Feature Stories

14.07.2021

Facing the Challenge

Business disruptions brought about by the trade war between the US and China, COVID-19 and social unrest, have led to a challenging few years for retailers. Max MA, Chairman of Lee Heng Diamond Group and home-grown veteran retailer, has some good advice on how to get through the tough times.

“Innovation will ensure that businesses survive today’s challenges,” says Max Ma, Chairman of Lee Heng Diamond Group.

“A business will only survive if you innovate, otherwise a business cannot survive, so my advice is to innovate or die,” says Mr Max Ma, Chairman of Lee Heng Diamond Group and founder and Chairman of MaBelle, the Mabros, and MADIA jewellery retail brands.

There is a big difference between “innovation” and “invention”, Ma says. “Innovation means a new method, or way, to solve an old problem or existing process with the aim to increase productivity or efficiency,” he says. Ma maintains that innovation is imperative in these disruptive times.

Ma’s advice results from his personal experiences at the helm of the 72-year-old diamond business, which was founded in 1949. Having spent more than 30 years leading the company through some incredibly difficult times in Hong Kong history, Ma bases his confidence in the business’s future on the resilience it has shown in the past.

Stay true to your values

First and foremost, Ma believes that his company has navigated the storms of the past by staying true to its company values. He advises other businesses to consider doing the same. 

“When I think about aligning everyone in my business, I have to think about what ‘Lee Heng’ stands for,” he says. Ma even put pen to paper and had his values transcribed onto scrolls using Chinese calligraphy which are displayed around the offices.

The essence of his words loosely translates to say that by keeping the community, the customers, and its people happy, the company can experience growth. “When people are ok, families will be ok, and our country will be ok,” he says. It’s a win-win formula that has become a company motto. “I have to make everybody understand that this is our core company value,” Ma says.

There are five more values that form the foundation of his company, he says. The five values are: people are our most important asset; the customer is our highest priority; a partnership is the way to the future because we can’t do everything on our own; knowledge and technology with a touch of creativity form our cutting edge; and performance is the only way to win, as you have to make things happen.

“The way our whole company functions starts from here, and these values serve to align our company, and align our colleagues within the company,” he says.

Take a long view

Ma is committed to Hong Kong and nurturing the future talent. He was a Council Member of HKUST and now an Advisory Council Board Member of the HKUST Business School. He is confident about the future of businesses in Hong Kong, and draws a great deal of optimism from reflecting on the city’s role in relation to China and the rest of the world.

“I tend to take a very long view. There are things we can’t change, such as geopolitics,” he says. Looking back over the history of Hong Kong and the challenges such as SARS and the financial crisis, he is certain that Hong Kong is resilient, and that the city will always be instrumental to China’s success. “If you look back far enough, you can see how far we have come,” he says.   

Noting the riots of 1967, the stock market confidence crisis of 1983, the 1997 financial crisis, and more recent events, Ma believes Hong Kong is going through a fourth crisis amid today’s trade dispute and other current issues. But the challenges will make the city stronger, he says. Businesses need to “look beyond this fourth crisis” and battle with the challenges brought on by the trade war, social unrest, and COVID-19. “My confidence comes from our attitude, the attitude of the people. Hong Kong people are survivors,” he says.

Ma’s confidence is not rooted in blind faith but in the strength of Hong Kong itself.  “When you look at why people choose to go and live in a place, they’re looking for peace, security, rule of law, freedom of speech and travel, and stability,” he says. “As a consequence of all these, capital will flow in and opportunities will appear.”

Another reason why Ma believes Hong Kong will continue as a great city for commerce and finance is because it has accumulated a great deal of wealth, and has therefore secured some staying power. “Our government doesn’t have to go and borrow a lot of money or print a lot of money, it can just spend whatever it has accumulated, and this is our greatest privilege,” he says.

Acquire the best talent  

Ma says that the “only problem” now is that China and the US are in a conflict which has a remarkable similarity to that in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Ma believes in focusing more on China for now. “My aim is to look at how to transform my company in a way so that we have the sustainability to be the last company standing,” he says.

Ma is no stranger to this approach, having reinvented brands within the company several times. He tapped into something a bit different from ear piercing, and his venture MaBelle has become the leading ear-piercing service in the city.

Ma believes that the best way to ensure a company’s survival is to make sure that it retains and acquires the very best talents for its business. A company should also engage with its customers, he adds. “They are the people who pay my bills,” he jokes.

Ma advises companies to adopt a strategy that is flexible, and employ competent people who can adapt to any situation. “When people have doubts, you have to understand and convince them to take a step in a different direction. I think that is very important. No business will survive the next 20 years if they are still doing what they did 20 years ago,” he says.

How to Stay Ahead

Max Ma believes that innovation is the key to staying ahead, and businesses should focus on the “5Cs”:

  • Identify and understand your Challenge. Every business has a different challenge in a new environment.
  • Retain an attitude of Commitment. This means having a strong resolve towards solving a problem.
  • Curiosity. Always ask why and find out why things are the way they are.
  • Connectivity. How do you connect things that don’t seem to connect?
  • Creativity. With creativity, we can come up with innovative solutions to address the disruptive challenges of today.