Third generation family fortunes
Winnie Chiu is president of hotel group Dorsett Hospitality International and an executive director of property group Far East Consortium, chaired by her father David. She speaks about helping to lead and innovate a Hong Kong family business that is now three generations old.
When the pandemic hit Hong Kong, it had a dramatic impact on the real estate and hospitality business. Arrivals fell by 94% year on year in 2020 to 3.57 million, and occupancy in the Special Administrative Region’s 300 plus hotels (with 85,000 rooms between them) plummeted to a low of 29%, compared to historical averages of nearer to 80%.
Riding out the revenue shock for property owners called for the flexibility to pivot to alternative sources of income, says Winnie Chiu, president and executive director of Hong Kong-based Dorsett Hospitality International, which has nine hotels in the SAR and more than 50 more around the globe. “Our hotels in Hong Kong were the first to open up for quarantine returnees, and in Singapore we leased a hotel to the government for quarantining. We were able to keep performing commercially because we had built a business that was agile enough to adapt.”
Agility and the ability to adapt and innovate come easily to Chiu, 42, who is one of a significant number of intrapreneurs: next-generation family leaders in Asia making a difference within their own businesses.
Chiu is a dynamic figure within Hong Kong’s tight business elite; as well as pushing Dorsett into taking a lead on sustainability in the hospitality sector, she is an active philanthropic supporter of the arts, sitting on the boards of the Hong Kong Art School, The Society of the Academy for Performing Arts, the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Asia Youth Orchestra, among others. She is also a vocal supporter of women in leadership roles in business.
Her family’s company, Dorsett Hospitality International, is a subsidiary of Far East Consortium, which was founded 50 years ago by Chiu’s grandfather, Deacon. Real estate and leisure are in the business’s DNA: and it has had to adapt to rapidly changing times over the decades. “My grandfather’s focus was on entertainment,” says Chiu. “But the way in which people use their leisure time changed and the business changed with it.”
Far East Consortium has been listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange since 1972 and is chaired by her father David Chiu, appointed managing director in 1978. Under his direction it has morphed to become an international property developer with annual revenues of approximately HKD5.9bn in FY 2021 and interests in residential and commercial real estate in 10 countries across the Asia Pacific region and Europe.
Chiu is now dealing with a generational change in demands on the business, including the sustainability and digital revolutions.
The Far East Consortium’s portfolio is based on geographic diversity, primarily key regional cities with high demand for residential and mixed-use property, spanning Australia, Asia and the UK. These include a 67-story, 876-unit residential tower in Melbourne, Australia and a mixed-use development in Manchester, UK, where it is the joint venture partner of the city’s governing authority in a 15-year urban regeneration scheme.
“We like cities because so much of the infrastructure is already there,” says Chiu. She sits on the board of Far East Consortium as executive director alongside her chairman father – the third generation of her family to do so. Her board role gives an insight into the parts of the business she doesn’t run as well as providing an asset-owner’s perspective on the hotel subsidiary that she does. “This is a family business where every dollar counts – the numbers drive everything. And Dorsett is an integrated hotel group, so we view our hotels as real estate assets because we own them as well as developing and running them.”
Chiu is bringing innovative new ideas to the business, including adapting the operations model, moving into digital booking and payments, and leading the agenda on sustainability, an area where many real estate groups in Asia are lagging. She began her career as an analyst at Credit Suisse before setting up her own business, a chain of fast-food restaurants in Hong Kong. “Being an entrepreneur taught me that energy and a ‘can do’ attitude really matters. Now I am in a much bigger business, but I try to keep that same energy and focus.”
Since she became president in 2010, Dorsett Hospitality International has expanded its hotel portfolio from 11 to a current total of 64 based on a three-tier model comprising different brands in different market segments.
Exploiting innovative new tech is playing an increasing part in facilitating that expansion. Dorsett Hospitality International is switching to online cloud-based systems in order to streamline its internal processes and integrate previously separate functional platforms.
It was also the first global hotel group to open a flagship store on a fast-growing online travel platform that connects travel brands with the growing numbers of Millennial and Gen-Z customers in mainland China, and which features China’s most popular and widely used digital payment service.
But while Chiu remains committed to driving change across the industry, she says her approach is built on a blend of new thinking tempered by traditional expertise and values. “I learn a lot from my father and I take his advice often. He is hugely experienced on the construction side, whereas I am more about development and operations. It’s like a game of football – we all have our natural positions to play.”
2010: Appointed president and executive director of Dorsett Hospitality International
2013: Becomes a board member of the Hong Kong Arts Centre
2014: Becomes a board member of the Wu Yee Sun College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
2016: Appointed chairman of Hong Kong Art School
2017: Appointed joint vice president of the Hong Kong Society of The Academy for Performing Arts