NiQ Lai FCPA, Co-Owner and Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong Broadband Network Group, has witnessed how the company’s broadband Internet services has benefitted the lives of people across the city, especially during the pandemic. He discusses with Nicky Burridge business expansion, how he overcame setbacks in his career and how his diverse skill set, combined with his unfaltering level of determination, has allowed him to be the leader he is today
Photography by Calvin Sit
NiQ Lai FCPA, Co-Owner and Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong Broadband Network Group (HKBN), remembers being taken to a public housing estate by the company’s founder in the early 2000s. “You could see it was an economically tough environment. There were maybe five people, three generations, living in this less than 500 square foot home – but they had kick-ass broadband from HKBN.” He describes the experience as being his “aha moment” when he realized the power of connecting people to the Internet at an affordable price. “We were charging HK$99 a month, the incumbent was charging multiples, which was unaffordable for the family. I thought what we were doing was like teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish. If you have access to the Internet, you can grow and learn your way out of poverty.”
HKBN prides itself on being a telecoms disruptor. “In the past two decades, we broke the dominance of the legacy incumbent, bringing top-class fibre infrastructure and the best-value services to families across Hong Kong,” says Lai, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs. He adds that while HKBN started out in the residential market, 80 percent of its business now covers the enterprise segment. “The ultimate test for us is whether Hong Kong is a better place to live because of us. By disrupting the telecoms industry, we have made telecoms services better for all Hongkongers, not just our customers. “Hong Kong has among the best value and the most advanced telecoms services in the world, and we take – in a humbly arrogant way – a large credit for that.”
Lai also places a high emphasis on HKBN giving back to the communities it serves. This has been a particular focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, which he explains, has created an “everything from home” era. “It is not merely about working from home; everything is now being done from home: work, school, entertainment and relationships,” he says. “Now, imagine if you don’t have broadband. We heard stories of children of families in public housing estates asking to borrow their mum’s handset to do school work online and they were burning through mobile data.”
As a result, in the early weeks of the pandemic, Lai and his management team launched HKBN’s #ToughTimesTogether initiative, under which it waived one-month’s broadband fee for all of its customers and gave two-years’ free broadband to 10,000 disadvantaged families. “We hoped to inspire the rest of Hong Kong to follow suit. Imagine if everyone did their part and you got one month’s free groceries, one month’s free utilities, one month’s fee rent. That is what we were trying to kick off,” he adds. Lai describes the reception to the one-month fee waiver as being “phenomenal,” having the highest take-up rate for any campaign in its 20-year history.
A telecoms pioneer
HKBN was the first operator in Hong Kong to launch triple-play, namely offering Internet, broadband and Internet protocol television (IPTV) services on a single bill. Lai says HKBN is continuing to evolve, and while other providers are still talking about triple-play, or even quad-play, which includes mobile services, it has already moved into infinite-play. “Infinite-play is offering unlimited services to households that go beyond broadband, mobile and media service, leveraging strategic partnerships to multiply choices for our customers and their family members – and offering much greater value for money. We no longer see ourselves merely as a fibre company. We have an incredible one-in-three households and one-in-two active companies in Hong Kong on a monthly billing relationship, and we can help these households and corporates access any service that makes sense,” he explains. “We are looking beyond this, such as connecting retailers directly to our customer base for unlimited goods and services.”
One new area that HKBN has recently moved into is online shopping through its HOME+ platform. Lai says: “Hong Kong is a compact place with lots of people living in a small area, so we should enjoy among the cheapest shopping in the world. But in reality, we have to pay a massive retail premium because of high rents and other inefficiencies,” he says. “We are doing to retail shopping what we have done to telecoms. A lot of the components are already there. We have access to customers, and we are working with our partner Dah Chong Hong Holdings and other retailers, to create a farm-to-Hongkonger direct model, cutting out as much of the middleman as we can.”
Another area it is currently working on is making cybersecurity solutions affordable for retail, and small and medium enterprise customers. HKBN suffered a data breach in 2018, in which the personal data of 380,000 customers was hacked. A year later, it acquired leading systems integrator Jardine OneSolution to boost its cybersecurity service capability across different industries. Lai says: “Cybersecurity is like health. There is nothing more important and it is a fundamental core of business. That became apparent to us when we had our own data breach in 2018. The data breach was a real catalyst to “change or die” as a business. We came out much stronger not only in our systems, data collection and retention practices, but also awareness training and education for all our talents.” He adds that HKBN is now using this experience to help its enterprise customers carry out their own cybersecurity audits and put in place cybersecurity solutions.
After graduating from the University of Western Australia in Perth, NiQ Lai FCPA joined PwC in Hong Kong as a junior accountant.
A foundation in accounting
Lai was born in East Timor and moved to Australia as a refugee when he was child. He completed a degree in accounting at the University of Western Australia in Perth, but was unable to get a job in Australia, so he moved to Hong Kong, taking up a post as a junior accountant at PwC. “Hong Kong was rocketing at the time. I was doing United States tax returns one-on-one with very senior people working for companies such as McKinsey, IBM and Pepsi. It was a phenomenal chance to talk to senior executives,” he says. Keen to progress his career, Lai started going into the office at 7 a.m., 90 minutes before most of his colleagues arrived, so that he could read the U.S. Master Tax Guide. “It is boring, technical legal language, but I felt that if I could get to the source of the tax law, then I could do better,” he says.
