In Hong Kong’s cut-throat business world, the highest acknowledgment of success is to be recognized as the taipan --the Big Boss.
Later this year, a transplanted New Yorker, 38-year-old Brian M. Powers, will assume the title--the first American to do so--only two years after arriving in Hong Kong as an executive with Jardine Matheson, the venerable trading company whose history is intertwined with that of this British colony.
When the Massapequa, N.Y., native becomes the company’s senior representative in Hong Kong later this year he will inherit the prestigious title, which means big boss in the Cantonese Chinese dialect and traditionally is reserved for the local head of Jardine Matheson.
The company was founded in nearby Canton in 1832 by a Scottish surgeon’s mate, William Jardine, and Highlander James Matheson. It moved to Hong Kong in 1841 when the colony was established.
Jardine Matheson’s origins were in the opium and tea trade with the decaying Qing dynasty and the title taipan still brings to mind the early merchant ships plying the South China Sea. The company has since evolved into a diversified international conglomerate that includes hotels, shipping management, vast land holdings and pizza parlor franchises.
Throughout the company’s rich history, it has been led by Scotsmen, most recently by Simon Keswick. But when Keswick announced in March that he would step down as taipan, Powers was named as his replacement.
“The fact that I was American was either neutral or to a negative . . . probably more neutral,” Powers said in a recent telephone interview about becoming taipan. He added that he first learned of the title “when everyone else did, with James Clavell’s book.”
Clavell wrote “Taipan” and “Nobel House,” two fictional accounts of Hong Kong’s business elite that romanticized the position of taipan.
After studying economics at Yale and earning a law degree at the University of Virginia, Powers joined the New York law firm of Debevoise, Plimpton Lyons & Gates in 1975, handling corporation mergers and acquisitions. He then joined the Ford Foundation as financial counsel.
In 1981, Powers joined James D. Wolfensohn Inc., which he described as a “ ‘boutique’ merchant bank: very small with very large clients.” He provided financial and strategic advice on mergers and acquisitions and in early 1982 was asked to help Jardine Matheson.
Keswick was impressed with Powers’ performance and in 1986 the American joined the Hong Kong company as executive director responsible for group strategy, corporate finance and financial services.
Powers, a sandy-haired man who exudes confidence and good humor in his appearances at news conferences, quickly was named managing director of Jardine Matheson and its three principal public holding companies, and joint managing director of its property arm, Hong Kong Land.
On March 25, Keswick made public what had long been suspected: Powers would become the top Jardine Matheson official in the colony.
Keswick, chairman and managing director of Jardine Matheson since 1983, said he would return to Britain after the annual general meeting in June and serve as the company’s non-executive chairman. His family still retains control of the company through stock holdings.
“When one sees them (Keswick and Powers) operating together, clearly there is tremendous empathy, they seem to feed off each others’ strengths,” said Martin Spurrier, a consultant to Jardine Matheson who worked in the group for 13 years. “Brian’s not only a strategic thinker but he’s a doer.”
Powers, who speaks furiously fast and displays total recall, said he is excited about becoming taipan.
“Before I do anything there are always two things I ask myself: Do I think I’ll enjoy it and will it be challenging?”
Powers takes over a company that was nearing bankruptcy in the early 1980s largely because of a collapse in the local property market and a shipping slowdown. But it earned $612 million last year, up 64% from 1986.
Jardine Matheson employs more than 23,000 people in 22 countries and its affiliates have 53,000 people. About three-quarters of its business activity is in Hong Kong, but overseas operations are expected to expand, Powers said.
“In terms of new busineses, of the acquisitions necessary to allow us continued growth, we have to look to overseas markets,” Powers said. “This is a natural pattern because the big groups with big capital and the family-controlled businesses in Hong Kong limit buying ability.”
For example, he noted that after two years of searching, the largest Hong Kong business Jardine Matheson could find worth purchasing was the 37-outlet Optical Shops.