Elsa Pau is the head of the wealth management planning consultancy, Allen Perkins. She has a unique corporate vision. In her offices there are coconut fibre carpets, no mobile phones, and there's no pollution. She speaks to Steven Irvine about Allen Perkins' approach to wealth management.
Q: Why did you move your HQ out of central Hong Kong to this former five bedroom house in Kowloon Tong?
A: Basically I am tired of the city. I hate elevators and mobile phones and dirty streets. We figured we could find some quietness and tranquility out here.
Q: How did you find this spot?
A: This is one of the quietest streets in Kowloon Tong. We are very lucky to have found it. The garden is a decent size and we like to utilize it.
Q: How long did it take you to landscape this garden?
A: Around eight months. No one is allowed to use mobile phones in this building.
Q: Why is that?
A: They're too noisy and distracting. We're aiming for complete tranquility and friendliness. Mobile phones just don't match this environment. I also think mobile phones distract the birds.
Q: You're not a typical Hong Kong company are you?
A: We're in the business for the long term although everyone tells you that. But we really mean it. Every step we take here is for the long term. And we want everyone that enters through the door of Allen Perkins to be a lifetime relationship, so we're concerned about their health, their kids, their future.
Q: I understand the incidence of staff illness has gone down since you moved from Causeway Bay.
A: It's gone down quite a significant percentage. Over here we have no false ceilings, no dust traps, and when it gets below 25 degrees we're going to keep our windows open so they can have some fresh air. We have modem slots in the garden so people can work there too.
Q: Are you from Hong Kong?
A: I was born and raised here and then went to the US for 15 years.
Q: How do you feel about the way Hong Kong treats its environment?
A: Everyone here does everything for economic reasons, which is unfortunate. They use this engine, or this type of gasoline because it's cheaper, but things will change for example if Disney does not come, or world conferences do not come thanks to the pollution. Then there will be change, because only economics makes people change here. It's quite sad.
Q: Some people have relocated to Singapore because it's less polluted.
A: Absolutely. We have a branch there too. I enjoy going there.
Q: How should the Hong Kong government respond? If good people relocate to Singapore that's bad for Hong Kong as a service centre, surely?
A: The citizens of Hong Kong are not cooperating. They've been too focused on the life they had in the past, and have not been awakened to see what the impact will be if their mentality stays the same. And it's very unfortunate that the Hong Kong leadership is not as strong as it should be. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew is a very decisive, charismatic person. In other words, the combination of democracy and paternalism have to be running at the same time. The government in Hong Kong pretends that it's listening but it's not. There's no harmony here. Until that changes this place is not going anywhere.
Q: You started at this firm in 1996, and Allen Perkins then had two people. How many are there today?
A: Eighty-five. Interestingly, we don't like to hire anyone with experience. Except for research analysts, where a relevant degree is necessary. But we try to go for the best character, or best personality. We have a private client group, and an institutional group.
Q: Virtually every business in Asia has got smaller since the Asian crisis but your staff has grown 40 times. Are you a recession-proof business?
A: We try to be.
Q: Where do you derive most of your profit?
A: We advise on Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) and also advise senior executives from corporate clients. Our private client group offers advisory services to wealthy individuals. In terms of profits, the private client group has been our core business and the institutional business was only founded in 1998 but it is growing very rapidly.
Q: How can clients measure your performance?
A: We don't run our own funds, or have a benchmark to follow. Everything is custom made and our clients set their own thresholds. Every investor has a different risk tolerance level and we should not treat them the same. When we first meet up with the client, we read in-between the lines. For example, we ask them if they are afraid of the dark, and that tells us something about their risk tolerance. We then figure out if maybe a 15% return is good enough for this client etc.
The purpose of our existence is to achieve whatever is good enough for particular customers. If an old man comes to us and wants a 50% return in a year, we'll tell him that's totally impossible. Indeed, even if we knew how to achieve that he might have a heart attack before he sees the return. In that case we'd have to be quite stubborn and hold our principles.
Q: You're saying there is no way to benchmark the performance of Allen Perkins? But clients must ask, why use you rather than another advisor?
A: The investors who come to us have to rely on their feelings rather than hardcore figures because we have none to show them.
Q: How many corporate clients do you have?
A: It's a very young business. We've only focused on it in the last year. But they are all very high profile. All of them are Fortune 500 companies with regional headquarters in Hong Kong.
Q: Are you considering an expansion into Japan?
A: It's on our agenda and we're doing some studies on it. Both Taiwan and Japan are being looked at. We know they are great areas to do business, but we want to understand the mentality of the people before we go in. We will go into those markets on a corporate rather than private client basis.
Q: Let's talk about your private client business in Hong Kong. Who manages the money? In Japan, it's the women. Is it the same in Hong Kong?
A: No, it's normally both husband and wife and we encourage that. What's really enjoyable, is on Saturdays the clients bring their family here and their children play in the garden and the clients drink coffee. We chat to families, and not just well-off individuals.
Q: My impression is that the typical wealthy Hong Kong investor is very overweight the US stockmarket. Is that what you see too?
A: It's true. For Hong Kong high net worth clients it used to be property or Hong Kong stocks, but with the convenience of e-trading there has been more investing in the US, and it's been quite dangerous. People tend to follow the crowd.
Q: Rich Hong Kong investors have an amazing tolerance for volatility. Presumably that must make it tough to be an investment advisor?
A: I don't think it's about toleration. It's the nature of Chinese people to be very adaptive. They lose money today, they forget about it tomorrow. It's not that they don't feel hurt they do, but they think, well, that's life. Another problem with the Chinese mentality, is they'd rather actually lose money than miss out on a gain. I still don't quite understand this.
Q: When you say investors don't like to see profit pass them by, you're saying that they are very aware of the concept of opportunity cost?
A: I usually refer to this opportunity cost as greed and it's something that really dominates the mindset. I hope it will go away some day.