Meet The ‘Shop King’: How Tang Shing-bor Became A Billionaire Flipping Hong Kong’s Derelict Properties

Tins Plaza was an eyesore, a run-down, abandoned plastics factory in the Tuen Mun district when Tang Shing-bor first spotted it. To Tang, though, it was a gem, one of many forgotten industrial buildings sprinkled around Hong Kong, well worth the roughly $36 million he paid for it in 2005. But even he couldn’t have foreseen that just two years later he would triple his money on it.

It was by snapping up derelict industrial properties like Tins Plaza, flipping them or redeveloping them, that Tang went from the verge of insolvency in 2003 to billionaire in 2016, when he first made the list of Hong Kong’s richest. Now at 86 and No. 14 on the list with a net worth of $5.7 billion, Tang is making one of his biggest contrarian bets yet.

Despite months of protests casting a pall over the city’s property market, Tang has embarked on a shopping spree of Hong Kong’s industrial buildings, spending $700 million last year. He ranks as the biggest buyer of Hong Kong industrial properties in 2019, according to data from New York-based research firm, Real Capital Analytics.

This is the best opportunity I’ve ever seen,” says Tang in a rare interview, held at one of his buildings in Hong Kong’s bustling Mong Kok district, just blocks from where some of the most violent scenes of unrest have taken place. During the interview, Tang is multitasking, juggling phone calls from brokers, developers and lawyers. He is negotiating his next purchase, a dilapidated building next to the city’s old Kai Tak airport, which the government is auctioning off for redevelopment. To Tang, Hong Kong’s political turmoil is only creating better bargains. “We will move on from this,” he says.

Property is only the latest of Tang’s several incarnations in a career that traces Hong Kong’s own development.

At his side is the youngest of his five sons from two marriages, Stan Tang Yiu-sing, 34, chairman of the holding company he and his father established in 2013 and named Stan Group. Tang Sr., whose title is honorable chairman, remains very involved, and the two meet twice a day. Stan oversees new businesses and redevelopment of properties. Tang still cuts the property deals. “I make the final decisions,” says Tang in a booming baritone that belies his age.

Known in Hong Kong’s real estate circles as “Uncle Bor,” property is only the latest of Tang’s several incarnations in a career that traces Hong Kong’s own development—from neon bulb maker in the 1950s, to 1970s restaurateur, to earning the moniker “shop king” for his string of retail spaces—a foray that almost broke him.

Today, Tang is renowned for his knack of spotting remnants of Hong Kong’s bygone days as a manufacturing hub, its disused factories and warehouses, in areas poised for gentrification. That expertise is attracting eager partners, including Hong Kong’s Chinese Estates Holdings and Yangzhou-based Jiayuan International, which have both set up joint ventures with Stan Group to redevelop its industrial properties. “He’s very effective and experienced in converting these building sites,” says Joseph Lam, associate director of industrial services at Colliers International.

Tang has never feared failure. His father died when he was 5 and he was raised by his mother, who took a low-paying job in a factory to support them. “I had to come up with creative ways to survive,” he says. Tang recalls loitering outside restaurants when he was hungry, waiting for handouts. Growing up poor gave him grit: well into his 70s, he kept in shape with dawn swims beyond the shark net off Hong Kong’s shore. “There’s always a way,” he says. “There’s never a problem that can’t be solved.”

With only a primary school education, Tang became an apprentice in 1950 to an electrician making neon signs, and in his 20s opened his own store catering to then-booming demand for the bright storefront marquees that remain one of Hong Kong’s hallmarks. Neon success enabled Tang in 1970 to open a dim sum eatery with friends. That led to a string of restaurant investments, including a seafood restaurant in Sydney, that Tang would in 1982 consolidate as the East Ocean Gourmet Group, which is still thriving today. The 1980s saw Tang branch out into a flurry of new businesses, including a used car dealership. But it was buying and selling shops where Tang made his mark. “Looking after the restaurant exposed him to news of nearby shops,” says Stan. One of his most notable investments in the following years would be the purchase in 1990 of an old restaurant building that he would transform into the renowned Mongkok Computer Centre.

“I’m optimistic about Hong Kong’s future,” says Tang. “I’ve seen ups and downs. There are opportunities out of risks. This is my chance—my turn.”

Tang Shing-bor

By 1997, Tang had amassed more than 200 shops worth roughly HK$7.3 billion ($942 million) and began planning an IPO, only to be thwarted by the Asian financial crisis. Hong Kong’s property market fell 70% between 1997 and 2004 as the crisis was followed by the outbreak of SARS in 2003. By 2004, with HK$4 billion in debt, Tang began selling most of his portfolio, including his prized Mongkok Computer Centre.

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What he didn’t sell, however, was a smattering of industrial space he began buying in 1996 to hedge against volatile retail rental yields. And Tang knew just where to buy. Hong Kong had decided in 1990 to close Kai Tak and build a new, larger airport on Lantau Island. So Tang focused on Tuen Mun, a neighborhood directly across a bay from the new airport and connected by road to Hong Kong’s nearest neighbor in mainland China, the fast-growing city of Shenzhen.

Tang starts drawing a rough map: “Let me tell you about the factories on San Hop Lane,” he says as he sketches out the streets and buildings around his first purchase, Tuen Mun’s Oi Sun Centre. Tang bought the former factory in foreclosure for HK$42 million in 2004.

Up the street was Tins Plaza, the retired plastics factory named for its former owner, chemical tycoon-turned-philanthropist Tin Ka-ping. Tang picked up the building in early 2005 for HK$280 million, putting HK$28 million in cash down and borrowing the rest from banks using another of his buildings as collateral.

