Originally published in the Asian Executive Magazine on the 12th of November 2018.
When you meet a leading entrepreneur for the first time, it’s hard to know what to expect. Clichés of fast cars and arrogance may spring to mind, but with Michael Mai, it couldn’t be further from the truth. He exudes confidence, entrepreneurialism, ambition and intelligence, yes, but his manner is mature, unassuming, polite, warm and welcoming. You soon realise that despite being born to one of China’s most influential, successful and wealthiest business men Boliang Mai, CEO of China International Marine Containers Group, Michael Mai is humble, and thankful for being born into a privileged family. As well as wanting to build on his own success with his businesses including ICD Property and Mai Capital, he wants to pay it forward by helping those dealt a less lucky hand of cards in life.
Having moved to Australia to study at Scotch College in Melbourne as a teenager, Mai found he felt very much at home. “I love the multiculturalism and how friendly the people are,” he says. With his father being a leading businessman in China, Mai says it made sense for him to stay in Australia and create his own path. “If I’d stayed in China I would be working and living under a huge shadow!” he laughs.
“Living here has enabled me to have my own identity and independence and make my own way. My philosophy is to have fun, do good and make money – and in that order.”
Michael’s first business venture ICD Property which started from humble beginnings in a small office in St Kilda is really kicking goals. The finished value of projects is 2.3 billion and is powered by a team of 26 full time staff from an expansive sky scraper Melbourne CBD office with city sky line views. One such new monumental building sitting on the skyline, the stunning EQ building – being just one of the company’s landmark developments.
With a youthful, enthusiastic and creative team on board, Mai is proud of how they approach developments. “We believe in developing buildings that last the test of time and have the best form and function. We want to take our inspiration from the historic buildings in Europe that remain for centuries. We want to build buildings that are solid in quality and aesthetics” he says.
Mai says it’s important to take into account the city and the area in which they are developing. “We do a lot of research to make sure our developments fit the character of their neighbourhoods,” he says. “For instance a building we do in Melbourne city will be very different to one in Sydney, or Auckland.”
Mai has been a pioneer in Melbourne for taking the design of buildings to the next level in terms of integrating amenities for the future. “Australia doesn’t have a huge population, but it’s increasing quickly. We are approaching our high rise buildings in view of a convenient inner city CBD lifestyle, taking into account the environment, stresses on infrastructure and encouraging less dependency on cars.”
This ethos has been applied to one of the most exciting projects on the drawing board at present. It’s set to transform the Auckland skyline in the development of a new hotel-residential building on Federal Street, ICD’s first project in New Zealand. “To attract the attention of world leading architects and bring an international standard of high-rise living to Auckland, as well as contribute the city’s future growth and development, we decided to run a design competition for the building,”
Mai says. “The designs from five diverse architects include a tower with a Sky Garden representing the Auckland landscape, and a local design inspired by a Māori korowai (cloak) which can be seen in the buildings’ cascading facade.”
Closer to home, ICD Property is working on their biggest development yet Gen Fyansford, a 115 hectare broad-acre project just five minutes from Geelong’s CBD. The $200 million development will consist of about 1000 lot divisions as well as a village centre with convenient retail and commercial assets.
The priority with this project Mai says, is to integrate the beautiful setting and landscape for green open space living. “We want to make sustainability the hero of this community. We’ve brought in expert consultants to deliver substantial landscaping works, including riverfront
regeneration and breathtaking views of open space and artistically transformed silos,” he said. The master plan ensures that the residential areas are interweaved with waterways, lakes, adventure playgrounds, parklands and more.
Grateful to Australia for its hospitality as his adopted home, Mai says he has a personal drive and purpose to return the favour by helping Australian businesses succeed in exporting to China. To this end he’s set up another venture Mai Capital. “It is really fundamental for Australia to expand overseas, and Australia is in the perfect position for exporting,”
Mai says. “It’s in the perfect time zone and we are on the doorstep of not just China but also India and Indonesia – some of the most populated countries in the world. With Mai Capital we have the ability to easily hire people that understand the Asian business culture and have local intelligence so you don’t have to go in blind.” “I want to create win/win solutions!” he says. “I believe in true globalization where countries support each other, and share each other’s strengths and innovation. Australia has potential in a number of industries including: Health Care, Clean Tech and Education and Agriculture: “Australia has enviable clean air and water not to mention the best produce in the world, this is very attractive to the China market.”
