A dedicated follower of fashion

Profile: Dickson Poon; First he catered to Hong Kong's brand-conscious yuppies. Now he is reshaping a top London store. Stephen Vines reports on a man of privilege for whom retailing is absolutely fabulous
MOST Hong Kong business success stories are rags to riches tales featuring poor immigrants from China making spectacularly good. The story of Dickson Poon, the youthful-looking 40-year-old Hong Kong businessman who plans to bring the Harvey Nichols department store to the stock market, is different.

Born with a silver spoon firmly in his mouth, he was the small Chinese boy sent to Britain for a public school education who rather liked the look of Harvey Nichols at the time and decided to buy it a couple of decades later.

Dickson Poon has all the arrogance and lack of self-doubt which a privileged background often produces. He can also be charming and is seen by fashion retailing rivals as shrewd. He has a habit, however, of straying close to the edge before hauling himself back.

Some early critics in the investment community thought he was little more than a rich kid indulging himself when he ventured into the film industry in the mid-1980s. In Hong Kong's cut-throat film world this can be a recipe for turning a large fortune into a small one. However he used his film interests to promote his retail business and emerged from the venture in reasonable shape with some decent films under his belt and a new wife, Michelle Yeoh Choo-kheng, who replaced his first wife.

Michelle Yeoh was one of the most famous and glamorous kung fu stars at the time. She too comes from a rich family who live in Malaysia. However the less than entirely modern Mr Poon did not like his wife pursuing her career and so she put acting on hold, only resuming after leaving her husband and being replaced by wife number three, a former stockbroking analyst who is less career-minded.

Dickson Poon's struggle to get started in business was eased with the loan of HK$5 million (almost pounds 500,000) from his father KK Poon, who made a fortune out of selling watches and shrewd stock market investments. His mother, Sheila Sun Poon, was also no slouch when it came to money- making: she both ran her own stockbroking company and helped her brother run a rather successful family business.

Many rich Hong Kong families find the older generation making a fortune and the younger generation spending it. As a young man, it seemed possible that Dickson Poon might be heading in that direction. He has always had a taste for the better things in life like big houses, flashy cars, skiing and smart clothes. But he was never a male version of Harvey Nichols's most famous small screen customers, the Absolutely Fabulous pair Edina and Patsy, whose legendary appetite for consumption far outweighs their interest in wealth generation. Dickson Poon always wanted to make his own money. He started in 1980 by following in his father's footsteps with a watch and jewellery shop but it was not as staid as Mr Poon Senior's business. Fashion turned out to be the key to expansion and Mr Poon Junior knew a lot about that because he himself was intensely fashion- conscious in his own attire and naturally shared the likes and desires of his rich contemporaries.

He shrewdly realised that the up-and-coming generation of rich Chinese in Hong Kong were not only fashion-conscious but acutely brand-conscious, so he set about acquiring the franchises to distribute some of the leading fashion brands at a time when it was thought the market for these brands in Asia would be relatively small.

Dickson Poon knew better. He wanted and got the rights to sell Polo Ralph Lauren, Charles Jourdan (which he tried to buy outright in 1992), Chopard, Givenchy, Hermes watches, Guy Laroche, Pierre Balmain, and Bulgari. In other words a veritable collection of the brands most likely to be sought by high-income, fashion-conscious Hong Kong buyers for whom image was more important than price.

The young Dickson Poon didn't need to get into their minds to discover what they wanted; he was there already, sharing their aspirations and tastes. The formula of establishing exclusive boutiques in department stores and separate outlets in Hong Kong was successfully repeated in other fast-growing east Asian countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. They all spawned a growing generation of high-earning, relatively young people on the prowl for the kind of status and prestige which apparently came with designer label clothing and accessories. Within five years of getting into the fashion business he gained control of a public company, which changed its name to Dickson Concepts. In typical Hong Kong style the public company is controlled not by Dickson Poon personally but by a private company which he owns. The public company soon judiciously hedged its bets by investing in the less fashion-volatile optical business, which has remained a steady earner.

Dickson Concepts quickly became a flavour of the month stock. However, Hong Kong investors were decidedly unimpressed when Dickson Poon decided to buy the loss-making Harvey Nichols from Burton Group for pounds 53.7m in 1991. A HK$1 billion (pounds 85m) rights issue to finance the purchase was only two-thirds subscribed and investors walked away from Dickson shares in droves. In the space of a couple of months almost half the value of the shares was wiped out.

The local investment community took the view that the rich kid was over- extending himself, even though the 1980s had been a period of extremely high growth for the company and holders of Dickson stock saw healthy returns on their investment. They also saw the fruits of the 1987 acquisition of the struggling up-market lighters and accessories group French-based S T Dupont. However, the Dupont purchase, made just one month before the 1987 stock market crash, hardly looked smart at the time. Dupont was turned around but not to the extent of Harvey Nichols, which last year made operating profits of pounds 6.5m on sales of pounds 75m and is now probably worth three times as much as it was when Dickson Poon bought it five years ago.

The extent to which the London store has been revived has taken some time to percolate through to investors in Hong Kong who tend to see Britain as a rather depressed sort of place with few interesting money-making prospects. But the success of the Orange mobile telephone service - controlled by another Hong Kong tycoon - is starting to dent this image.

Interestingly, a recent attempt to create a brand image for Harvey Nichols goods in Asia has been less than successful. Hong Kong buyers appear to be resolutely unimpressed by Princess Diana's favourite label.

Mr Poon insists that he has done well in London by giving his British managers their head. If this is true, he is acting out of character because he is a very hands-on boss who delegates little authority elsewhere in the company.

The results speak for themselves and Dickson Concepts shares have regained the lustre they held before the economic downturn sparked by the Gulf War. Indeed they are among Hong Kong's best-performing shares of the year. News of the Harvey Nichols flotation has merely whetted the appetite for even better results.

As ever, Mr Poon is full of plans for his London store. The highly successful in-store restaurant will be replicated in London's riverside former Oxo building. A new Harvey Nichols store will rise in Leeds - not Glasgow as was originally planned.

Back in the home base there are equally ambitious plans for expansion with more luxury goods stores planned and an exclusive distribution deal signed with Warner Brothers to represent its products in Hong Kong and Singapore. China, once seen by Mr Poon as the new Eldorado for up-market fashion retailing is not looking too good despite the presence of a 100,000 square-foot Dickson department store in Shanghai, which is looking somewhat forlorn.

Catering to Chuppies - as Chinese yuppies are now known - and Sloanes comes naturally to Dickson Poon, but it remains to be seen just how big that market really is. Will Leeds, for example, have enough designer label- conscious buyers on hand to actually fill Mr Poon's new Harvey Nichols?