DEDICATED TO THEIR WORK Meet 20 CEOs, managers, and technocrats who help drive the economies of the Pacific Rim. Nothing has clouded their vision or dampened their enthusiasm.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – ASIA'S EQUIVALENT of the old Puritan work ethic, more than anything else, propels the fastest-growing economies on earth. Striving, saving, and often taking bold but calculated risks, ambitious Asians (and a few Westerners in the region) are continually changing their lives -- and the economic environment. Where else would a businessman bet $1 billion on building a toll road to China, or a young American make a fortune peddling Parker pens and pizza? To break into the growth markets of the Pacific Rim, Western businessmen need to know influential players and what drives them. The most intriguing people in Asia are not only established entrepreneurs, but also young men and women who will make a difference in the Nineties.
SINGAPORE Philip Yeo The man with two hats reaps psychological rewards
Singapore thrives on cozy cooperation between government and business. And a living, breathing example is Philip Yeo, 43, who is simultaneously CHAIRMAN of the SINGAPORE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BOARD and de facto CEO of SINGAPORE TECHNOLOGIES, a profitable state-owned conglomerate. As head of the development board, he has helped transform his tiny tropical island into a global manufacturing and financial center in which foreign multinationals invest about $1 billion annually. Meanwhile, Singapore Technologies, which manufactures weapons and civilian products, is building a $300 million industrial park on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. Wearing both hats doubles Yeo's credibility with U.S., European, and Japanese investors. Says he: ''I understand what it means to run a business, to meet a payroll, to hire and fire people.'' He probably knows more CEOs of major corporations than anyone else in Southeast Asia, and he refers to them as ''our clients.'' Trained as an engineer, Yeo spent most of his career in the Defense Ministry, where he put together Singapore Technologies (annual sales: $700 million). He still guides the conglomerate, but leaves daily management to others. As he puts it, ''You have to be humble enough to enjoy creating a company, then get someone else with the patience and tenacity to run it.'' Relentlessly driven, Yeo works 11-hour days (reduced to seven on Saturdays) and barely tolerates what he terms ''the misery'' of business dinners. His annual salary of nearly $100,000 is ''lousy pay,'' but the ''psychological rewards,'' he says, make it a good deal for him -- and for Singapore.
Ho Kwon Ping A third-generation owner is ensuring long-term survival
There's a saying in Chinese that the third generation squanders a family's fortune. The adage haunts Ho Kwon Ping, a 38-year-old former Stanford University student who is determined it won't happen in his family. He is PRESIDENT of WAH-CHANG INTERNATIONAL, a collection of more than 30 companies (in trading, real estate, and manufacturing) spread across Southeast Asia. The enterprise was founded more than 70 years ago by his grandfather and gradually diversified by his father into a regional conglomerate. Ho is now expanding Wah-Chang by building resort hotels in Thailand (with Japanese partners), exploring for offshore oil in China (with U.S. partners), and making plastic components in Singapore for the electronics industry. To ensure long-term survival, Ho is taking some of his existing companies public -- so far, two in Thailand and one in Singapore. Says he: ''I don't want Wah-Chang's future to depend on whether my son wants to take up the business.'' Ho had a privileged, isolated boyhood in Thailand, where his father ran the family business and served as Singapore's ambassador. At Stanford in the Seventies, he was caught up in student activism and was eventually suspended for disrupting a class. After finishing his education at Singapore University, he had a brief -- and dramatic -- career as a journalist. Some of his articles questioned the secrecy of Singapore ballots and a law that permits detention without trial. Soon he found himself jailed for two months without trial. In 1981, when his father suffered a stroke, the crusading reporter switched to the family business.
