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"I'm just like a bee -- diligent, happy and always flying around on the lookout for something good," says Andrew Yuen, Managing Director of On Kun Hong Ltd.
This busy bee is also something of a compulsive entrepreneur, having established several successful businesses during his career. Even before he had graduated he was dealing in international trade. He cut his teeth in the business world in 1968 as a second-year college student. That summer vacation, Mr Yuen joined a student exchange program between the University of Hong Kong and the University of the Philippines.
He was fortunate enough to have been placed with a respectable Filipino family, the head of which was president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce at the time, who presented him with a business proposition.
"He was looking to import rice from China through Hong Kong and put me in charge of the logistics and bank details. I thought, this is easy, I can do this, which is probably why I got into the commodity business after quitting my job with the bank after graduation," Mr Yuen said. "I liked the freedom and excitement of travel that my experience in the Philippines gave me. Staying in the bank chained me to a desk, which I hated, so I decided to quit and began searching for opportunities to start my own business."
His father, a successful businessman himself, was eager to support his son's entrepreneurial spirit so bought him an office in Sheung Wan to help him along the way. He still operates out of the same office today.
"This is my lucky office," he says. "I've had so much luck and happiness operating out of this office that just thinking about moving makes me sad."
During his visits to the Philippines, he had learned a lot about exotic marine products, many of which are used in Chinese medicine. One day he decided to try to import dried marine products, which are in strong demand in Hong Kong. While sourcing products in Cebu one day, Mr Yuen ran into a Japanese buyer in the same line of business with connections in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The two just clicked, and he asked Mr Yuen if he would be interested in partnering with him to import large quantities of seashells from Southeast Asia to sell in Japan and South Korea, where they were used to make buttons and to decorate furniture.
"That was the start of a very happy and fruitful relationship, and probably the happiest days of my career. When that Japanese businessman retired he left the whole business to me. Unfortunately, advances in technology and communications meant that space for traders like me was becoming increasingly tight," he said.
Technology also resulted in his Korean buyers stationing their own people at the source to select the best products and to pay suppliers in cash, as opposed to the traditional letter of credit. In addition, changing tastes in Korea meant that the traditional lacquered furniture inlaid with Mother of Pearl was being shunned by the younger generation. Undeterred, his visits to the Philippines turned up a new opportunity -- importing dried mango.
Mr Yuen said On Kun was the first company to import dried mango into Hong Kong, and consequently dominated the market. When he sold off that business, On Kun had around a 90% share of the market.
His connections in Hainan Island, where he was recognized as the leading marine products buyer, also introduced him to an opportunity to invest in a sugar production plant. Traditional production techniques meant the company couldn't compete on quality or price, so Mr Yuen introduced a turnkey solution to improve production, quality and even packing.
Another opportunity presented itself while he was on a Chamber mission to South Africa in 1987. A company that he met was importing overhead projectors and was looking for a Hong Kong partner. The partnership developed from a trading arrangement, into establishing a joint factory in China to manufacture audio/visual equipment, and more recently into IT training solutions, such as interactive whiteboards.
Then in 1993, Mr Yuen decided to try the frozen seafood business. "Maintaining a consistent standard for dried seafood is very difficult, while competition for live seafood is very fierce in Hong Kong. But for frozen seafood, there seemed to be an opening," he said. "In Europe, over 70% of grocery sales are for frozen food, and it is growing. So I think the potential in Hong Kong is there."
He also introduced exotic meat to Hong Kong consumers, such as ostrich and crocodile meat, with the help of respected food critic Wei Ling Mark, and the chefs of Yung Kee Restaurant who tested recipes for various exotic meats.
For small- and medium-sized enterprises to succeed in today's fiercely competitive environment, Mr Yuen feels entrepreneurs must always be on the lookout for a new opportunity, and be prepared to develop those ideas with a business partner and staff.
"Go for quality," he said. "Go for quality people, quality products and quality customers. Then you will be able to build up a quality business that is almost trouble free."
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