Six months later, Tang says he received a call from an industrial property unit of Australia’s Macquarie Bank, Macquarie Goodman, offering him HK$500 million for the building. By October, he had a second offer, for HK$520 million, from Singapore property investment fund Mapletree. “But that’s not even the best part,” Tang says.

Faced with rival offers, Tang chose neither. Commercial property commands a higher price than industrial property, he reasoned, so he had Tins Plaza rezoned as commercial. Two years later, Tang found himself in an elevator to Macquarie’s offices in Hong Kong’s International Finance Centre to meet an executive who had flown in from Sydney with a new offer. “The gweilo [foreigner] boss was a handsome man,” Tang says. “He was very straightforward and asked me whether I’d be willing to sell for HK$850 million.” Macquarie in 2008 sold its stake in Macquarie Goodman to its joint venture partner, Goodman Group. Both Macquarie and Goodman declined to comment on the deal.

Tang’s prediction had come true: demand for Hong Kong’s old industrial space had indeed rebounded—not, as he foresaw, because of the new airport, but because of surging demand for the data and fulfillment centers needed to provide cloud services and e-commerce. “There are new technologies like data center users going into warehouses,” says Samuel Lai, senior director at property services firm CBRE in Hong Kong. Tang sold Macquarie Tins Plaza, earning HK$570 million on his HK$280 million investment. “Tins Plaza was the most memorable transaction I’ve ever made,” he says.

But Tang wasn’t resting on his laurels. After seeing the offers roll in for Tins Plaza, he set about buying another former factory down the street, the Gold Sun Industrial Building. Unlike his previous two deals, Gold Sun had several owners, each requiring separate negotiations. Tang bought the first of the building’s eight stories in 2006; he wouldn’t manage to clinch the eighth until 2014. “I bought it floor by floor,” says Tang.

Tang’s timing proved impeccable. Eager to boost the supply of property for offices, hotels and shopping, Hong Kong’s government in April 2010 implemented incentives to redevelop disused industrial properties. The so-called revitalization scheme lifted restrictions on how large a building developers could build on land converted from industrial use. The result: Factory prices surged 152% between the policy’s launch and early 2016, when the government ended the incentive. “The best initiative that came out and led to a lot of transactions was the relaxation on the plot ratio,” says CBRE’s Lai.

Tang got another lift in 2013, when the government announced the start of construction on a tunnel linking the new airport and Tuen Mun. Tang combined his Oi Sun Centre and Gold Sun Industrial Building into a single development, One Vista, a two-tower office building and shopping complex. In May 2018, he bundled One Vista with two other Hong Kong properties and sold roughly 70% to Jiayuan International for HK$2.6 billion.

Tang has left Mong Kok to head downtown to his East Ocean Lafayette restaurant overlooking Victoria Harbor. Nibbling on fried turnip cake dipped in spicy Cantonese seafood sauce, he is closely shadowed by two lawyers sipping tea at the next table and waiting their turn to update him on his deal near Kai Tak. Uncle Bor has already managed to buy 73% of the buildings near the old airport, just 7% away from the threshold at which he can legally compel the remaining owners to sell. Redevelopment of Kai Tak stands to boost property values around the area. And a new revitalization scheme, launched last year, has lifted limits yet again on how big developers can build on converted sites. If and when Tang clinches ownership, he and his partner for the property, Chinese Estate Holdings, will be able to knock down the existing building, and build a new one with 14 times as much saleable space.

“I’m optimistic about Hong Kong’s future,” says Tang. “I’ve seen ups and downs. There are opportunities out of risks. This is my chance—my turn.”

After returning to Hong Kong from university in the U.K. 15 years ago, Stan Tang Yiu-sing opened an ad agency with friends. Soon, though, he was working with his father, Tang Shing-bor, learning the real estate business and building property management and leasing firms. In 2013, he and his father set up Stan Group to integrate the family’s real estate investments with his service offerings. Stan now chairs the group and oversees the conversion of the older buildings his father buys into modern retail and commercial properties.

“Pure property investment is no longer our only single investment direction,” says Stan, who has joined the shift among Asian property executives from asset-focused development into service-oriented offerings—hospitality, co-working spaces and incubation hubs. Stan Group now operates six hotel brands with a combined 3,500 rooms. In 2016 it launched an innovation hub for entrepreneurs, called “The Wave.”

Stan has also steered Stan Group into financial services, a private members’ club, and serviced apartments catering to the elderly. “The government has given us policies that present us an opportunity to reposition ourselves,” Stan says, echoing his father’s confidence in Hong Kong’s future as part of the greater bay area comprising Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The 34-year-old plans to list five of the group’s companies by 2023, though the property representing 90% of Stan Group’s assets will remain private, he says. Stan says his aim is to grow non-property businesses to someday represent at least half of the group’s total assets.

Pamela covers entrepreneurs, wealth, blockchain and the crypto economy as a senior reporter across digital and print platforms. Prior to Forbes, she served as on-air foreign correspondent for Thomson Reuters’ broadcast team, during which she reported on global markets, central bank policies, and breaking business news. Before Asia, she was a journalist at NBC Comcast, and started her career at CNBC and Bloomberg as a financial news producer in New York. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and holds an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Yahoo, USA Today, Huffington Post, and Nasdaq. Pamela’s previous incarnation was on the buy side in M&A research and asset management, inspired by Michael Lewis’ book “Liar’s Poker”. Follow me on Twitter at @pamambler

Source: Meet The ‘Shop King’: How Tang Shing-bor Became A Billionaire Flipping Hong Kong’s Derelict Properties

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