Alan Yeo Owning an American brand is a big help in going global
For years Alan Yeo (no relation to Philip Yeo), CHAIRMAN of YEO HIAP SENG, has been trying to get his food and beverage products into U.S. supermarkets. He has come at least halfway by acquiring Chun King, a U.S. producer of canned Oriental food, from RJR Nabisco. Says Yeo: ''Having an American brand is our shortcut to globalization.'' His own brand, called Yeo's, is a popular commodity in Asia, where the company turns out such products as chicken curry and chrysanthemum tea. Pushing those ethnic goodies into 36 countries, Yeo, 59, has built his family- controlled company into a little multinational. Yeo Hiap Seng bottles Pepsi-Cola in Southeast Asia. His own soft drinks, with such flavors as litchi, are produced in China. The company's sales last year: $204 million. Yeo's father sent him to England to study medicine, but he switched to chemistry and worked awhile for Nestle. Returning home after 11 years, Yeo says, ''I started from scratch.'' He gradually worked his way up to become managing director when Yeo Hiap Seng went public in 1969. Now boss of a company that employs 16 members of his clan, Yeo says, ''We work more as a team.'' His son Timothy, 27, who has an MBA, recently joined the company as a corporate business planner. But, says Dad, ''he has no authority yet.'' An attempt to set up a canning plant in San Jose, California, in the 1970s failed, but Yeo profited by selling the land -- in Silicon Valley.
TAIWAN Bobo Wang He sells the Pentagon and undersells Sharp
Once known mainly as a source of cheap copycat products, Taiwan has become a center of innovation. The transformation is due in no small part to the coming home of American-trained computer engineers like Bobo Wang, 44, the ebullient PRESIDENT of MICROTEK INTERNATIONAL. He left his research job at Xerox's El Segundo, California, electronics division in 1980 to start a company that produces such computer products as scanners for desktop publishing. He introduced a color scanner at roughly half the price of a similar model by Sharp of Japan, and his customers include the Pentagon. Says Wang: ''For success in the Nineties you don't need to be big, but just have vision and move fast.'' Wang launched Microtek, which had nearly $40 million in sales last year, with three Chinese friends. Though Taiwan's stock market tumbled precipitously from its peak early this year, his 5% of the company is still worth $15 million. He doesn't spend much of it, living in a small apartment near his plant in the Hsinchu Science Park. He sees his family in Taipei only on weekends. ''If you think open space and a big yard is the good life,'' he says, ''then this may not seem like much. But work is what I enjoy the most.''
Chang Yung-fa Everything's coming up green, including a startup airline
Taiwan billionaire Chang Yung-fa, the founder and CHAIRMAN of EVERGREEN, runs the world's largest container shipping service. Now he is in the process of launching an international airline to serve cities around the Pacific and the U.S. He expects to invest $4 billion and has ordered 26 jetliners, both Boeing 767s and 747s plus McDonnell Douglas MD-11s. Says Chang, 62: ''I will work as though I am 20 years younger.'' At Evergreen headquarters in Taipei and at its 50 offices around the world, no one has to guess Chang's favorite color. Desks, filing cabinets, uniforms of women employees, even toilets are green. Reason: Chang's Chinese given name means ''prospering'' or ''evergreen.'' Reflecting that word, his container terminal is called Eversafety, and his computer software company, Evergenius. Putting his stamp and color on everything, Chang wrote the company rule book, which includes the admonition: ''Absolutely obey superiors.'' His brand of discipline has built a highly efficient shipping operation that manages to make a profit while charging less than rivals. Ever frugal himself, Chang eats the free lunch he provides for employees in the company cafeteria and jumps into whatever car is available in the motor pool. Because a cargo airline in the American Northwest already has the name Evergreen, he had to settle for calling his airline Eva -- but the planes will be painted green.
