Steve Vickers, Hong Kong's Mr Risk, struggles to meet demand as protests roll

Steve Vickers' career has spanned roles that included head of intelligence for the old colonial police force to private sector consultancy.
Steve Vickers' career has spanned roles that included head of intelligence for the old colonial police force to private sector consultancy.PHOTO: STEVEVICKERSASSOCIATES.COM

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - There are few people as synonymous with risk analysis in Hong Kong as Steve Vickers.

A 40-year veteran of the finance hub, Mr Vickers' career has spanned roles that included head of intelligence for the old colonial police force to private sector consultancy.

Fluent in Cantonese, Mr Vickers has dealt with everything from kidnappings to extortion, and runs Steve Vickers and Associates, a risk mitigation, corporate intelligence and security consultancy. Its work includes due diligence on initial public offerings and investigations for investment banks.

While he has seen a lot, Mr Vickers has never experienced the convulsions currently gripping Hong Kong.

"Things have changed really radically," he said in an interview.

"Political risk typically was never in Hong Kong. Our revenues are 120 per cent up over the past three months because people want information now."

The following is a condensed version of an interview conducted in his offices that are festooned with police and intelligence memorabilia, and close to areas where police and protesters have been clashing for months.

Q: How do you assess conditions in Hong Kong?

A: From a commercial point of view, I have not seen an impact on Hong Kong's economy as bad as this.

Q: What has it meant for your own business?

A: Huge, it has been huge; we are struggling to meet the volume of client requests. Things on the political risk side locally are bigger than they have ever been, which has not happened before in Hong Kong.

We have always looked at the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, we have looked at everyone else and now - lo and behold - right in our own backyard, we have this.

The local due diligence business has died over the past two months; this is because people aren't making deals. But the business intelligence side has gone nuts.

Q: Can you describe your client base, what kind of queries are you getting?

A: It's US, UK, Japanese, European and some mainland companies with external problems. Big brands are now desperately concerned and are keen on protecting their wider mainland business and are worried that they might be directly identified with Hong Kong protests.

 
 
 

It's a balancing act and frankly it's very hard for branded goods companies to tell their staff "you can't do this or you can't do that" for fear of losing the bigger mainland franchise. Not encouraging overt political activity in the workplace and, for example, not having a Lennon Wall in your office is probably a good start.

Q: What sort of advice are you giving?

A: We give risk and security advice, which is practical advice, such as how to protect people. What to do if CS smoke (tear gas) is sucked into your air-conditioning systems and so on.

Protecting your brand franchise is critical between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland. If your brand is perceived as being militantly associated with the demonstrations, then the brand could end up being very seriously damaged. This is the first time I have seen this risk on this scale.

Q: What are you sensing among financial services clients?

A: Private wealth is a big one. There is huge movement of clients on the private wealth side not surprisingly because what they have is liquid. We also do quite a lot of IPO work for sponsors, but that is down a lot currently because of a combination of the US-China problems, and the Hong Kong demonstrations.

A lot of family offices have been calling us for tactical intelligence, and these are local people based here, who you'd think would know the deal but are now finding themselves wrong footed.

Q: How are hedge funds playing it?

A: Hedgies are asking tactical questions like how vulnerable are the Hong Kong financial, banking and property sectors. There are some quite deep questions now being asked. People are asking whether some smaller Hong Kong banks are over-exposed to the mainland property sector. There have been a lot of questions about that.

Q: What's the lesson for business from the Cathay Pacific episode?

A: That was a clear and direct message from the mainland: that you had better pick a side, and this is the first time I have seen it so bald and so direct in all the time I have been here. If you are a big brand and perhaps you have people in your company who have - which they are perfectly legally entitled to do - been very active on social media in support of protests, that can blow back really quite horrendously in the mainland now.

Q: What does it all mean for your own views?

A: I am apolitical. I actually was initially sympathetic to the Bill withdrawal at the beginning. However, I just don't like anarchy and violence; I find that completely inexcusable.

A lot of people love Hong Kong, including myself, but I have to honestly say that these demonstrations have spawned fundamental changes to the PRC (People's Republic of China) government attitude to long-established Hong Kong firms such as Cathay Pacific and others.

What happened to those British interests will sooner or later also happen to the US firms in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is now in play as a proxy card in the current US-China trade war, we are now caught firmly in the middle with demonstrators appealing directly to the US Senate to pass legislation impacting Hong Kong. Beijing will respond.

Q: What's the end game then?

A: The longer it goes on, the worse it will get. This is a political situation that requires a political solution. If you'd asked me three months ago, I would have said the odds of any democratic change were very low and that the pro-democratic movement was moribund. It's as if the Hong Kong Chief Executive has kicked over an anthill and off we go.

There's no doubt the way we do business has changed, things aren't going back to what it was, but it is not the end of Hong Kong, it's just the next iteration.