IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Early check-in for Allen Law

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 2, 2013

While he was at university in London, Park Hotel Group chief executive Allen Law never asked his billionaire parents for spending money.

Instead, the mathematics and management graduate came up with what he calls "a mathematical model" for card counting and headed for the casino.

"Basically, I have this mathematical model and I tried to test it," says the King's College London graduate and scion of the family behind casualwear brand Bossini.

"So I went to the casino, followed my mathematical ways and it just paid off my few years of living expenses.''

Holding up his hands as if trying to block more questions about how his gambling winnings helped finance his studies, he adds with a laugh: "No further details."

As he was born in Hong Kong and a British citizen, tuition fees at a UK university were minimal and his parents also paid for the monthly rent of his apartment in Covent Garden.

Mr Law, 33, says: "I don't like to ask my parents for money. If I can sort myself out, I'll sort myself out."

Naturally, he had to fend off requests from friends who wanted him to share his money-making secret.

"But I said, 'better not, you mess it up, you will kill yourself'," says Mr Law, who is quick to add that his blackjack-playing days are over.

When asked if he considers himself a gambler, he says with a wry smile: "No, I don't gamble. I only win."

Evidently, his appetite for taking risks has given him the stomach for running his family's multimillion-dollar hotel business.

As chief executive of Park Hotel Group, Mr Law, who is now a Singapore permanent resident, grew the business from just one hotel in Hong Kong in 2003 to 10 hotels - dotting China, Singapore and Japan - which are owned or managed by the group.

Earlier this year, the company sold Park Hotel Clarke Quay to Ascendas Hospitality Trust, a real estate investment trust listed on the Singapore Exchange, for $300 million.

And just last month, it was reported that the group also sold Grand Park Orchard in Orchard Road, including its retail arm Knightsbridge, for more than $1.15 billion to Bright Ruby Resources, a Singapore-incorporated company which owns and operates commercial properties.

Last year, Park Hotel Group clinched deals to manage two hotels - one above Farrer Park MRT station and another in Alexandra Road. Park Hotel Farrer Park and Park Hotel Alexandra will launch in 2015.

Mrs Ong Choon Fah, chief operating officer at DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA), says there has been a global trend of owners selling their hotels in favour of management contracts, which are relatively risk free as operators are compensated on a fee basis.

The recent sale of Grand Park Orchard she says, "comes across as quite a wise move for the Park Hotel Group".

Despite his success at a young age, Mr Law comes across grounded and does not claim to know everything in this business.

"I never say I am experienced. I never say I am the best in this trade. I'm still very young, I'm still learning every day, I rely a lot on the professionals in the industry," he says.

He admits that his own family knew very little about the hotel industry when they bought Park Hotel Hong Kong in 2003. This was when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) epidemic hit.

"They were looking at it as more of a property play rather than as a hotel," says Mr Law, whose father, Law Kar Po, 65, is ranked by Forbes magazine as number 18 among Hong Kong's richest individuals and families, with a net worth of $2.6 billion. His mother is a housewife in her 50s.

The younger Mr Law, who was looking for a job as an actuarist in London after graduation, received a call from his father in 2003, asking him to head home to build and run the hotel business.

Without hesitation, he agreed. "I said, 'OK, I'll take up the challenge."

Prior to buying the hotel, Mr Law's grandfather and father were in the garment business and later ventured into property investments.

"But we weren't born rich," says Mr Law, explaining how he has managed to keep grounded despite his family's fortune.

"We have gone through certain tough times so the concept of the value of money is really different. Our family do not spend a lot even though we can afford it now."

He has an elder sister, 34, who runs the Knightsbridge retail business, which houses brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Topshop. His younger sister, 28, is a housewife.

He recalls the family's humble beginnings: "The family business had just started when I was born, so from a small apartment with a few machines, they would do the sewing and take the finished product and sell it to the bigger wholesaler."

The business grew and they became one of the biggest garment manufacturers in Hong Kong.

"Then we also invested in real estate and came up with our own fashion label - Bossini," says Mr Law.

The first retail outlet was launched in Hong Kong in 1987. Bossini has been a public-listed company since 1993.

By 1993, his family was well off enough to send him to boarding school in Leicestershire in Britain. He was 13.

It was at Uppingham School, one of the leading British boarding schools, where he learnt to fend for himself, says Mr Law.

Even though there was bullying in school, he says he did not tell his parents.

"You can call your parents, but no one can help you," he says with a shrug, adding that seniors typically pushed juniors around in boarding school.

"The older boys just want you to serve them and be their servant," he says, explaining that it was easier to just do as he was told than fight back in those situations. "For example, there is a roster to wash the toilet, but most of the time, it's all the new boys doing it," he laughs.

But he never became a bully, even as a senior.