Marinus van Gessel A bottle of Jack Daniel's changed his life
What does an American executive in Asia do when his company pulls out and he doesn't want to leave with it? Be patient and look around, for Asia is full of new opportunities. Seven years ago Corning shut down its Taiwan factory that made glass bulbs for TV picture tubes. Managing director Marinus van Gessel, now 57, a Harvard MBA and former Nixon appointee to the Commerce Department, stayed behind to start his own business. Today he is PRESIDENT of a small food-importing firm called SEMEAN. Says he: ''It's a great second career. I don't have the energy level I used to have, but I'm a lot smarter.'' Dutch, as friends call the Netherlands-born entrepreneur, chose the food business by chance. His first endeavor was refurbishing and exporting equipment from the defunct Corning plant. Then he met a U.S. computer salesman who also happened to be a food broker. ''After a bottle of Jack Daniel's one night,'' says van Gessel, he ordered a shipping container of frozen beef, cod, ) and salmon. While it was still on the high seas, he bought a truck and, to give himself some clout, slapped on it the red, white, and blue logo of the existing U.S. Meat Export Federation. Having served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce on Taiwan, van Gessel used his contacts to get products into restaurants and hotels. ''For the first four years I did all the sales myself,'' says van Gessel, who now has a sales manager and three delivery trucks. Chefs who want U.S. prime beef, pumpkin seed oil, and rack of venison, just phone Dutch.
MALAYSIA Vincent Tan Winning a lottery led to a $500 million company
Ever since persuading the Malaysian government to let him privatize its lottery five years ago, Vincent Tan, CHIEF EXECUTIVE of diversified INTER- PACIFIC INDUSTRIAL GROUP, has been a winner. An aide acknowledges ''a cynical view that Vincent is the Finance Minister's proxy'' in business. Tan himself says, ''It's only prudent for a businessman to be friendly with the government of the day, but I'm not into politics and our companies are well run.'' Tan, 38, is an obsessive dealmaker who constantly reshuffles his companies. With the lottery providing a comfortable cash flow, his manufacturing, finance, and real estate group (assets: some $500 million) is on the alert for takeover targets, not only in the Pacific but in the U.S. and Canada as well. Says Tan: ''We're opportunistic and quick to react.'' Tan quit school at 16 to work as a bank clerk by day and an insurance salesman by night. A natural salesman and negotiator, he eventually snared a joint venture with Tokyo Marine & Fire Insurance -- and the McDonald's franchise for Malaysia. Analysts of Malaysia's go-go stock market find Tan's tactics both admirable and baffling. Last year he mounted a $200 million bid for SSMC, the sewing machine and consumer products arm of Singer. Says Tan: ''Everyone predicted that we would get our hands burned.'' He lost the bid, but made $5 million on his Singer stock.
Rafidah Aziz Men who show condescension are put in their place
''We used to treat them like naughty children,'' says Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's MINISTER OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY. She's talking about international business executives. ''And that,'' she adds, ''was wrong.'' Today Malaysia welcomes foreign capital, and a lot of it -- especially from Taiwan, Korea, and Japan -- is surging into new factories. | Aziz, the only woman cabinet member in a predominantly Muslim nation, says, ''I am not a woman trade minister, but a minister who happens to be a woman.'' Businessmen who show even a hint of condescension, says Aziz, ''are put in their place very quickly.'' Politically active for 25 years, Aziz, 47, taught economics at the University of Malaya, then ran for Parliament 12 years ago, and has steadily moved up in government. She has a formidable political base as head of Wanita, the women's contingent -- and the largest faction -- in Malaysia's ruling party. Taiwan companies once worried that Muslim prayers would interrupt manufacturing operations, but she says, ''Talking to God doesn't take long. And they don't do it all at once. Employees who go to the toilet probably take longer.''