Michael is quick to point out that creating a family environment is part of building a successful business culture. “We don’t want our people to feel that work is work. We want to create a fun, social, work/life culture which integrates friends and families. We have family days, a social club and staff are encouraged to socialise.
By building up a feeling of one company, one team and one big family, no one has separate agendas. If one person has too much work, they will never need to feel like they are alone or being crushed. They know there are 20 other people who have their back and will help them out.”
To ingrain the work culture Michael has written a detailed guide. “A good culture is hard to build,” he says. “I thought it was important to document the culture we have built and how we work best together, and most importantly how to keep it so it won’t get lost over time. Coincidentally I found out that my father did a similar thing for his company which I didn’t know about,” he says. “He’s said he’s been using it for 20 years and I hope ours will last that long too!”
Mai rewards a culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation amongst his employees. “I encourage the team to be as innovative as possible – we do a lot of brain storm sessions and research on new ideas. You can’t win by copying other people’s ideas!” Mai says. To encourage a good diverse pool of ideas and innovation within the business Mai says they go out of their way to hire diverse people. “We are an equal opportunity employer. We are proud to have a 50/50 balance of women and men in our team,” he says. “We encourage hiring people that don’t all think the same and come from different backgrounds” he says.
“If people in our company have a business idea, I encourage them to explore it. I give them the chance to put their crazy ideas out there! Any great innovative ones, we’ll give it a crack.” One such innovative idea concocted in this fashion has come to fruition in HWKR – a buzzy, neon-lit contemporary and exciting market style food hall based at the bottom of ICD’s gleaming EQ Tower on A’Beckett Street in Melbourne’s CBD. HWKR takes its influence from the Hawker-Style food markets in Singapore and Malaysia but is wrapped up with a funky brand and slick interior. The unique food concept has four ‘pop up’ state of the art restaurant spaces that rotate and host cutting edge restaurants and chefs every three months.
As well as providing a unique eating alternative for residents and foodies across Melbourne, HWKR is designed to support up and coming chefs and restaurants. Once again supporting entrepreneurship. “It’s essentially a restaurant incubator,” he says. “Instead of selling the retail space, we wanted to help new businesses get started,” Mai says. “It’s difficult for a new upcoming chef or restaurant to financially get off the ground. They don’t have the significant amount of funds needed to get started,” he says. “We thought this would be a way to allow great new
chefs or talent in the food and beverage industry to come and try running a restaurant without the huge financial risk of starting out on their own.”
Mai tells us, that with easily adaptable fittings, order and payment technology and switchable branding all in place, essentially all you need to do is rock up with a team. “Once they have a proven themselves, they can attract potential investors more easily if they decide to open their own restaurant,” he says.
HWKR has since attracted a feast of gastronomic talent. Launching in February this year, HWKR kicked off with an impressive line-up including 2017 MasterChef winner Dianna Chan who demonstrated her Malaysian cuisine with Chanteen and former MasterChef contestant Reynold Poernomo brought his successful Sydney Koi Dessert Bar to Melbourne for the first time. Now Mai says, “We are really pleased to help launch and host the high profile winner of MasterChef 2018 Sashi Cheliah with his first restaurant Gaja [meaning elephant] by Sashi,” says Mai. Representing Singapore with its mix of cultures and cuisines, Cheliah is promising authentic cuisine brimming with flavour. These include Gordon Ramsay’s favourite dish from the show Cheliah’s beer battered cauliflower, and some family classics; his wife’s home town beloved Kerala-style dry roast chicken, and his mum’s Ayam Masak Merah or Bang Bang Red Chicken.
Alongside the four pop up spaces within the HWKR food centre is the permanent venue Manymore Bar and Cafe. Manymore is an extension of Mai and his wife Hilary’s belief in supporting social enterprise and the work undertaken through Mai Foundation. “It is important for both Hilary and I to give back” he says.
Recognising his fortunate background, he says it is a priority for him and his business to help people less fortunate in a way that is sustainable not just for tomorrow, but for their long term future. I’m a big believer in social enterprise,” he says. As to the future Mai draws on his competitive saying: “I want to add to my father’s achievements in business and better them,” he laughs.
However, Mai is focused on bringing his team along with him. “My key motivation is to not just do well myself, but use my knowledge and resources to help as many people succeed as possible.”