"It's not for me, lah," he says.

While he spent his teenage years playing sports such as rugby, football, basketball and cricket, he spent his university days in London experimenting in the kitchen.

Unabashed about his culinary prowess, he says proudly: "I perfected Christmas turkey. It's very good. I still make it."

But once school was done and the family businesses needed him to step up to the plate, Mr Law dug in his heels and got to work.

When he returned to Hong Kong in 2004, he was plunged into a six-month fast-track programme, rotating through the different departments in the hotel to get an understanding of the business.

A year later, he moved to Singapore to acquire new property and expand.

He headed the negotiations which led to the group buying Crown Prince Hotel in Orchard Road for approximately $300 million.

He was only 25.

In one year, Mr Law says, he doubled the hotel's profits, but declined to disclose current revenue figures.

It was not an easy task, though.

He worked non-stop in his first few months in Singapore. "I just ate and slept, other than that, it was work."

He also lived in the Crown Prince Hotel from 2005 to 2007, "so all I had to do was take a lift down to go to work," he says with a laugh.

Mr Law adds that starting up in Singapore was also challenging because he met some "not-so-friendly people" here.

Employees at the hotel were resistant to change and he was forced to replace some dishonest staff.

So "although I was supposed to be the general manager, I was the acting human resource manager, front-office manager, and housekeeping manager as well", says Mr Law.

Business partners also tried to take advantage of him because he was new to Singapore.

"They tried to negotiate a better deal for themselves," says Mr Law, putting it delicately.

But he is firm about not working with such people.

"I have this philosophy in life, whatever we do in life, we have to be fair - I don't cheat you, you don't come and cheat me. That's all.

"If I sense someone is trying to go against that philosophy, then I will stand very firm. I may risk short-term losses... but I will stick by my philosophy," he says.

There were, of course, good business associates. One even became his mother-in-law.

Mr Law says his mother-in-law, Ms Wee Wei Ling, 61, the daughter of billionaire banker Wee Cho Yaw, 84, sold the Parkroyal Hotel in Coleman Street to him in 2006 and introduced him to her second daughter.

Ms Tan Shin Hui, 29, wed Mr Law in 2010. She is now head of marketing communications at Park Hotel Group. The couple have two sons - one about two months old and the other 1 1/2 years old.

Mr Law recalls how Ms Wee pulled off the introduction. His parents had been in town and she initiated a meeting between the two families.

"She was saying they sold the hotel to us, but never met my parents... so then, I think it was during Chinese New Year, that the two families had dinner," says Mr Law.

Asked what she thought of her husband at that first meeting at Park Palace at Grand Park City Hall, Ms Tan says: "I guess I thought he was pretty capable to be handling such a big project by himself. He seemed very easy-going as well."

As for who made the first move to ask the other out, Mr Law replies with a laugh: "That, we are still debating."

But he admits that he did not have many Singaporean friends of his age, so Ms Tan offered to show him around.

With a smile spreading across his face, he recalls: "She took me to Robertson Quay. She thought I didn't know the area well."

In fact, he had done extensive research there.

"I told her I know the area well because I had just bought a piece of land there," he says with a chuckle.

In 2006, Park Hotel Group successfully bid for a site in Robertson Quay for $55.5 million and built Park Hotel Clarke Quay which opened in 2009. In April this year, the group entered into an agreement to sell the hotel, but will continue to operate the hotel after the sale.

He also hopes to snag two or three new management contracts this year and will launch three- and five-star hotel brands under the group.

Mr Law says he always thought he would be in some sort of business, but never thought it would be in the hotel line.

The interesting thing about hotels, he notes, is that it is one part service-oriented and one part property play. "It's actually real estate, so you have to understand both sides in order to do well," he says.

And the group has done so well that he can breathe a little easier now.

He makes it a point to head home to his Farrer Road apartment for dinner.

He says of his two children: "I'll play with them a bit, put them to bed, then start my second session of work.I'm quite attached to my two kids. I really love seeing them."

He is dressed in a crisp suit for the interview, but insists that he does not splurge on himself or his family.

"We spend on what we need. We give our family a comfortable life, but we don't spend on luxury items," says Mr Law, who drives a six-year-old Mercedes E-class, and adds that he would not buy a sports car as he does not enjoy the "very bumpy type of car".

He also seems to disapprove of the high society social scene, especially in Hong Kong, which he visits once every two or three months for business.

"I do agree the upper classes are very snobbish. I don't really like that kind of life. In Hong Kong, it's worse with all the paparazzi, you can't be at ease. A lot of these people go out and it's almost like acting," says Mr Law, who frequents hawker centres in Singapore with his family.

"I don't know how they go through this lifestyle. I prefer shorts and flip-flops. People don't want to take a photo of that," he says with a grin.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 2, 2013

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