Hong Kong Billionaire Francis Choi Turns Passion Into New Business


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An eternal optimist, Liu-Yue built two social enterprises to help make the world a better place. Liu-Yue co-founded Oxstones Investment Club a searchable content platform and business tools for knowledge sharing and financial education. Oxstones.com also provides investors with direct access to U.S. commercial real estate opportunities and other alternative investments. In addition, Liu-Yue also co-founded Cute Brands a cause-oriented character brand management and brand licensing company that creates social awareness on global issues and societal challenges through character creations. Prior to his entrepreneurial endeavors, Liu-Yue worked as an Executive Associate at M&T Bank in the Structured Real Estate Finance Group where he worked with senior management on multiple bank-wide risk management projects. He also had a dual role as a commercial banker advising UHNWIs and family offices on investments, credit, and banking needs while focused on residential CRE, infrastructure development, and affordable housing projects. Prior to M&T, he held a number of positions in Latin American equities and bonds investment groups at SBC Warburg Dillon Read (Swiss Bank), OFFITBANK (the wealth management division of Wachovia Bank), and in small cap equities at Steinberg Priest Capital Management (family office). Liu-Yue has an MBA specializing in investment management and strategy from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Marketing from Stern School of Business at NYU. He also completed graduate studies in international management at the University of Oxford, Trinity College.

ByRussell Flannery, Forbes Blog,

Francis Choi’s office is full of  the passions of his life. His company Early Light is the world’s largest toy producer, so there are plenty of toys like “Hot Wheels” made for the likes of Mattel. And there are numerous photos of the cheerful billionaire with celebrity friends like Jackie Chan (an investment partner), his family (Choi’s children work in his business), and his properties (including his yachts). Downstairs, on the ground-floor in the indoor parking area of his headquarters near Hong Kong’s border with mainland China, sits a multi-million-dollar collection of sports cars, awaiting Choi’s urge to jump in behind the wheel.

So it’s no surprise that one of Choi’s latest business ventures involves another deep interest in his life: watches. “Ah, I love watches,” says Choi, who collects some 200 of them, including some of the world’s most expensive. Getting into the retail watch business himself for the first time, Choi at the end of last year bought a chain, Halewinner, from a Hong Kong entrepreneur who is looking to retire. The company has eight shops today, and Choi, who ranks no. 564 on the 2011 Forbes Billionaires List of wealth of $2.1 billion this year, is looking to build it up.

This year’s list suggests that it might be yet another winner in Choi’s business empire.  Wealth increased broadly among  Hong Kong and mainland Chinese retailers on the list with ties to a Chinese boom in consumer spending.   One of mainland China’s retail watch leaders, Hengdili — itself 6% owned by French luxury goods giant LVMH –  said just today that net profit last year rose by 52% from a year earlier  The company’s main owner is  another entrepreneur who has done well: Zhang Yuping, who ranked no. 183 on the 2010 China Rich List with wealth of $795 million.  Albert Yeung, who debuted on the list this year at no. 879 with wealth of $1.4 billion, controls Emperor Watches, one of Hong Kong’s largest timepiece retailers.

Choi didn’t start out life comfortably. “Toy Town,” a colorful new book about leading figures in Hong Kong’s toy industry, describes the long hours the then-poor entrepreneur spent building up his business in the 1970s.  “In housing estates across Kowloon, housewives peered out of their windows each evening for the familiar site of Early Light’s Francis Choi… arriving in his van,”  the book says. “Stacked on the floor of their cramped dwellings were boxes of freshly threaded parachutes for a collectible Snoopy figuring. Choi, future billionaire owner of the world’s largest toy factory, went from floor to floor in the high-rise towers, teaching families how to do the work, collecting the day’s output and paying them by the piece.”

Choi says his interest in watches dates from his days growing up in Hong Kong. He bought one with money he found on a beach with a friend. “I can still remember my first watch was a Rocket.  I was so interested in the moving parts, “ he recalls. Young Choi enjoyed taking the watch apart and then putting it back together.  One day, when it broke , he repaired it, and the sense of accomplishment also helped to nurture a life-long interest in watches.

Twenty years after, having built up a business fortune, Choi started collecting timepieces as a hobby.   It was the same company Choi  purchased last year that sold him the first expensive watch he bought: Halewinner.   He started with a limited edition item, and has been filling out collection his since.

“I love collecting watches because of the wide variety of choices,” he says. “Different watches have different features, designs, colors and craftsmanship. “ Watches are also practical, because they don’t take up a lot of space, he says.  “I usually place them in the safe box in the office or at home so that I can take them out easily” to look and compare at any time, Choi says.

Investors in search of a return over a five-year time horizon should look to the highest end of the watch market, Choi says.  Pick “an exclusive piece that is limited in number and will usually be extremely complex mechanically,” he says. “Watch manufacturers launch these to show off highly sophisticated features and extraordinary precision, and to help their reputation and status in the industry.”

Collecting watches is different kind of reward compared with cars, Choi says.  He enjoys hearing the “different sounds of the engines, the exclusive design and the functions of the cars.”  The appeal of watches for him is a fascination with the mechanisms, “not their potential investment return,” which he notes doesn’t compare with real estate or stocks.

Choi doing just fine doing well in those areas.  Besides his toy business, Choi’s property assets include Kowloon City Plaza,  car parks, offices and residences. He is vice chairman of the Regal Hotel in Hong Kong, and the main shareholder of the Hong Kong-listed Town Health healthcare chain run by his daughter Crystal. (Son Karson and another daughter Carmen are  involved in his father’s empire, too.) Early Light has large factories in Ping Wu and Shaoguan just over the boarder in China that serve many of the world’s largest toy brands.

Choi says he bought Halewinner because he thinks the watch chain can be expanded and will make money.  “Halewinner is entirely a business decision,” he says. “It has a long history, I see its potential to grow and I look forward to expanding the business in future.”  The retailer, founded in 1988, carries brands such as Audemars Piguet, Breitling, Cartier, Omega and Vacheron Constantin.  It shops operate in malls that carry the ranks of other global luxury names such as Calvin Klein, Tiffany and Couch.
One proud point for Choi: He’s kept all of Halewinner’s original staff. “Everyone is still there,” he says.  That’s important for the business, too, because busy Choi no doubt has many other passions on his plate to pursue.

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