the idea of people walking around barefoot in the traditional Asian style, so we had to fire them, and just do it our own way.”
Of course, the Asian spa concept has now been widely copied. “Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Ho.
But still it does seem strange that a former left-wing radical should have set up a luxury hotel group. “I think with us it’s more about emotional experiences than luxury,” says Ho. “At Banyan Tree we’re not out there buying the most expensive cutlery you can find, or that kind of thing. It’s not that kind of luxury.”
He also hasn’t forgotten his roots. At Banyan Tree, a caring form of capitalism is employed. He says the hotel staff in Phuket are taken to and from work in air-con buses rather than tuk-tuks, and there is a top quality canteen and medical facilities. Of course, more satisfied staff lead to more satisfying experiences for the paying guests, and with two bedroom pool villas costing $1400 per night in peak season, the guests expected to be satisfied.
In fact, with Ho a former backpacker, environmentalist and caring capitalist, it is not hard to see why he is often compared to Richard Branson. “That comparison is made a lot,” he says, groaning into the glass of Coke he is drinking. “But we’ve never met. I guess the one thing I’ve got over Branson is he’s never been to jail!”
The Banyan Tree formula he created has gone from success to succes and apart from expanding across large tracts of Phuket, he has created award-winning resorts in the Maldives and the Seychelles as well as opening a property in Bangkok.
Now his expansion strategy is twofold. First, he wants to take his brand and build resorts on the periphery of Europe and the US. In the case of the former he is looking at Morocco and Croatia and in the latter Mexico.
In Asia he is creating a new sub-brand called Colours of Angsana, which is building resorts in slightly more offbeat locations at slightly more affordable prices than the average Banyan Tree. The three properties which will launch the brand are in Shangrila, in China’s Yunnan province, Sri Lanka, and Laos.
And all this expansion has led Ho to look at a listing. Currently the debate is whether to IPO and list in Hong Kong or Singapore. The brand is equally well known in both places, although the amount of money in the Hong Kong market dwarfs Singapore. On purely financial considerations, listing in Hong Kong would be something of a no-brainer. Then again, he is Singaporean and the pressures to do the right thing (ie support the Singapore capital market) are hefty.