HONG KONG Po Chung A global messenger lines up well-heeled allies
Until UPS and Federal Express began flying their own planes outside the U.S., Po Chung, CHAIRMAN of DHL INTERNATIONAL, had the international package business pretty much to himself. Now Chung, 47, who relies mostly on scheduled airlines, is fighting back with help from three new partners: Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, and Nissho Iwai, a Japanese trading company that has vast experience in shipping goods. Together the three companies plan to buy a 57.5% stake in DHL International for a total of more than $300 million. In addition to giving Chung competitive help, the deal will put considerable cash in his pocket. For nearly two decades, he has plowed back most of his profits. Now, as he puts it, he will get ''the balloon dividend.'' Chung grew up in Macao helping his father catch fish for a living. After graduating from Humboldt College in Arcadia, California, he recalls wondering if anyone would ''hire a Chinese kid with a major in fishery management.'' He wound up working as the Hong Kong-based agent for DHL Corp., a U.S. company. When U.S. regulators forced DHL to spin off international operations in 1972, Chung got what was then a tiny business largely by assuming its debts. (His DHL and the separate American DHL handle local deliveries for each other.) Chung has extended DHL International (annual revenues: $1.2 billion) into 186 countries. Chung is a man of many hobbies; his latest is taking action photos of ballet in available light. He collects vintage cars, but rides to work in a London cab emblazoned with his company logo.
Gordon Wu Building large public projects with private money
Only in Asia would a businessman be venturesome enough to build a $1 billion highway without government help. Gordon Wu, 54, MANAGING DIRECTOR of HOPEWELL HOLDINGS, is constructing a 162-mile road from Hong Kong to Canton. He plans to get his profits from tolls, starting in 1992. An ardent capitalist, Wu got his civil engineering degree at Princeton and says the nearby New Jersey Turnpike inspired his China project. During the 30 years that he will operate the Hong Kong-Canton road, Wu estimates that tolls will total $12 billion to $15 billion, which, he says dryly, is ''plenty to go around.'' He expects banks to finance most of his construction costs. Warning Beijing against another crackdown like last year's, Wu pointedly says: ''Tanks don't pay tolls.'' All Wu's bets are not in China. He has sold Thailand -- at least in principle -- a $3.1 billion solution to the horrendous traffic jams in its capital, Bangkok. He's offering the Thais an elevated train and highway system -- for no cash. Instead, Wu proposes to make his profit from developing government-owned land around the tracks. Surprisingly for a man with so many ideas, Wu rarely burns the midnight oil. Says he: ''Work is like shaving. No matter how well you do it today, you've got to do it all over again tomorrow.'' Especially, he might add, when dealing with China.
Stanley Ho Gambling is a sure thing in Macao -- at least until 2001
Most Hong Kong businessmen fret about China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, but Stanley Ho has a longer lease on profits. As MANAGING DIRECTOR of the TOURISM & ENTERTAINMENT CORP. OF MACAO, he has the exclusive franchise for gambling casinos in the nearby Portuguese enclave of Macao until the year 2001. He owns four hotels and six casinos there. Even so, Ho, 68, is diversifying into new ventures, spreading his chips around the world. He's backing an aggressive Toronto-based computer company called Semi-Tech, which acquired SSMC, Singer's sewing machine and consumer products business worldwide. Last year, Ho bought hotels in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Orange County, California. Now a chain of floating seafood restaurants is taking shape with outlets in Vancouver, Singapore, and Thailand. Ho has even picked up a noodle manufacturer in Perth, Australia. Far from abandoning Macao, Ho is building the first airport there and & organizing an airline to fly in tourists. (Their only access now is by boats that Ho operates from Hong Kong.) China will take over Macao, which relies on gambling for about half its government revenues, in 1999. Says Ho, who is close to officials from the People's Republic: ''I really don't see Macao getting rid of gambling.'' He has at least one unique arrangement with China: He drives across the border to hunt snipe and pheasant in the rice paddies. Ho, who also has stakes in casinos in Spain and Portugal, never gambles. Says he: ''I hate to lose.''
