Psychiatrist with a head for business

Asia Times
Michael Rank

From psychiatrist to international banker and gambling tycoon is an unusual career path, but Hong Kong-born Dr Johnny Hon says it makes quite a lot of sense. “Wealthy clients need a psychiatrist more than they need a banker,” he quipped. “Training in psychiatry makes you understand clients better. Most of them are elderly. They are concerned about their health and how to plan for passing their wealth down to their children.”

Hon, 34, was awarded a PhD in psychiatry from Cambridge University in 1998, but left medicine for finance after being recruited by the Dutch bank ABN AMRO as a private banker in Hong Kong. He didn’t stay with the Amsterdam-based bank long, however, and now has his own business empire, Global Group (Europe) plc, stretching from a joint venture bank in North Korea to a stake in a lottery in China, not to mention another bank in the Comoro Islands off Madagascar and an online gambling company in London.

Hon’s business ventures tend towards the exotic, but in an interview at his headquarters in London’s Docklands financial district he came across as measured and affable – even if I never did quite understand how he switched from a dissertation on the association between Down’s Sydrome and Alzheimer’s disease to international finance.

This has been a big year for Hon, who in June opened the Koryo Global Credit Bank in Pyongyang and in July announced the signing of a contract to co-manage the state sports lottery in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou.

Under the deal with Guizhou, Hon’s UK company, Betex, became the first non-Chinese company to become involved in gambling operations in mainland China (although numerous overseas gaming firms are involved in the Macau SAR). Gambling is illegal in China, with the big and fast-growing exception of state-sponsored lotteries, currently worth US$4.8 billion a year, although illegal gaming expenditures are estimated at 10 to 15 times as much, according to a recent Deutsche Bank report.

The Chinese government is aiming to cash in on the huge illegal gaming market through a vast network of video lottery terminals, and Deutsche Bank says “these measures will help lottery capture 40-50% of the illegal gambling market over the next three years”. Hon said his company had invested about 1.75 million British pounds ($3.05 million) in Guizhou, where there were currently 780 lottery sales points. These will be upgraded to give results in real time rather than be downloaded twice a day.

“So far we are involved only in Guizhou,” one of China’s poorest provinces, he said. “But we will hopefully speak to more provinces. Gaming in China has a lot of potential.” Underlining this potential, Deutsche Bank has cited the Peking University Center for Lottery Research as valuing illegal gambling activities in China – including underground casinos, slot machines, black market sports betting, and illicit lotteries – at around $75 billion. State lotteries are supposed to hand a proportion of their profits to charity and to sports development bodies, but corruption is said to be rife.

Hon said he was “taking a cautious approach” with his bank in North Korea, in which Global Group has a 70% stake and state-owned Koryo Bank has 30%. Stalinist North Korea is notoriously closed and secretive, but Hon said up to 200 foreign business people lived in Pyongyang and the country was gradually developing a market economy. He said he was “very bullish” about the future of North-South Korean economic cooperation, and stressed the potential of the Kaesong industrial zone, where a large number of South Korean companies have opened factories.

Hon noted that China’s economic reforms had been greatly boosted by overseas Chinese entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who have cultural, linguistic and family ties with the mainland, and South Koreans and overseas Koreans could make a similar contribution to North Korea’s economic development.

“I keep telling my North Korean friends to make use of the huge resources and capital from South Korea,” Hon said. “Labor costs are even cheaper than China … People are well educated and have good discipline. They need the right economic policies.” Regarding North Korea’s relations with the West, Hon said: “There have been a lot of misunderstandings on both sides … There is a big gap in how they read the West and how we read them.”

Hon noted that Macau billionaire, Stanley Ho, had a casino in Pyongyang, and said that “maybe I will talk to him a bit about banking arrangements”. But he denied that he had any involvement with North Korea’s reported online lottery venture, which is aimed mainly at South Koreans. North Korea is highly puritanical and its citizens are barred from the Pyongyang casino, whose main customers are Chinese entrepreneurs and tourists.

Hon said he was motivated not simply by money, but also wanted to “make positive contributions” to impoverished Third World countries. “I came to the conclusion that you can do more good to help more people by making money first,” he added.

This was part of the reason why he founded a bank on the tiny, impoverished island of Anjouan in the Comoros in 2002. The Comoros, in which Anjouan has autonomous status, have endured 19 coups or attempted coups since gaining independence from France in 1975, and Hon wryly admitted that “at the moment the bank has caused me more problems than it is worth”. He founded the bank after he was “asked to help” by the president of Anjouan to assist in drafting new financial laws and setting up an offshore banking industry on the Indian Ocean island.

Global says it is the only company authorized by the government of Anjouan to market financial and banking licenses. But the company says some websites allege that this is not the case and that Global is challenging this in the courts.

Hon, a British citizen, was educated in Britain from the age of 13 and says on his website that in just six years he “has built up a mini conglomerate, with interests in banking, property development, gaming, finance and leisure and from which the combined turnover in 2005 is expected to reach well in excess of 1 billion British pounds. Even more remarkable is that whilst building the Global Group of Companies from scratch, he has managed to pursue so many other interests both charitable and political.”

On the charitable side, Hon was part of a team that provided North Korea with 120 wheelchairs after a large explosion on a railway line last year in which 169 people died. There was speculation, strongly denied by the North Korean government, that the explosion was a failed assassination attempt against the country’s all-powerful leader, Kim Jong-il.

On the political side, Hon is a business supporter of Britain’s governing Labour Party, and a signed photograph of Prime Minister Tony Blair “to Johnny and all at Global” is on prominent display in the company’s boardroom. In Britain, his gaming company, Betex, is seeking a listing on the Alternative Investment Market, which has a more flexible regime than the main stock exchange, while Hon is also actively seeking business partners for tourism ventures in the Caribbean. Hon said he employs 115 people worldwide, mainly in Britain but including about 10 in China and seven in North Korea.

His other interests include helping Chinese companies get a stock market listing in London. These companies span a wide range of sectors, from biotechnology to education and tourism. On his website he lists some 30 companies of which he is founder or director, and states that Global Group “is growing at a rapid rate, employing more and more staff and operating in more diverse areas than ever before. Under Johnny’s chairmanship the group is certain to go onwards and upwards.”

Hon definitely seems like a man to watch, and you never know in which exotic corner of the world he is going to turn up next.


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