On his recent 40th birthday in September this year, Chinese billionaire Ken Chu wasn’t having a lie-in or enjoying breakfast in bed. He was getting up an hour earlier than usual to run 10km.
“On three days of the year, my birthday, Chinese New Year and 1 January, I like to get up at 5am, rather than 6am, and run double my usual 5km,” he says over the phone, from his London hotel room. “It is so I can feel for that day I am a step ahead of everyone else.”
When you get to know Chu, you soon realise that this is typical of his mentality. For Chu, chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group, nothing is out of reach. “I like to say it is Mission Possible!” He laughs. (Context: he is calling me at 2am London time, alarmingly bright and chirpy, while I am still slugging back the coffee.)
Chu is in London spending the next three days working on his latest brainchild: the first international schools and university development on the Chinese island of Hainan, run in partnership with the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE). Chu’s long-term vision is to enable more Chinese students to gain Western-standard education with affordable fees, potentially setting the bar for a transformation of China’s national education system.
“I often get asked what is my understanding of the ‘Chinese dream’,” says Chu earnestly. “To me, it not only refers to national strength and prosperous citizens, but also to the Chinese people’s spiritual outlook from having a strong cultural foundation and soft power to co-opt with others, so that every Chinese person can be respected worldwide.”
Bold plans are taking shape to make this dream become reality. As the eldest son of David Chu, founder of the world-famous Mission Hills empire, his life changed forever when his father was diagnosed with final-stage nasal cancer. Not only was he grieving over the imminent passing of a parent, but he faced having to lead a billion-dollar family business at the age of just 32. “I had to become the leader of the pack. It made me grow up very quickly,” he says. The experience taught Chu the value of three things above all: family, health and work.
“These are values that my father transmitted. He didn’t manage his health and he didn’t exercise much. It was from that experience I learned I must transform my health so I would be able to carry forward this legacy,” said Chu. “The Mission Hills resort is made to inspire a healthy, harmonious and happy lifestyle. Life is short and you have to value it spending quality time with family and friends.”
Chu is keen to discuss his latest philanthropic endeavour, the new educational facilities in partnership with the LSE, which he is funding with US$240 million of his father’s legacy. “My father made donations over the years to children’s schooling. Since his passing the institutions have asked me to carry forward his donations. I thought instead of setting up scholarships for children to study abroad, why don’t I use the sum of the donations to benefit more local students by creating a school here,” he explains.
The new campus will be based in the grounds of Mission Hills Haikou, open for admission in 2017. Professors from the LSE will fly over to instruct the programme. There will be no Mission Hills branding, he points out, as this is a purely socially driven project.
“Chinese students will have the chance to gain a London university degree while studying in China,” he says. “I was very fortunate that my family was able to pay for me to study abroad so I could learn the language and Western culture. But not everyone can afford that.”
Only around 10 percent of Chinese students who apply to study abroad are eligible by grade or wealth, he adds. Overseas study costs around £100,000, plus living costs, compared to the fees of US$16,200 that will be charged through the new university. His donation will also go towards funding a kindergarten and high school for 1,500 children, to open in 2016.
Since he took the reins of the business seven years ago, Chu has transformed Mission Hills. Under his father David, the brand encapsulated the world’s largest golf club, officially recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records. But it stopped there.
Since Chu and his younger brother vice-chairman Tenniel took over, they have spent US$10 billion expanding the development into Hainan in keeping with the government’s ambitions to put the island on the international radar as the ‘Hawaii of China’. In Haikou alone, the Mission Hills presence is vast: more than 20 square kilometres of 12 celebrity-designed golf courses; 10,000 apartments; plans for high-end hotels; including the Ritz-Carlton and the Renaissance; the world’s largest spa facility; and a 240,000 square metre Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district in partnership with Allan Zeman. The scale is truly awe-inspiring. Overlooking all of this is the imposing 500-room Mission Hills hotel, its corridors representing a veritable hall of fame, lined with photographs of all the golfing heroes and A-list celebrities who have played there.
Despite juggling this smorgasbord of expensive and complicated projects, the company still maintains an internal rate of return of around 15 percent, according to Chu. What are his secrets to success? Outsourcing, he says.
“We are able to grow rapidly because we hire professionals to do their jobs,” he points out. “We are 100 percent family-owned, but I have seen too many family businesses where incapable family members are operating key positions, leading professionals who are beyond their ability and that is where it goes wrong.”
Might his daughters one day take over from him? Chu shies away from the idea of a regimented family business. “I haven’t done anything to groom them. They’re not at that stage, they’re still thinking about their exams and university,” he says. Chu hopes his younger daughters might one day attend the new university.
So what is his vision for the business? “To be a leading world-class brand and a pioneer in the global leisure and tourism industry. That is the first step. Then we will see what happens.”
Expect big things from the man for whom no mission is impossible.