THAILAND William E. Heinecke Good relationships help build a good business
Bearded and casually dressed, Bill Heinecke looks like an aging hippie, but he lives like a taipan. He has a splendid Bangkok bungalow, flies his own single-engine airplane, and at the ripe old age of 41 says, ''When there's nothing to fall back on, you have to succeed.'' Bill Heinecke is CHAIRMAN of Thailand's MINOR GROUP, a network of more than 20 flourishing firms. He operates Pizza Hut outlets, flogs Mary Kay cosmetics and Parker pens, caters meals to offshore oil-drilling crews, develops resort hotels, and manufactures golf gloves in a joint venture with American Brands. His group, which has some 2,000 employees, expects over $100 million in sales this year. Heinecke, son of a Voice of America correspondent, grew up in Bangkok and never left. When it came time for college in the U.S., he refused to go. His disappointed parents made him move out of the house. Forced to earn his own way, he bought a block of time from a local radio station and started a small advertising agency. After selling it to Ogilvy & Mather in 1974, he stayed to run it for three years. Moving on to new ventures, Heinecke says, he ''came to recognize, perhaps earlier than most, that success here depends on good relationships.'' Investors in his hotels include leading Thai financial institutions as well as the King's property office. His consumer businesses have connections with American and European companies (including Benetton, Yves St. Laurent, and Helene Curtis) that bring name brands into the growing Thai market Heinecke knows well. As he puts it: ''What we've made work in Thailand already has worked everywhere else in the world. It's just a matter of getting the timing right.''
SOUTH KOREA Kim Young Jin Finding a business plan in the Manhattan phone book
Starting with scraps from the U.S., Kim Young Jin has made mink coats into a mass product. Kim, 49, PRESIDENT of JINDO, the world's largest manufacturer of fur garments, also retails them around the world. Jindo's sales last year totaled nearly $334 million, 70% from shipping containers that Kim produces as a hedge against lean years for fur coats. Says Kim: ''There was no reason to be successful in Korea, which had no pelts and no market.'' Kim made up for his country's shortcomings with ingenuity. As a college sophomore in 1964, he went to the U.S. embassy library in Seoul and copied the names of every furrier in the Manhattan phone directory. He wrote them all requesting scraps that low-paid Korean laborers could sew into hats and sections of coats. Now Kim buys the finest pelts from North America and the Soviet Union, turns out fashionable garments in a modern factory, and sells fur coats through 50 outlets in the U.S. Jindo has just acquired the American fur retailing operations of Fur Vault. So far, he says, he has noticed no effect from protests by animal rights activists. This fall Kim expects to start making fur coats at a joint venture plant in Moscow. Says he: ''It's so cold there that practically everyone needs a fur coat.''
Park Sung-Kyou He relearned his homeland while expanding Daewoo
Just a dozen years ago, Park Sung-Kyou, the PRESIDENT of DAEWOO TELECOM, left his top-paying research job at Schlumberger in the U.S. to return to his native Korea. Explains Park: ''I felt more needed here, with a chance to immerse myself in bigger projects.'' His first job turned out to be big indeed: Get the big Daewoo industrial and trading group into electronics. ''I did not know my title or my salary,'' says Park, but he did know Daewoo founder and Chairman Kim Woo-Choong from high school days and ''liked his style.'' Park created Daewoo Telecom, now a profitable computer and communications company with $323 million in sales last year, 30% from exports. Park fortified the company by making alliances with such partners as Northern Telecom, plus a few creative moves of his own. In 1985 he introduced an IBM-compatible personal computer, the Model-D, an instant hit in the U.S. market. Leading Edge, the American company that sold the Daewoo computer, foundered last year, so Park acquired it. Having been away from his homeland almost two decades, he says, ''I had to relearn Korea.'' So did his family, but one of Park's motives for coming home was so his three children, all born in the U.S., could discover their roots. His wife, Yvonne, runs classes at the USO in Seoul for Korean brides of Americans. Happy with his move, Park, now 51, says, ''I think I'm just beginning.''
