Selwyn Mar, President of the Sincere Company Limited, leans back in an easy chair at the far end of the short stroll that is his ‘private’ office and glances out at his staff through the glass which runs the length of one wall. “They know I’m sitting here,” he says. “Accessibility is very important.” The wall opposite is apposite as, all-window, it keeps the boss close to his customers who are entering Sincere department store below.
“My door is always open,” says Mar. “I encourage debate. If there is a disagreement, I make the decision. If there is a consensus, I can lower my expectations. If you don’t carry the people around you, then it means they are doing their job very reluctantly. The people in your power must have job satisfaction; they must participate in decisions.” Mar pauses. We both sip our coffee. There is a sense of discipline in the air. He lights a cigarette and so do I.
Mar has just returned from visiting his father’s grave. “Doing my duty,” he smiles. His father, Charles Mar Fan, died last year at the age of 82. Educated in Australia, Mar senior returned home after the war and rapidly climbed the upper echelons of the Inland Revenue Department. That done, he decided, with a touch of the been-there-done-that’s, to start his own accountancy business, Charles Marfan & Company was born.
With a borrowed typewriter and an abacus, in a room only big enough to swing a small lantern, the Mar family accountancy tradition began in earnest. Its retailing reputation was already well-established. The Sincere Company dates back to 1910, when it had a shop in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai.
With is grave-side vigil very much on his mind, Mar speaks of his father as if he were still alive. “He doesn’t go to the races. He doesn’t gamble in any way; he doesn’t drink. He used to smoke but gave up. And I more or less following that track – must be a family tradition,” he laughs.” Apart from smoking – that is my only bad habit. I’m looking at Deng Xiaoping at his age.”
Mar is not just looking to China’s paramount leader for reassurance about the wisdom of an old habit. He is focusing on China to fulfil a dream. “Shanghai is more or less a personal crusade of mine. There are a lot of regulations in Shanghai, but things are getting better. The central government is being more tolerant about retail in relation to foreign investors. My crusade is to get back into Shanghai and back into that building,” says Mar, referring to the Shanghai store which was nationalised in 1949 but is still known by locals as the Sincere Building. “I am angling to rent one floor. In other words, we will make our presence felt up there, and then we will expand into a larger space.”
In order to finance Sincere’s return to Shanghai, the company recently sold its building in Des Voeux Road Central to a Shenzhen property firm. “In business one cannot afford to be sentimental or emotional,” says Mar. “The reason I want to go back to Shanghai, indeed to China, is an economic decision. A business decision, not a sentimental one. I’m bullish about the consumer market in China and feel very optimistic about Hong Kong’s future vis-à-vis China. There have been a few disagreements, but I am pleased that we have all been able to sit down and talk about them.”
A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Mar admits to being “a bit of a politician” at times. “I don’t think we are quite ready for one person one vote at the moment,” he stresses. While Hong Kong can advance in that direction, “it is not yet a homogeneous society in the sense that you have a very wide gap between the rich and the poor. A Labour government in the UK is different to what you would get here. Unless these people are politically mature, what good is it?”
While feeling content with the way things are progressing in the run-up to 1997, this wry businessman admits to at least one nagging worry about the future: how law and order can be maintained. But he remains optimistic. “People have a paranoid feeling that comes out of history,” he comments. “But it will be okay, and the PRC will keep its word. I have no doubt about that. They want to push ahead with their economic development.”
Mar is not really a worrier. “My philosophy is that there is no point in being nervous, because at that point it is too late. Just go through with it or walk away,” he beams. And has he ever walked away from anything in his life? “Yes, marriages,” he grins. Mar is on his third but says that this one will be his last. He and Emy have a one-year-old daughter. “I’ve found a place to hang my hat,” he says.
It must be quite a hat stand. A man of many roles, in an average day Mar juggles with consummate ease his half-dozen directorships and clutch of board memberships, while still managing to get all the work done. In addition, he still finds room for a personal life. “One has to manage time, to manage one’s priorities,” he says. “I always fit everything in, and I don’t work at weekends.” Rain or shine, busy or mega-busy, he gets up at 7am every day to take his Sincere is mainly one of delegation and supervision. I never let things stack up on my desk and it is always clear my lunch,” he says. “Sure, I have problems, frustrations and obstacles. I tackle them one by one. If you can’t tackle something, put it out of your mind.”
Such mental regimentation, which Mar attributes to his accountancy background, is practised all hours of the day, even when he is relaxing. “I windsurf, I scuba dive, I ski. They’re fast sports and you’re fighting against nature and they clear your mind. But I don’t like golf – I play any sport but golf. It’s too slow,” says the man of action, who fields an enquiry about his age with an evasive “I was born in ancient times”. “I play sports to avoid having to think, to forget about things,” he continues. “Why think of business 24 hours a day? Do your planning, delegation, supervision, and you’re done.”
Mar is a man of many pleasures. “Fast cars, fast boats – I always enjoy driving something. I have an inborn determination to take a leadership role. I believe I have the qualities to lead~: I can work under great pressure, and switch off from anything that bothers me,” says Mar, with a grit founded in his school days in Australia, where his father and family were the only Chinese in sunny Glaston, Queensland, population 5,000.
The interview was obviously over at that point. Mar put out his umpteenth cigarette. So did I. “Aren’t you going to turn off your tape recorder?” Yes, sir!
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