When Adrian Cheng looks across Hong Kong’s harbor from Tsim Sha Tsui, he sees his family’s legacy writ large across the city’s skyline. There, from a balcony atop the new luxury apartment building of his Victoria Dockside development, he can view the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on the opposite side of the harbor.
With its curved glass and massive sloping roof, the convention center is said to resemble a bird taking flight. His grandfather Cheng Yu-tung, founder of the family’s flagship property firm New World Development, came up with the ambitious plan for the building, which included a manmade island, back in the early 1980s when the market was in a slump and other developers had no interest. Undeterred, Yu-tung turned the convention center into a Hong Kong icon, showcasing New World’s capabilities. Yu-tung reportedly once said the convention center was one of the two projects of which he was most proud.
And the other project? It was the New World Centre, a mixed-use complex that was demolished about a decade ago to allow the development of Victoria Dockside. Cheng has overseen this project from the start, building on the site of his grandfather’s former landmark, as part of a wider strategy to develop his K11 brand.
“I’m not inheriting a 50-year-old family business and trying to preserve it and hold it tight. That’s not me,” Cheng says. “I’m disrupting it and rejuvenating it to create a new business model.” While Cheng’s father, Henry Cheng Kar-shun, continues to serve as New World’s chairman, his eldest son is executive vice-chairman and general manager, a position he has held since 2017.
As with the convention center, the $2.6 billion project was risky. The launching of Victoria Dockside, which has opened in stages from 2018, comes as Hong Kong suffers its worst downturn in a decade. Hit by months of protests and the U.S.-China trade war, Hong Kong’s third quarter GDP contracted 3.2% from the previous quarter, after retreating 0.4% in the second quarter—its first recession since the global financial crisis in 2009.
Victoria Dockside was a gamble in another way. Cheng could have taken the safe route, choosing a conservative design. Instead, Cheng endorsed an innovative design expressing the ideals of his K11 brand, which he created and has refined since 2009. This complex is the biggest and most elaborate expression of the brand. The 65-story office tower is called K11 Atelier, the luxury apartments K11 Artus and the shopping mall with art galleries K11 Musea. The only major non-K11 brand in the complex is Rosewood Hong Kong, part of a luxury hotel chain that the family also owns.
K11 is a novel concept—blending “art, people and nature.” It is meant to fuse together elements of artistic, cultural and environmental design in public and private spaces. “I don’t see [K11 Musea] as a shopping mall, but as a place for millennials to learn, acquire knowledge and be immersed in different cultures.”
To fulfill his vision, he hired 100 designers, architects and artists from around the world, each overseeing a different part of the complex, even utilitarian areas such as the carpark. Coordinating it all was New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, one of the world’s leading architectural firms.
One striking example of K11’s brand DNA is the atrium of K11 Musea, which soars eight stories and features twin circular skylights and a geodesic sphere measuring 10.4 meters in diameter suspended over the space whose interior is reserved for performances or exhibitions.
Cheng’s gamble is showing early signs of paying off: even as Hong Kong’s economy contracted, K11 Musea opened last August with 97% occupancy and K11 Atelier has around 80% occupancy at rental rates above HK$100 per square foot ($13)—33% above the average rent for grade-A office space. The complex has won multiple awards—even one for its carpark, which features graffiti by Cara To, a Belgian artist born to Hong Kong parents.
“Our slogan for New World Development is we create, we are artisans,” Cheng says. “I want everyone to believe that they are a creator, that they can innovate and create things.” Victoria Dockside’s tenants include Cartier and Gucci, and several brands new to Hong Kong such as Fortnum & Mason’s first store outside the U.K., a Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and a Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry school (only the second such school in the world).