Chey Jong-Hyon A laid-back approach pays off in a giant conglomerate
In a land of workaholics, Chey Jong-Hyon, CHAIRMAN of SUNKYONG, the giant South Korean petroleum conglomerate, is extraordinarily relaxed. He rises at 7 a.m., exercises vigorously, then spends mornings at home reading and thinking. Chey, who earned his master's in economics at the University of Chicago, says, ''I don't want to bother the presidents of our companies.'' Chey's laid-back approach to running an $8.6-billion-a-year operation is carefully calculated. His older brother, who started Sunkyong as a textile company, died of a heart attack in 1972. Says Chey, 60, who plays golf, skis, and climbs mountains: ''I care for my health.'' It took him the past decade to implement his strategy for vertical integration in petroleum, says Chey, ''but I stayed with the plan.'' Now Sunkyong explores for oil around the world, is Korea's largest refiner, makes petrochemicals in a joint venture with Arco, and turns out videotapes and computer disks. Chey is just as hands-off in tackling expansion in the U.S. He relies on advice from a special ''office of the chairman'' in New York, staffed primarily by Americans.
JAPAN Junichiro Tanaka When the asking price is too high, let your rival pay it
This is the man who decided not to buy Rockefeller Center. Junichiro Tanaka, 60, PRESIDENT of MITSUI REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT CO., thought that the expected returns did not justify the asking price. Having acquired Manhattan's Exxon building for $610 million in 1986, Tanaka left the high-profile investment in the landmark buildings around the world-famous skating rink -- and the ensuing furor -- to rival Mitsubishi Estates. Joining Mitsui 39 years ago, Tanaka never imagined he would buy and build property in the U.S. worth $1.4 billion. Japan's surfeit of capital -- and Tanaka himself -- have changed the company. Mitsui has developed into the most aggressive and yet respected of large Japanese real estate firms active overseas. Mitsui's holdings include the historic building at 7, rue de Tilsitt in Paris and the Hotel Himalaya Kathmandu in Nepal. Tanaka's hobby of studying Buddhist sculptures often takes him to temples and gives him a philosophical bent. Says he: ''Every act, every piece of work is a prayer. Even business is a prayer.'' His Japanese customers mostly pray that they will be able to afford a house in the country's stratospheric real estate market. Tanaka's foremost goal, he says, is ''providing good-quality housing that ordinary Japanese can afford.'' He lives in a modest suburban house on a 2,700-square-foot lot.
Mizuho Fukushima She added a new term to the Japanese vocabulary
Japan has never nurtured nonconformists, but somehow HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER Mizuho Fukushima has survived as a one-woman combination Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, and fighter for the illegal immigrants flooding Japan. Fukushima raises the issues that Japanese once swept under the carpet: sexual harassment in the workplace, the plight of resident Southeast Asian prostitutes, and the rights of foreign workers. ''At least people are starting to talk about these things openly,'' she says. ''That's progress.'' Fukushima breaks all the rules. The mother of a 4-year-old girl, she refuses as a matter of principle to marry her common-law husband (also a human rights lawyer). She has vowed to change a Japanese law requiring women to give up their maiden -- and professional -- names when they marry. In conservative Japanese circles, that's a shocker, as was Fukushima's appearance in court the day before she bore her baby. Educated at Tokyo University's law school, Fukushima, 34, has helped etch the term seku hara (sexual harassment) into the Japanese vocabulary. She joined three other lawyers to set up a shelter and counseling center for battered women in Tokyo. Says Fukushima, who dresses in pastels and appears untiringly cheerful: ''The era of seemingly shy, weak women in Japan is over. Sleeping Beauty has awakened.''
