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BORIS YU: Über-Connected
A Bon-Vivant turned Personal Concierge Service Entrepreneur

From CHINA INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS June 1, 2009 Print & Web Edition

 

By Mina Choi


As a child, Boris Yu found his true-calling as a bon-vivant: “I spent my childhood with my family trying out new restaurants and new hotels instead of sightseeing.” Why did his family do that? “Because they were businesspeople from Hong Kong and that’s what they did,” Yu answers. So, from his pint-sized days, Yu learnt what good room service and excellent food ought to be. Decades later, after a detour through Dundee University, London School of Economics (studying structural engineering) and Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok International Airport, where he worked on land reclamation, Yu has finally returned to his childhood destiny: Running a personal concierge service on the Chinese mainland.

In his company introduction, Yu describes himself as a “gastro-nomad,” a “hotel junkie” and “design addict” who guides elite Chinese clients through “the art of living.” Not one for modesty, Yu definitely envisions his company, Über, as a super-personal concierge service to rival all services.

Before he started Über in 2008, Yu made a few unusual stops before switching from his early gig as a structural engineer — which he did to please his parents who insisted that he do something more “substantial” — to his current position. After his airport engineering project, Yu started his own wine trading business in the late 1990s to introduce Hong Kong to boutique wines. The venture was a disaster: “We ended up drinking all the wines before we had a chance to sell them.”

SOCIAL ENGINEERING

Knowing that he couldn’t continue as an engineer, Yu opened Bo Innovation, a fusion restaurant featuring items such as Lao Mei Fang ice cream and lettuce-wrapped fois gras. The two-Michelin-starred restaurant’s top customer was Tung-Chee Wha, former chief executive of Hong Kong. “I had all the A-list customers in Hong Kong,” Yu says. These customers would often ask for his advice when planning trips abroad. “I was doing it for free. If they were going to Spain, I would set up a reservation for them at Al Boona or El Bulli. I also set them up at the top hotels.” But the cost of running a restaurant in Hong Kong was taking its toll and Yu eventually sold out to his partners, and then moved to Shanghai to run the Chinese franchise of Quintessentially, a global luxury concierge service.

After working for Quintessentially for nearly two years, Yu felt that the business model was not viable. “The franchise system for personal concierge doesn’t work,” he says. “If you provide a service for a New York, London or Paris client in Shanghai, you don’t share the revenues made by those branches, but you still have to provide the service. Personal concierge service has to be run from the main office and centralized.”

GOING IT ALONE

Yu saw that language was a huge barrier. “When you have a top Chinese mainland client calling in London to ask for something, he needs to talk to someone who speaks Chinese, not someone who speaks English with a French accent.”

After sizing up the industry, Yu decided to establish Über in Hong Kong, with start-up capital of HKD 10 million raised from his own savings and investment from friends. He then incorporated Über as a wholly-owned foreign enterprise in China.

“Hong Kong was saturated and I was looking at new business opportunities. I wanted a bigger market, an emerging market.” Yu’s ultimate goal: to have 2,500 invitation-only members for his five main clubhouse city locations.

A year into his enterprise, Yu already has 500 members signed up at a premium of more than RMB 300,000 a year, with an additional 5,000 names in the database. Who gets to invite potential members? “I do,” Yu answers, although he will always take suggestions from his existing members.

Über currently has offices in six Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Haikou — as well as in Fukuoka, Japan, with 13 full time employees. According to Yu, Fukuoka acts as a testing ground for all foreign luxury cars and brands, and therefore Über needs to have a presence there to stay up to date.

HUSBANDS, WIVES AND SCHOOLS

“We’ve been growing much faster than we had thought,” says Yu. “We thought we’d be struggling for at least two, three years, but we’re probably looking at profitability by the end of this year.”

Über’s elite customer base is currently 69% male and 31% female, with 90% of his customers Chinese and 10% foreign. One rule applied at Über is that there are no couple-memberships; a wife and a husband must join separately. When probed for the logic behind this regulation, Yu answers: “If a wife calls us looking for her husband, we cannot disclose and vice versa. We have to serve our client exclusively.”

When asked what a super-personal concierge service offers its clients, Yu tells us: everything, as long as it is within legal guidelines. “If a client wants aspirin at 3am in a Beijing hotel, we arrange for that.” Über, however, pitches itself as the ultimate travel and luxury advisor, getting clients booked into the top restaurants in its network.

The second most important role the company serves is giving school entrance advice. If clients need information on getting their children into a particular elite school, Über will provide it. “It’s not just Great Britain and their exclusive public schools; our clientele are now looking at France and Switzerland,” he says. The most recent educational assignment they fulfilled was getting a client’s child into the prestigious La Rosey School in Switzerland.

Nothing is impossible for Über. “If we don’t have the information, we will find out for our client,” says Yu. His employees all speak English and Chinese, and some are also fluent in Japanese, French and Spanish. “We train them to understand the luxury lifestyle, we take them traveling and we train them to receive and process information.”

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Has his business model changed? Yes, Yu admits. When he first started he thought the clubhouse and membership fees would be his main revenue generator, but now Über has become a “luxury lifestyle broker/facilitator” for a number of corporate clients and businesses. These corporate clients might be luxury developers who need a link with the personal concierge service to add extra value to their property, or luxury businesses interested in cooperating with the exclusive members-only events that Über offers. “We are also talking to different suppliers, such as specialized watchmakers.”

One area Yu has found that he must be very sensitive to is the high-maintenance nature of his mainland clients. “They are very specific and demanding. They know what they want.” So what does Yu do when he cannot fulfill their specific request? “We suggest great alternatives [and] we never say no.”

This past Christmas Über arranged for four couples to be booked into a Swiss spa for a week-long sheep-embryo regeneration treatment. Cost per person: RMB 600,000. “The spa usually closes over the Christmas holidays, but they kept it open for our clients.” But not all of their tasks are glamorous. “We once retrieved a camera for a client; he had left it in a cab in Milan,” Yu says.

With his bold black-rimmed spectacles and great rolling laugh, Yu has set himself up as the go-to man for China’s rich and famous, but does he see himself as a potential arbiter of good taste? “No, we are just here to service our clients,” he says modestly.

For a complete list of Business Articles by Mina Choi click HERE