Enterprising Design

As the designer and chief of the top interior design firm in Hong Kong, Steve Leung now oversees an army of 300 staff, marking one of the most aggressive design firms in town. The expansion of Leung’s business, however, dramatically contrasts the sluggishness or even stagnation of the local interior design landscape, at least in the last decade. This distinct success can be attributed to Steve’s vision and entrepreneurship. Yet, his course towards further development is not sparing with challenges.

Steve always has a blueprint on his future and he is candid about this. He had been craving for studying architecture at university and this dream came true in late 1970s. Upon enrolling at Hong Kong University, Steve immediately founded his own company. He even introduced himself to dormitory friends in the capacity of managing director, earning himself the nickname of “the boss” among college friends.

Upon becoming a chartered architect after graduation, Steve made a sensible detour. For two years and a half, he joined the Buildings Ordinance Office, which now called Building Department. The credential equipped Steve with a closer working relation with influential people in the sector. As he turned 30, Steve commenced his own firm. Unfortunately, by this time, the domination of huge property projects had begun to edge out medium or small architect firms. Steve accordingly set up an interior design department within his company as a risk diversification measure.

A company reshuffle in 1997 saw the departure of Steve’s partner, and independence of its interior design department. Shortly after the overhaul, the newly founded interior design firm won contract to embellish two show flats for Symphony Bay, a property project by developer Sun Hung Kei at the New Territory district of Ma On Shan. Steve boldly abandoned the then prevailing classical style in decoration, adopting green elements like butterflies, trees and sea sands instead. The ornament cleverly highlighted the flats’ vicinity of countryside and was a big coup. This hit immediately elevated Steve to stardom.

During the decade of 1999 to 2010, Steve snapped nine Andrew Martin International Awards, the “Oscars for the interior design world”. His works also received numerous top prizes at Asia Pacific Interior Design Awards, not to mention his 80-plus trophies in various international and Asia Pacific design competitions. His status as a world class interior designer was firmly established.

Steve is keen about both design and corporate governance. Still, his company’s rapid growth was once a dilemma. After the company underwent a restructuring in 1997, the crew of some 50 people kept growing at an annual rate of 20 per cent. By 2005, staff number had already exceeded 100, which meant office space could hardly cope with size of company. He began to worry that quantitative increment would come at the expense of quality. He once told himself that further expansion plan should be frozen in order to prevent things from spinning out of control.

Steve however changed his mind after visiting a US legendary design house. He found that American giant, employed nearly 1000 staff, set up branches all over America, India, Europe, Asia and Australia. Amazingly, the firm was still effectively run by the two co-founders. Besides, Steve discovered that most great designers from all over the world were flocking to China, which has proven the market’s promising prospect. Given the geographical advantage Hong Kong enjoys, he realized that early preparation could gain him an upper hand in this game.

Following the US trip Steve gave green light to the expansion plan towards which he once had hesitated. As his company gradually evolves to the current size of 300 staff, he also rejuvenated the management structure. Now the managing hierarchy was extended to include deputy directors, project managers and senior interior designers alike. Accountability system was further introduced as he demanded fellow colleagues to submit work hour records, project allocation reports, progress reports and staff assignment reports. The documentation helped the top management to understand more about operation of the ongoing projects. To meet needs stemming from future developments, he set up new units responsible for research, design control and business development. His elites were selected into the design control unit to give advices for various projects. Steve himself is at the helm of this elite unit.

Steve now develops a standard design protocol which includes five procedures. At first the staff calls an “initial meeting”, which decides the direction on style. The next stage involves “conceptual development”, when staff gives briefing with the help of presentation software. While the concept is approved, designers begin “detailed design”, drawing illustrations with reference to house outlook and overall environment. A “working plan” will then be submitted to Steve for a detailed scrutiny. In the final stage of “construction and supervision”, accountability is the key to ensure project quality. This stage requires step- by-step endorsements by both procedural undertaker and the clients. The whole system is about consistency in quality. Steve said, “I prefer my every project score an 80 out of 100, rather than one 99 but another 50.”

For the sake of further development, Steve is planning to become the man behind the scene. Now when they were approached by new customers, his colleagues would inform their clients that Steve would not attend any meeting. Apart from a few clients with very special connections, he said he would forsake individual opportunities, instead of surrendering to some customers’ request of seeing Steve Leung face to face.

Steve said his role in company is similar to an executive chef in a fine restaurant. The eatery could have branches in Tokyo, Milan and London and were under the same executive chef, who did not have to cook all the dishes. His or her role is to design and control all the cooking procedures, making sure every meticulous detail being attended. Meanwhile, the top chef would have to invent new cuisines. Clients’ interests laid more with quality of final product than to the chef’s personal time spent on entertaining individual clients.

Despite Steve Leung’s gradual retreat from customer liaison, he was adamant to take full control of company interests as well core decision makings. As far as succession is concerned, Steve said he had not yet found his inheritor, since the issue is related to a lot of complicated factors like the nurturing of long term customers relations.

He said, “Some people might think that I showed no principle when I made decision. But I was not. Actually I had taken a lot of principles into account when I decided something. Besides, things like billing involved a lot of factors that I found it hard to delegate the task to my colleagues. However, I would give autonomy to my projects directors to assign specific jobs to my designer teams.

To pave way for retirement, some famous local designers have already promoted one or more outstanding staff as partner(s). This will ensure a smooth power transition. Retirement had come across Steve’s mind either, but he realized that it took time to find a suitable person to take charge. Nevertheless, he had prepared for changes in shareholding in case he founded the right candidate.

With his endowment and wisdom, Steve has kept his firm a machine with high efficiency. Still, he is facing challenges on recruiting talents and keeping staff. The issue is especially pressing when mainland China market now becomes a major focus.

In addition, a prolific Steve now plans to broaden his scope to eatery, boutique hotel, service apartment, travel agent business. His ambition is to unite the variety of business under a single umbrella. In his blueprint, the newly developed brand “1957 & Co.” shall be in line with his new positioning as a “lifestyle designer”. Steve intends to adopt a unique but unified design as far as companies under the brand name are concerned. Details like management, shop lighting, menu or staff uniform will be taken into consideration.

He will make fuller use of his specialties at interior design and furniture design, while collaborating with experts from other arenas. For Steve, who had already become an industrial icon, this perhaps will serve as another test.

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