Feature Stories

18.10.2017

Taking Transgenerational Entrepreneurship into the Digital Age

With the launch of the MaBelle jewelry store chain more than two decades ago, Mr Max Ma opened up a whole new market for the Lee Heng Diamond Group founded by his father. Now Mr Theodore Ma, Max’s son, is expanding the family’s engagement with  the innovations beyond the family business  through CoCoon, an entrepreneurship network he co-founded in 2012.

Providing the members of each generation with the support, as well as the freedom, they need to develop their innovative ideas and utilize their individual skills, which has been key to the success of the Lee Heng Diamond Group and the Ma family’s other business interests.

Now Max Ma sees his son’s technical skills and perspectives playing a central role in the future. “Our digital strategy is going to be critical to our survival,” he says.

When Max’s father came to Hong Kong almost 70 years ago, it was to buy diamonds for sale in his native Thailand. When he passed away, Max was only 12 years old and his elder brother and mother took over the business.

Migrating up and downstream

By the late 1980s Lee Heng had grown to be one of the most significant diamond importers in Hong Kong and Asia, with Max, who had studied accountancy, responsible for strategic planning. Though the business was very profitable, he realized its long-term future depended on migrating both up and downstream.

“So I went to Thailand and opened a diamond polishing factory, and then came back to Hong Kong and opened MaBelle in 1993,” he explains.

Max’s vision was to create a large-scale retail chain that didn’t just target the rich but offered fixed-price, widely affordable and fashionable diamond jewelry to a much broader demographic. Though, initially, there was widespread skepticism as to whether sufficient demand existed, MaBelle now has more than 50 shops in Hong Kong and 40 in mainland China.

“Every business I’ve seen become a phenomenal success has hit a market that is there waiting to be discovered,” Max says.

Back in 2002 when Theodore Ma was in college at Stanford University he sold his first piece of jewelry. What took people aback at the time was that he’d made the sale online, on eBay, without the buyer first seeing or touching the jewelry.

On his return to Hong Kong on graduation in 2004, Theodore launched the online division of MaBelle. “This not only brought a new dimension to our business, it was also the precursor to all the things we’re currently doing. It’s why we’re involved in start-up investments, incubation and investing in retail technologies.”

Thinking beyond jewelry

In 2010, accompanied by his father, Theodore attended one of the earliest “Start-up Saturday” events. The fact that one of the 15 companies pitching that day was subsequently bought by Google for US$120 million underlined to both Ma senior and junior that something was brewing in Hong Kong.

So in 2012, having already backed a co-working space business, they launched CoCoon, a family-supported venture run by Max, Theodore and Erica, Theodore’s sister.

Along with a 9,000 square-foot area for entrepreneurs, and a range of engineers and creatives to work in, CoCoon offers entrepreneurship education through The CoCoon Foundation, and funding for early-stage entrepreneurs who have a unique vision, through CoCoon Ignite Ventures.

Theodore sees start-ups as part of the wider business community and not as a group that needs handouts. The aim of CoCoon, his father adds, is to cultivate a creative and collaborative environment, and facilitate opportunities. “But they [the entrepreneurs] have to convert these opportunities for themselves,” he stresses.

Creating a better society through entrepreneurship is a vision embraced by both generations. To date, CoCoon has run over 450 entrepreneurship events and raised over HK$940 million. “We have spearheaded an entrepreneurship movement in Hong Kong,” Max says.

Theodore doesn’t view the seemingly revolutionary new ways of working created by digital technology and the internet as a threat to the notion of the family business. “We are only changing the facade, the communication aspect of relationships. I don’t think the values should change.”

Max believes that, as in the wider society, in order to create harmony within a family it is important to find commonality and accept diversity – as different people are motivated by different things, and have different talents.

For Theodore, family always comes before business. “Being united as a family makes us a lot stronger. We don’t compete within the family, because competing internally is like setting fire to your own home.

Unlike many successful entrepreneurs who attempt to replicate their success in their kids, Max holds a very different view. “I want to be known as Theodore's father, not for him to be known as Max's son.”

“Our journey has taken us from selling diamonds as a luxury product, to selling them to a mass market, to engaging with, and selling to, consumers online,” Theodore explains. “Pushing the boundaries and finding new markets has kept us way ahead of our competitors.”

Max Ma and his son Theodore venturing together for more than 30 years