Lai points out that in a large firm like PwC, there are many layers of management between a junior accountant and the partner, and their work normally goes through multiple checks before the partner signs off on it. “What I tried to do was make sure my work was good enough so that I could bypass all of the checks and the partner could sign-off on my work directly. I managed to do this, and it enabled me to have an accelerated promotion.” Lai qualified as a CPA in two years. “I wanted to get the qualification as fast as I could. A CPA qualification is an investment in both money and time, but without it, I would not be a CEO today. A CPA qualification is financial literacy, and finance is the language of business. It is the foundation of my career.”
“A CPA qualification is financial literacy, and finance is the language of business. It is the foundation of my career.”
One of Lai’s clients at PwC was an investment banker, who mentored him and suggested he should consider moving into investment banking. “I was able to make the jump into investment banking because I was a qualified CPA and had an accelerated promotion,” he says. Lai joined Sassoon Securities as an analyst. He got into telecoms by luck, as this sector was available after the previous analyst had left. “I was given a desk and a corporate credit card and told to go and write research on the telecoms industry. I had to figure it out for myself. I grew into it and became a specialist.” He remembers going to telecoms shops and asking the salespeople questions, as well as reading legal documents about telecom licences. “The key was curiosity. This was in the early 1990s, so you could anticipate a lot of the future industry liberalization changes in Hong Kong by looking at the United Kingdom. The U.K.’s demonopolization of British Telecom was five years ahead of Hong Kong Telecom’s (HKT) demonopolization. Back then, Hong Kong was not a global leader, it was a follower. Just by studying what was happening in the U.K., Europe and the U.S., you could guess where Hong Kong was going.”
After two years, he was headhunted by investment bank Kleinwort Benson to do utility and telecom equity research. He had not been there long, when what he thought was his dream job came up as manager, strategic planning, at Cable & Wireless (C&W), which later became HKT. He applied for the post even though it meant taking a 50 percent pay cut. But it turned out to be a bad fit. “It took me three months to get past probation and three months to resign,” he remembers. Even so, he still considers his time at C&W to have been a valuable experience, giving him an insight into how a large multinational corporation operated.
After C&W, he took up a role at Credit Suisse as head of Asia Telecom Research, where he stayed for eight years. “After university, I had four jobs in my first six years. I was trying to figure out my life and what I wanted to do, so I jumped around from small companies to large ones. Then I started to settle down. Credit Suisse was incredible. My role allowed me to access a wide range of CEOs in the best- and worst-run telecoms companies around the world. You can learn from other people’s success and other people’s failures,” he says.
Lai joined HKBN 17 years ago, this time taking an 80 percent pay cut. He explains: “My job satisfaction is far more important than the financial return, which will come over time. By then, I had the benefit of a decade’s worth of research. I was older and more mature. I could see the company was dynamic and I was in a relatively more senior position in a smaller company, so I had more influence and could help to shape it.”
He started as business development director, a role that he describes as being assistant to the chairman. Over time, he became more involved in operations, becoming chief financial officer, chief talent and financial officer, chief operating officer, and then Group CEO in 2018. During this time, he has seen the company evolve from having revenue of HK$2 billion in 2012, at the time of its management buyout, to about HK$12 billion today. “My responsibilities have grown with the company,” he says.
Prior to joining Hong Kong Broadband Network, Lai worked at Cable & Wireless (now HKT) and Credit Suisse, where he was head of Asia Telecom Research.
Lai likens his role as CEO to being the coxswain of a dragon boat. “On a dragon boat, everyone has to row at the same pace and with the same intensity or you go in circles.” The key to achieving this outcome, he says, is aligning the interests of HKBN’s 5,500 employees with those of the company, and ensuring they have access to the tools and resources they need to make an impact and drive transformation, filling any holes through mergers and acquisitions and raising capital when necessary. “If we do this, magic will naturally happen. At HKBN, we run a company based on fewer rules and far more alignment,” he says.
He also places a high emphasis on developing talent. “Everything we do can be copied. Other companies can easily buy the same equipment that we have, but it is incredibly difficult to copy our culture and our people,” he says. Lai sees the biggest challenge of his role as balancing the company’s long-term needs, such as making infrastructure investments, with the short-term demands of stakeholders, who are focused on the share price or other short-term key performance indicators. He points out that it took seven years of negative cashflow after the company was first listed to build up its own fibre network, which is the foundation of its business today. “It is about alignment. When I talk about having the right people in the dragon boat, it is not just about our talent, but also getting the right stakeholders as well.”
He says the most rewarding aspect of his role is seeing distributed success, whether this is through wealth creation for colleagues and stakeholders, or better service for consumers and businesses in Hong Kong.
Lai places a strong emphasis on the well-being of employees at HKBN. He dislikes the term “work-life balance,” pointing out that work comes in front of life, and it is unlikely that anyone will find the perfect balance. “In our company, we have a LIFE-work priority. “LIFE” comes ahead of “work.” We work around 40 days less each year than a normal company in Hong Kong, an early Friday off every month, flexible hours, and lots of leave,” he says. “But we are far more serious about our purpose for work, and we measure results, rather than the number of hours worked.” When he is not working himself, Lai enjoys playing tennis. “I wanted to be a professional tennis player when I was young. I wasn’t very good at it, so I became a CPA instead, but I still play. I’m socially competitive,” he says.
Hong Kong Broadband Network was the first operator in Hong Kong to launch triple-play, namely offering Internet, broadband and Internet protocol television services on a single bill.