Allan Zeman: The Father Of Lan Kwai Fong

“Where do I sign?”

Client: Forbes feat. LKF Group
Website: lkfgroup.com
Date: October 30, 2016
Services: Profile
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It’s Thursday evening, which means that well below Allan Zeman’s sky-high office, happy hour is in full swing, an optimistically early kickoff to yet another unpredictably turbulent weekend on the streets of Hong Kong’s legendary party district, Lan Kwai Fong (LKF). Zeman, the self-effacing entrepreneur locally known as ‘The Father of LKF’ for his leading role in developing the renowned entertainment quarter into what it is today, is a collected, thoughtful man in his sixties. He has a shiny bald head and a prominent nose and two burning, intelligent eyes. He talks without hurry, precisely, and with an undeniable sense of self-assuredness. He’s the kind of person you could bump into while not paying attention and he’d offer a courteous smile and move on with his day. He doesn’t just casually collect books; his office is full of them, stacked like Jenga towers on their last legs.

Growing up in Montréal, Zeman began delivering newspapers before school from the ripe age of ten to contribute what he could to his modest family. At twelve, he convinced a nearby steakhouse that he was sixteen so he could work weekends there, clearing tables on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. He laughs amiably as he reflects on those early days: “Between the newspaper route and my restaurant job, I was making more than my schoolteachers!”

Of course, that was just the beginning. At nineteen, Zeman started a business importing ladies’ sweaters from Hong Kong which, in his first year of operations, made him $1 million USD in profit (about $7 million USD inflation-adjusted today). If the thought wasn’t already there, it was certainly planted firmly after that first year: maybe the opportunities outside of Canada are worth exploring.

“When I told my mother I wanted to move to Hong Kong, she said, ‘You want to move to Japan?’ Nobody knew where Hong Kong was at the time.” Nevertheless, Zeman made the move, and it wasn’t long before he saw opportunity in Lan Kwai Fong. In 1983, he opened California Bar, a pastel-adorned restaurant-club hybrid that was distinctly arms-length from the five-star jacket-and-tie affairs that LKF was known for at the time, and his vision only expanded from there, purchasing the California Entertainment Building outright in 1988 and the California Tower next door in 1992. More than anyone else, Zeman saw promise in the oddly-shaped, underutilized area that was LKF, and he wasn’t afraid to act on his intuition. “I look at things not for what they are; I look at things for what they could be,” he says with a hint of omniscience.

Over the next quarter-century, Zeman’s pace has only sped up. He built the five-star Andara Resort in Phuket, Thailand’s beach resort paradise on the Andaman Sea, and then plunged into Ocean Park, revitalizing Hong Kong’s homegrown amusement park into the best in the world. If that wasn’t enough, he’s expanded the Lan Kwai Fong brand and atmosphere to Chinese cities like Chengdu, Haikou and Shanghai, a more difficult task than it seems given that, as he explains, “China’s one word, but it’s really more like thirty different countries, where every province and every city has its own culture.” Still, even while he’s busy constructing towers and striking deals, the mogul isn’t one to forget his roots.

Zeman was just seven years old when his father passed, and he saw firsthand how the event changed his mother forever. “Seeing her play the role of the victim taught me what not to do,” he observes. “Everybody goes through problems in life, but the important thing is that you pick yourself up and move on from those problems.”

The other lesson he pulled from that experience? “The most important thing in life is health.” His eyes light up as he describes a piece of his morning routine: “One hundred sit-ups with my feet in the air, one hundred forward crunches, forty dumbbell curls with each arm, an hour on the elliptical… And I never miss a day. I’ve been doing that for 38 years now.”

It’s this unwavering discipline that, more than anything else, has granted Zeman the fortune he holds today. He’s the archetypal self-made man; humble roots and a taste of poverty as a boy imparting upon him his deep respect for money, an arrival to Hong Kong as an outsider solidifying his sense of independence. As he sees it, replicating his success begins with a few core activities: “Be positive, be confident in yourself, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Money is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life. You need to have a good balance.” That, above all else, is what he strives for. Family, friends, fulfilment – these are the things on Zeman’s priority list, not his bank accounts.

Ask him why he moved to Hong Kong, or why he’s chosen to live here for most of his life, or why he continues to advocate for the city that he’s seen change and grow so much, and his answer is so strikingly simple that it echoes that of Andrew Keith, President of both Lane Crawford and JOYCE Boutique, nearly perfectly: “Here in Hong Kong, if you apply yourself, you can go up against the best. Anything is possible here.” And he’s absolutely right.

As we part ways, the large stack of paper sitting between us reminds me of an hour prior, when Zeman had just stepped into his office and, right on cue, his assistant brought over the mountain of forty or fifty checks to his desk. Without so much as a blip in our conversation, with his hallmark calm demeanor totally under control, he leafed through the pile, asking nothing but the question many of us only dream of posing in the way that he does so effortlessly.

“Where do I sign?”

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