In his youth, Bernard Chan endured a life threatening health condition that required extended stays in hospital. The result is a determination to live his life meaningfully.
When Bernard Charnwut Chan sold Asia Commercial Bank in 2006 for a reported HK$4.5 billion, it was the second largest financial services takeover in the history of Hong Kong. Despite the shrewdly timed exit, Chan still regards himself as a banker who is following proudly in the footsteps of his illustrious grandfather, Chin Sophonpanich, the founder of Bangkok bank – one of Asia's biggest regional banks.
Chin represented the classic Chinese rags-to riches saga, arriving in Thailand as a labourer from Chaozhou city and building an international business empire brick by brick, by addressing the financial needs of the growing Chinese diaspora in Thailand.
"Growing up in Hong Kong I was very much aware of my grandfather’s legacy and how he built the Bangkok Bank," says Chan, whose family still dominate banking and financial services in Thailand.
An impressive bronze bust of the family patriarch, who died in 1988, overlooks the opulently appointed offices of Asia Financial Services, which occupies the 16th floor of Worldwide House in Central Hong Kong. Chan moved his offices to this building (which he purchased “for about HK$20 million, I think”) in 2006, after the sale of the bank, and he casually remarks that the floor above this one recently sold for HK$509 million.
“It is typical Hong Kong. Even if your core businesses are struggling a little, if you bought property years ago, [they] will still make loads of money,” he says in passing.
The Wall Street Journal once wrote of his family and their influence in Asian financial affairs. “For two generations, one family has towered over Thailand's economy. Few who invest in the country can sidestep the banking, insurance and securities network controlled by the Sophonpanich clan," intoned the newspaper in 1998 – and not much has changed since.
"You know, I still write ‘banker’ in the occupation box on those immigration forms when I am travelling overseas," Chan admits, and although no longer strictly accurate, he has a lot of occupations to squeeze into that tiny space. He could also select politician, insurance magnate, social entrepreneur, public official, National People’s Congress councillor, philanthropist, father (he has two teenage sons) or even artist. His list of notable achievements seems almost interminable.
A TALENT FOR DIVERSITY
Chan was the youngest member of Legco when he was elected as a member for the insurance sector at the age of 33 years, in 1988 (he served until 2008) and is currently a non-official member of the Executive Council and one of only 36 Hong Kong deputies to China's National People's Congress. At the age of 40, he became President of both Asia Financial and Asia Insurance, and in 1999 he formed the Bank Consortium Trust, a joint venture of nine Hong Kong institutions that provides Mandatory Provident Fund services and of which he was founding chairman. Chan sits on the boards of several local and overseas companies in the financial services, utilities and manufacturing sectors and in 2015 he joined the governing board of the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund in Hong Kong. He is chairman of the Hong Kong Chi Tung Association, an organisation of senior financial services professionals, Chairman of the Hong Kong-Thailand Business Council, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service – an umbrella group for Hong Kong's welfare agencies – and he founded the innovative Caring Company in 2002, an organisation that creates partnerships between the business and welfare sectors.
This list of notable and worthy activities, positions and responsibilities goes further still, and even a brief examination of Bernard’s Chan's public profile raises the obvious and intriguing question of what motivates him to engage in such a broad spectrum of demanding private, public, philanthropic and business activities, across so many walks of life. It is very unlikely he needs the money or increased profile, so what is it that makes Bernard Chan tick?
Being the last of four children and significantly younger than his siblings, Chan was brought up in Hong Kong as an only child within the confines of an immensely wealthy and famous Asian banking dynasty. However, there was little chance of the young Chan being cosseted and spoiled or developing into an over-indulged and truculent youth.
"My mother is very traditional and very strict and we were never allowed lavish spending. She was very disciplined and so much so that by the age of fifteen I could not stand it and I asked to study abroad like my siblings," remembers Chan.
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