Edmund Reilly The problem isn't closed doors but closed minds back home
When Edmund Reilly, PRESIDENT of DEC JAPAN, first arrived in Japan in 1970, the market for foreign goods -- especially electronics -- was all but impenetrable, and recruiting local talent was next to impossible. Today Reilly, 48, finds Japan a lot more hospitable. DEC Japan, one of Digital Equipment Corp.'s largest and most profitable subsidiaries, has trebled sales since 1985 to more than $900 million. Reilly, who has been chief executive since 1979, has nearly 4,000 employees and lists among the company's clients top Japanese corporations, including Nikko Securities, Mitsui Trust, and Sanyo Electric. ''A lot of people in our industry still think it's not worth trying in Japan because you simply can't succeed,'' says Reilly. As president of the local chapter of the American Electronics Association, he maintains that the biggest headaches are not closed doors in Japan but the closed minds at headquarters back in the U.S. Says he: ''At DEC we don't have that problem anymore.'' Under Reilly, DEC's reputation has climbed so high that some government offices now display calendars featuring DEC's VAX computer rather than the usual version featuring scantily clad models.
Hideo Yoshizaki After his descent from heaven, he won a corporate award
Hideo Yoshizaki has seen U.S.-Japan trade disputes from both sides -- as a top official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and as CHAIRMAN of TEXAS INSTRUMENTS JAPAN. The American company recruited him 18 years ago to help it penetrate the Japanese semiconductor market. Hiring a senior bureaucrat is known in Japanese parlance as getting him to ''descend from heaven,'' and Yoshizaki, 68, is one of the first senior MITI officials to work for an American company. Enamored of manufacturing, he helped lead TI Japan ''through sweat and tears'' to win the coveted Deming Award (named for William E. Deming, the U.S. efficiency expert who taught the Japanese principles of quality control after World War II). TI, the biggest foreign purveyor of integrated circuits in Japan ($911 million in sales last year), operates as a Japanese company. An effective lobbyist, Yoshizaki communicates Texas Instruments' desires to the government as only an ex-official can. He breakfasts with college classmates and maintains contact with former associates at the ministry. Yoshizaki's advice for Americans selling to Japan -- be patient and work hard -- may sound familiar. Says he: ''We Japanese believe we're different, so we realize we must act differently to be able to sell overseas.'' He suggests that American executives study Japanese and stay in the country for at least five years.
Kazuo Wada Building a borderless company from a brand-new headquarters
, Though most of the traffic is going the other way, as China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 draws nearer, Japanese retailer Kazuo Wada has moved his corporate headquarters to the British colony. Says the CHAIRMAN of YAOHAN INTERNATIONAL: ''Great profit does not come without great risk.'' For starters, he saves 30% on taxes. He also likes Hong Kong as a strategic platform on which he can build a ''borderless company'' that will do most of its business beyond Japan. Yaohan has already spread some 20 of its department stores into nine countries, including Singapore, Brazil, and the U.S., principally in California and New Jersey. Wada figures that by 1997 60% of the company's annual sales, which he projects should rise from $1.6 billion in the fiscal year ended in May to $7.1 billion, will come from outside Japan. He also claims a spiritual edge. ''The secret of Yaohan's success,'' says Wada, comes from indoctrinating employees into a new religion called Seicho- No-Ie, ''home of growth.'' Wada and his mother, officially ''the supreme adviser'' at Yaohan, are leaders of this cult, which combines elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity, and stresses the Confucian ethic of respecting authority and seeking harmony. Explaining his decision to internationalize the business, Wada says, ''Perhaps my god told me to do this when I was meditating.'' Moving from the Japanese countryside to the wider world was Wada's childhood dream. The eldest son of a greengrocer in the seaside resort of Atami, 54 miles west of Tokyo, Wada had to join the family firm at the age of 20 after a fire swept through town. ''We lost everything, and I could not finish university,'' he recalls. Wada graduated anyway by passing the exams, and his parents went on to build a chain of stores. From his starkly modern new headquarters on the waterfront in Hong Kong, Wada is reaching out fast. In a burst of diversification, Yaohan is building a resort hotel and condo in Penang, Malaysia, an international wholesale mart in Singapore, a chain of Chinese restaurants, and shopping centers from Borneo to Macao. This is ''Asia's era,'' says Wada, and early in the next century will come China's era, complete with Yaohan stores.