Cheng, 40 and an avid art collector, first tested K11 in Hong Kong in 2009 with a six-story “art mall” in Kowloon’s Masterpiece building, a joint venture between New World and Hong Kong’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. He then developed K11 projects in mainland China—Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Tianjin and Wuhan—all of which combine commerce with art. He plans to keep expanding the K11 brand, with plans for a total 36 projects opened across China by 2024. He also runs the nonprofit K11 art foundation and the for-profit K11 Investment fund.
“The hardest thing I think is the tenacity and the perseverance of testing that product for the first few years, and believing that it would work, not blindly or egotistically, but knowing it would take time,” Cheng says of his vision for K11.
To further his interest in art, Cheng has taken high-level roles at some of the world’s leading art institutions, including being a board member of New York’s Museum of Modern Art PS1 and a trustee of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He likes to pepper his social media with posts about art.
On the business side, Cheng also runs two private investment ventures from Hong Kong. The first is C Ventures, which he runs with Clive Ng, a veteran entrepreneur and investor in media and internet companies in Asia.
C Ventures has investments in about 20 fashion, media and lifestyle startups. Among them is Golong, a Hangzhou-based site selling cosmetics from trendy brands such as British brand Man Cave and Korean brand SNP. The company claims to be valued after its latest financing round at over $300 million. The K11 Investment fund invests in tech firms in areas such as AI, virtual reality and big data.
Beyond making money on the investments, Cheng sees these funds as a way to stay on top of quickly evolving tastes and technology, especially among China’s younger generation. “The paradigm shifts very fast,” says Cheng. “We’re looking at the consumer habits of millennials and Generation Z.”
Looking beyond K11 and Victoria Dockside, Cheng is continuing to expand New World through other real estate projects. Two of New World’s biggest projects under way are the HK$20 billion Skycity and the HK$30 billion Kai Tak Sports Park. The first will cover 25 hectares, and when fully completed in 2027, will be one of the largest mixed-use complexes in Hong Kong. The Kai Tak Sports Park, meanwhile, will be on the site of the former Kai Tak airport. The complex will be home to a 50,000-seat main stadium, a 10,000-seat indoor sports center, a 5,000-seat public sports ground and other facilities, and is slated for completion in 2023.
Over the next five years, New World would like to more than triple its portfolio of investment properties in Hong Kong, from 2.3 million square feet to 9.8 million. In mainland China, the company’s rental portfolio is expected to grow from 0.2 million square meters to 1.3 million. The company, he says, wants to reposition itself to focus on China’s “greater bay area”—an area within about a 100km radius around Hong Kong that China would like to develop into an integrated megalopolis, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai.
Demonstrating China’s importance to New World, the family privatized its formerly listed New World China Land in 2016 so it could have more direct control over its mainland strategy. More than 50% of its China landbank is now located in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
All this expansion comes at a cost. Among Hong Kong’s big developers, New World has one of the higher ratios of debt to equity, at 32% in 2019 compared with the previous year’s 29%. Yet Cheng is confident that New World can handle the debt load. For the fiscal year ended in June, the company’s revenues—generated through a mix of property sales and its rental business—rose 26% to HK$77 billion, while underlying profit was up 10% to HK$8.8 billion.
In December 2018, New World diversified its business further when it bought FTLife Insurance for HK$22 billion through its infrastructure subsidiary NWS Holdings. The acquisition was aimed at expanding the firm’s life and medical insurance business after it launched in the same year Humansa, a Hong Kong-based healthcare service for the elderly in the greater bay area.
To help with the need for more affordable housing in Hong Kong, New World announced last September that it would donate around 20% of its agricultural landbank, some 280,000 square meters, to the government, where it will construct over 100 apartments for low-income families by 2022. Explaining this act of generosity, Cheng says: “What I learned from my father and my grandfather is that you need to have a very big heart.”
I’m a senior editor based in Hong Kong. I’ve been reporting on Asia’s wealthiest people for Forbes and Bloomberg for about a decade. Previously, I worked with British diplomats at the consulate general in Hong Kong. Any tips, please contact me at email@example.com