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PR in the Spotlight
"You are lucky to catch me in Hong Kong this week," says Richard Tsang, as he welcomes me into his spacious office in Admiralty. "I've just come back from Malaysia where we've opened our ninth office in the region."

Just twelve years ago, Mr Tsang, Chairman and Managing Director of Strategic Public Relations Group (SPRG), set up his public relations company with a staff of just five. Today, he says SPRG is the largest public relations company in the SAR, employing around 110 staff in Hong Kong alone.

His public relations' aspirations sprouted from the hotel industry, where, shortly after graduating, he was hired by a medium-sized hotel seeking someone to set up and run their PR department. He was soon pirated by Burson Marsteller to join their corporate team, and one year later was transferred to their financial team, where he quickly rose to head of their team managing IPOs and investor relations.

As is often the case in the PR industry, staff leave the company after gaining a few years' experience and set up their own firm. In 1994, Mr Tsang's then colleagues decided to leave Burson Marsteller to strike out on their own.

"They invited me to join them as a partner, but at 28, I thought I was still too young and needed to gain more experience, so I decided to join Edelman," he explained.

At the time, around 40-50 IPOs were being listed every year in Hong Kong, a huge leap from the annual half dozen or so that used to take place in the 1980s. Eager to capture a slice of this growth, Edelman tasked him to set up their financial department in Asia, and gave him a team of 10 to make it happen.

"We were making a pretty decent profit, and the number of IPOs taking place was growing every year, so I thought, 'I set this business up for Edelman, so why don't I set up my own business?" he said.

He, together with four partners, each of whom were experts in their respective fields -- financial PR, government lobbying, marketing, media and event management -- established a holding group in 1995 while Mr Tsang started SPRG at the same time.

"We decided we didn't want any hierarchy so agreed on a level management structure in the company as we believed good professionals should be their own boss. This also allowed us to focus on our own areas, but of course we would help each other whenever the other needed the other's expertise," Mr Tsang said.

With over 200 professionals working in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, the culture continues today.

"I don't really manage my people. I let them manage themselves," he said. "I have always believed that professionals don't need people managing them. This is a 'people' industry, so all staff have to be professional, whether that is PR executives, or the qualified accountants, lawyers, or journalists that we hire to work on clients' behalf."

He believes this is why the staff turnover rate in the company is stable -- a rarity in the PR industry -- in addition to a profits sharing scheme, which allocates around 30-40% of profits among staff.

Being in the people business, Mr Tsang said it is vitally important that he retains his staff and their expertise to serve his clients, among whom are some of the biggest names in the corporate world.

This connection with clients is helping him expand in the Mainland, and regionally. In 2000, seeing a bottleneck in growth prospects for the Hong Kong market, a client referred Mr Tsang to a group of entrepreneurs in Beijing who had set up a PR firm specializing in IT communications. The fledgling company was run by experienced, dedicated professionals, but they were having cash-flow difficulties as the number of clients that they served grew. After meeting with them, he agreed to become a major shareholder in the company and injected some badly needed capital into the company.

The following year, his China partners set up a Shanghai office, and then he established a Guangzhou branch to cover the major business centers in the Mainland.

In all of his offices, whether the Mainland, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia, he insists on hiring local managers, with local knowledge to run the branches.

"They know the local culture and have local networks," Mr Tsang said. "For example, in Taiwan, flowers for clients opening a new office or something are always sent in pairs. Even though I am Chinese, as a Hongkonger, I would only send one flower display, which is a taboo in Taiwan."

Given the rapid expansion that his company has undergone in a relatively short time, his management philosophy seems to be on track, which is reinforced by a number of distinguished business awards.

"My staff now basically run the company by themselves. All I do is take a little commission for my salary and try to do a little PR work for our company, such as doing interviews like this one. I feel very lucky to have such a great bunch of coworkers," he said.
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