The Quiet Giant
The PEAK Hong Kong|October 2017

Dr Jonathan Choi wears a lot of hats and sobriquets as he heads up low profile conglomerate Sunwah Group. But with a rising tide of interest in ASEAN and a pending free trade deal, the quiet days may get a little noiser.

Ryan Swift

During a recent conference held by the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Dr Jonathan Choi was clearly relishing his position. The conference was to encourage the final stages of negotiation between the Hong Kong government and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a free trade agreement. Attending the conference was the newly installed Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, business luminaries such as Vincent Lo and Anthony Leung, and consular representatives from ASEAN’s nations. Amid the speeches and handshakes, Choi was in the middle of it all, enjoying himself. Choi attended the conference in his capacity as chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, which had co-organised the event. But the fact that his family-controlled company, Sunwah Group, was a major sponsor belied the double importance that Choi places on a free trade deal between Hong Kong and ASEAN. Sunwah has been present in Southeast Asia for decades, particularly in Vietnam, where the group built one of the first office towers in Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s. As Vietnam hits growth rates that rival China’s (as are the Philippines and Indonesia), Choi admits to feeling vindicated for his long involvement in Southeast Asia.

Choi is at once friendly, talkative, quick with a smile, and secretive. Only two small parts of Sunwah Group are listed, both of which are involved in fund raising and capital markets. One entity, Sunwah Kingsway, was dubbed ‘The Small Caps King of Hong Kong’ in 2014, thanks to its quiet role in bringing small firms to market and distributing deals to family offices and funds. In 2016, Sunwah Kingsway reported a loss of HK$72 million, down from a small profit of $12 million in 2015. But Sunwah Kingsway also reported that it is now looking at deals in China and Vietnam. Given the investment priorities of Choi, they’re certain to find opportunities.

FINDING FACTS IN FISH

Sunwah Group began with Choi’s father, Choi Kai Yau, in 1957, originally as a seafood processing company out of Macau. Choi Kai Yau was determined to be ‘The King of Seafood’, and set about his goal with fierce enthusiasm, according to Choi.

That spirit of competitiveness no doubt played a part in the younger Choi’s early education. He once described having to get down to the Kennedy Town fish market by 5am in the 1970s to circulate among fishermen and their catches, deciding which catches to buy and get to Sunwah’s processing plants. It involved making snap decisions and instant calculations. “That was how I was trained and prepared for management,” Choi told SCMP in 2006. Shortly after, at the age of 20, he was using money generated from the seafood business to purchase property in Macau.

From property, there were moves into finance, at first for mortgage lending, later for financing and investment banking. Then it was into technology and software in the early 2000s. The seafood business, which started with exporting product to Japan, is now a food import-export business with interests stretching from Vietnam through Hong Kong to China and Japan.

After Choi took over Sunwah, he had a chance meeting with his father’s chief rival in the seafood business. The old man and Choi, then in his 40s, wound up shaking hands and laughing at the way in which he and the elder Choi had fought each other over the years. The old man (Choi declines to name him) even had a fish processing factory right next to Sunwah’s. Choi remembers his father coming home at night and berating his competitor at the dinner table, all in his effort to remain king of seafood.

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