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What dreams may come

Ken Chu, BACS’96, LLD’07, knows tourism is China’s next great cultural revolution

by Jason Winders, MES'10, PhD'16 | May 8, 2017

Ken Chu
Ken Chu, BACS’96, LLD’07, knows tourism is China’s next great cultural revolution.

Of all the long shadows that fall across the region tucked between the Nanling Mountains and the South China Sea, perhaps none are more daunting than those cast by the audacious dreams of his father. Yet, Ken Chu knew what needed to be done when, as a young man taking over for his ailing father, the fate of those dreams became his responsibility.

“With a lot of companies in Asia, you see a second generation inherit the business and only sustain it. I was not going to do that; I was going to be an entrepreneurial second generation,” said Chu, BACS’96, LLD’07, Chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group.

“I realized if you don’t advance, you stand still. And if you stand still, you fall behind. You cannot just sustain a business. You have to grow a business. You have to take it to the next level. I wanted to position myself not as someone to sustain the portfolio, but to have that entrepreneurial spirit to grow, to diversify. I wanted to be innovative, to be courageous; I wanted to have a new vision, a new mission for life.”

Today, Chu has found that mission in leading a sport and entertainment empire unrivaled across the globe. Yet, despite its success, he sees a future even more limitless than anything his father ever dreamed.

*   *   *

Ken Chu arrived on campus from Upper Canada College, a private all-boys school in Toronto, where he first heard of Western’s expertise in business education. He embraced university life quickly – with one exception. Originally from Hong Kong, he found the expansive greenspace of campus took some adjusting to. Home was concrete and steel; Western was green grass and open spaces.

He embraced a university academically challenging, but socially comfortable. “Western’s learning is global, but it is a small community. You make a lot of friends. You live and eat and study together all year round. So, the friendships are for a lifetime,” he said.

A former President of the Chinese Student Union, Chu was an active student, yet still managed to complete his Administrative and Commercial Studies degree in just two years. “I crash coursed,” he laughed. “Two summers. No holidays. During the school year, I did correspondence courses. I did it all to fill the required credits.

“There were a lot of tough times – all those extra classes in a tight timeline. My only fun was doing those extra clubs. But I learned a lot; I learned time management. Even today, I never say I am ‘busy.’ If you care about somebody or something, you can always make time for it.”

Chu moved quickly through university because his father was initiating a new business venture and needed help, especially from people who could speak English, people who understood China, people who understood his vision. Chu wanted to graduate quickly to return to help him.

Chu’s father, David Chu, was a giant. He had already built one successful company, Shun Feng Corrugated Carton Factory, when he was inspired by his first round of golf played in the 1980s in Toronto. The elder Chu returned to China and purchased a massive piece of land to the north of Shenzhen in the Guangdong Province. He saw lush fairways where others saw remote wastelands. It took vision – and a lot of courage – to see the future in that locale.

No infrastructure connected it to civilization; the short drive from the city took two hours. And what the rural setting lacked in accessibility, it lacked even more so in aesthetics. “It was like a garbage dump,” Chu laughed.

“But my father’s vision was to put the Chinese flag on the world map of golf. He was very patriotic; he wanted to do something for the city, to help the city grow. And he was right. If it wasn’t for my father, golf would not be where it is today.”

David Chu knew it was the right time for a golf revolution in his changing country.

In December 1978, Chairman Deng Xiaoping implemented his Open Door Policy, a set of initiatives and policies with the goal of modernizing the country via direct foreign business investment. In the early days, the main vehicle for this investment was through Special Economic Zones, areas on mainland China of that adopted more flexible economic and government regulations to be more attractive to foreign investment. The first of those four zones was set up in Shenzhen.

It proved an amazing economic success. From 1981 to 1993, the region experienced 40 per cent annual growth – compared to 9.8 per cent for the entire country.

David Chu knew all that business would require infrastructure beyond roads and bridges. He knew that meant five-star hotels, fine dining and, of course, golf courses. He knew that was where Westerners conducted business – he was certain that would hold true in China, as well.

It was a vision not immediately shared by his son.

“I hated golf when I was studying at Upper Canada College – I thought it was a slow, retirement sport,” said Chu, who today is known worldwide as ‘Mr. Golf.’ “But then I learned from my father that the golf course could be an extension of the office. It could be an immediate link between the East and the West. On the golf course, you build friendship; you build trust; you strike deals. Once I realized golf was a business language, a social tool, my interest grew.”

