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The father of Hong Kong groupage

Apr 18, 2017
Steve Jordan visits Andy Mak from Asian Express, during a passing visit to Hong Kong, to hear his story and more about his position as the father of Hong Kong groupage.

It had been over 30 years since I had last been in Hong Kong. As my wife and I were passing through, I thought it a good opportunity to catch up with my old friend Andy Mak from Asian Express who I hadn’t seen, other than in conference bars, since I last visited in the 1980s. Then I was looking for shipments. Now I just wanted a story.

Much had changed since the old days. The last time I remember the landing at the old airport was interesting – in the same way that a roller coaster ride or a nightmare is interesting. This time it was a much more sedate affair as we touched down on Lantau Island and swept into Kowloon across futuristic bridges, past forests of stickle-brick tower blocks reflecting the flickering neon of Hong Kong island. Hong Kong was even bigger and brighter than before, but what else had changed?

Well Andy hadn’t. When we met the following day he didn’t even look any older than in 1986. I sent out a search party to locate the painting in the attic but without success. He’d probably shipped that to Canada along with everything else years earlier.

Warwick Woodley joined us as Andy drove us out of the city toward the Chinese border and his beloved Hong Kong Jockey Club for lunch. Andy has been passionate about riding since the 1970s, part owns a race horse and has his own steed, a retired racer called Win a Dozen that occupies his leisure hours. Warwick has recently joined the company from New Zealand to manage the Hong Kong office.

The Asian Express office is in central Kowloon. As with everywhere in Hong Kong, it’s part of a high-rise block. The office comes with access to its own pub, coffee bar, shops and fabulous views over the staggering skyline. I have been to many moving company offices over the last 40 years, and I knew Andy to be welcoming to visitors but, even so, I was shocked by the reception. As we walked into the central office, we were greeted by a 10-metre long sign welcoming us, and a staff that had been perfectly briefed, with military precision, to gather for a ceremonial photograph. I thought, if this is the way Andy runs his moving company, no wonder he’s done OK.

Andy Mak is one of the first generation of movers in Hong Kong. In fact he claims to be the father of Hong Kong household goods groupage. I suspect few would challenge him.

He was born in 1950 in Hong Kong to parents who had fled China when the communists took over. He took a summer job in 1968 with Crown and, after completing his education, joined the company full time in 1971. After he’d been there a year, the company’s owner, Jim Kreigsman, asked him to start a new company providing household goods groupage services. That’s how it all started.

Still in his 20s, Andy had to learn how to start and run a business. He’d be the salesman during the morning, knocking on shop doorways looking for furniture to ship for wealthy expatriates; a packer and supervisor in the afternoon; and would drive the trucks to the port in the evening. “I really enjoyed the challenge,” said Andy. “I appreciated Jim trusting me, having confidence in me and giving me the opportunity.”

The company went from zero to around 70 packers in a few short years with Andy as Crown’s first non-American general manager. But in 1978 came a change. A new company ownership will always be positive for some and not for others. It left Andy feeling upset and disappointed. Now that we all live in a much more culturally aware society, most business people know not to cross the Chinese. It’s never going to end well.

Andy left Crown that same year. He had no money and for three months he did nothing. “Then I thought, if I can start one company, I can start another.” With the aid of significant financial support from his parents, and the help of people who trusted him, Asian Express was born.

Andy had chosen a good time. There were very few groupage companies, if any, in Hong Kong at the time. Andy knew how to do it and already had the contacts. What’s more, the British lease on Hong Kong was about to expire in 1997 and many Hong Kong Chinese were getting very twitchy about what the future had in store, especially those old enough to remember the stories of what had happened in China only a few decades earlier.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s the business flooded in from private individuals, keen to flee Chinese rule and anxious to join relatives in Australia, the USA, Europe and, most especially, Canada. “Even my parents encouraged me to leave Hong Kong,” said Andy, “but I had a business to run.” His brothers, however, did leave and now live in New Zealand.

When dealing with local people, the Hong Kong Chinese, Andy had a big advantage over his competition: he understood the culture and what Chinese people wanted. Most of the competition were foreign investors which gave Andy an edge. “I was competing against the biggest companies in the world; people with deep pockets,” he said. “So the key had to be service. I have been a packer, I have been a supervisor, I know what people can and cannot do and when they are going to pull a fast one. We always made sure that we delivered on our promises.”

Andy’s Chinese heritage was an advantage for private moves but was a disadvantage when it came to corporate work. “We all know that a Brit talks best to a Brit, an Aussie to and Aussie, an Italian to an Italian and German to a German,” he said, breaking into very passable national accents as he worked his way through the list. “So I employed foreigners to open the doors for me.” Warwick Woodley is his most recent recruit but Corin Packwood is a Brit who has been with Andy for many years; Chad Forrest, an American, runs the Beijing office; and Frenchman Benoit Morel runs Shanghai. Many other well-known names in the industry have also worked with Andy.

Inevitably, perhaps, Asian Express came under some pressure to join international trading groups. Andy always knew that he had to be part of a network if his business was to continue its success. Then, around 15 years ago, he met Ed Voerman who was involved with UTS. “They invited me to a UTS meeting on the Dutch colonial island of Aruba and I was immediately made to feel welcome,” said Andy. “I joined UTS and quickly had support from many companies, especially in Europe. It really made a difference.” Asian Express is still an enthusiastic member of Harmony.

Andy’s tales of how he started his offices in China – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – are probably best left for a late night in the bar, but let’s just say, they are colourful. He started them all, from scratch, around 1994. “I figured, if it works in one place, it will work in another,” he said. He didn’t speak Mandarin, had no staff and no business. Then he picked up the Beijing American Embassy contract and set about putting an organisation together to handle it. When you next see Andy, ask him about it. He will tell you. But for now, let’s just say, it pays to be bold in business.

Asian Express now employs over 100 people, many of whom have very long service with the company. “We have one goal and we all pull in the same direction,” said Andy. “That’s what makes it work. I treat people fairly and understand that everyone is important. Even the tea lady [I got the impression he meant ‘especially’ the tea lady]. You have to earn their trust just as I have to earn theirs. Maybe they can get better money somewhere else but it’s not just money; it’s how we work together as a team.”

As with most Chinese people, Andy believes in fate. It was all meant to be. His business has been successful for 38 years - and he has even been able to pay back his parents! What comes next, he doesn’t know. He has no children to inherit the business but, at the tender age of 66, he has no real interest in retiring yet either. “They will have to carry me out of here in a box,” he jokes. At least I think he was joking.

Photos: Middle right: Steve and Sheila Jordan were greeted enthusiastically by the staff at Asian Express in Hong Kong; Middle left: Andy with Warwick Woodley.

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