He also grew to see it as a transformative element for a community.

“Golf can transform a destination. We have seen it happen everywhere else in the world. We have seen golf transform a rural area into an urban development. We knew it would happen here, too. But when it all began, there was a lot of investment, a lot of money poured into the project. It was tough in the beginning,” Chu said.

“Back then, people thought we were trashing money, that we were throwing money into the ocean. It was so rural, so rural we had to move mountains and build mountains.”

Golf has had an uneasy history in China. Mao Tse-tung, the Father of Communist China, banned the sport – a “sport for millionaires,” he called it – until an Arnold Palmer-designed course opened in China in 1984. Even then, interest was limited. Governments and potential players needed its value proven to them.

“The government needed some incentive, some reasoning to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure. They needed something that was worthwhile,” Chu said. “Mission Hills was going to be a showcase, an example of how an investment in a megaproject can expedite other investments into infrastructure. That then attracted other investors into the region.”

Three years into the Mission Hills project, the government installed a road and reduced the two-hour travel time to 20 minutes.

Mission Hills recruited golfing legend Jack Nicklaus to design his first course, which hosted the World Cup of Golf in 1995. This was the first international tournament ever hosted in China. The course was finished only days before tee off.

“We were rushing,” Chu said. “It was courageous of my father to bid on the World Cup while the course was still under construction.”

The World Cup was televised across the country – and around the world. From there, the sport’s popularity grew in the Chu’s homeland. Mission Hills has been the site of more than 100 international tournaments, as well as celebrities by the score, notably playing host to Tiger Woods on his first visit to China in 2001. That sparked even more interest in the sport.

Less than a decade after that first tournament, the Guinness Book of World Records certified Mission Hills as the World’s Largest Golf Club in 2004. Quite an accomplishment for a project that sprung from a “garbage dump.”

David Chu died after a long bout with cancer in 2011. He was 61.

Ken Chu took over the company soon afterward. He was 32. And ready to cast his own shadow.

*   *   *

Mr. Golf is no longer just in the golf business. “Someone once said Mission Hills is like the ‘Disney of Golf,’” Chu laughed. “Maybe. But if variety is the spice of life, we have that too.”

Chu touts his ‘Golf and More’ vision for the Mission Hills Group – stressing the importance of his company evolving into a leisure and tourist destination for the whole family.

In 2010, Mission Hills Haikou opened on Hainan Island with 10 golf courses, each incorporating the native lava rock formations, a 518-room five-star hotel, golf academy, and aquatic theme park with 168-pool volcanic mineral springs. That year, Guinness listed Mission Hills Haikou as the World’s Largest Spa & Mineral Springs.

Missions Hills properties have expanded to include international hotel brands, such as Ritz Carlton and Hard Rock; shopping, entertainment and leisure centres; trendy restaurants, cafes and bars; an IMAX theatre cinemas; ice skating rinks; bowling alleys; racing centres; auto showrooms; and conference facilities.

In 2014, Mission Hills Haikou opened Movie Town. In association with director Feng Xiaogang, and the country’s leading studio, Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, the 930,000 square-metre facility features six professional movie studios.

Despite this success, Chu sees unlimited potential for growth. And he knows the numbers by heart. China’s population of 1.3 billion traveled domestically 4.4 billion times and spent $690 billion – last year alone. By 2020, those numbers are expected to grow to 6 billion domestic trips spending $860 billion.

Tourism, Chu understands, is the country’s next great cultural revolution. And he wants to be ready for it.

“If I just focus on golf, I will reach the ceiling some time. But now, I am diversifying into the greater tourism market. You just have to understand the trends.”

True to his father’s vision is that growth is tied to the community around Mission Hills properties.

“I always thought everything had to be win-win. But when doing business in China, you have to look out for all to win. Win-win is not good enough. It has to be more than the two contracting parties. You have to make sure the government wins; you have to make sure the community wins. It has to be win-win-win-win,” Chu explained.

“To succeed in China, you must be responsible to the community. You need to be a good corporate citizen. You don’t only want your guests, who are having a good time here, cheering for you. You want the community as a whole to be proud of you, to cheer for you. You want to convert them from a regular neighbour into a fan, and then convert them from a fan into a raving fan. You want people to cheer for you. That is my mentality.

“In my job, I get to see a lot of smiling faces. Interacting with people who are happy – that is a lot of transferring of positive energy, a lot of sharing positive energy. And that only gives me more momentum.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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