One of Metro Vancouver’s richest men is walking between stores at Aberdeen Centre.
Thomas Fung owns dozens of stores in the mall that he spent $100 million on in 2003, but shoppers pay him little notice. This suits him just fine. He prefers to avoid the spotlight.
Fung’s Fairchild Group empire includes an impressive list of media holdings, wholesale and retail arms and, as of a couple months ago, the new Boundary Bay Airport flying school, Sealand Air.
Some have described Fung as a billionaire. His company’s website acknowledges that Fairchild’s holdings are worth more than $400 million, yet Fung remains humble and unpretentious.
“This shirt, I’m wearing,” he says while touching the collar of his pink pin-stripe shirt. “We sell it for $9 at Price Just 4 You.”
That’s just one of his many fashion stores.
Fung then goes back to sipping some soda water mixed with plum bits at his Seventh Heaven Café.
“I live a very simple life. I don’t have luxury homes all over the world. I never travel first class.”
He also never takes vacations, except for a few days around Christmas.
“I enjoy what I do so much because every day there’s something new,” he said. “I resolve problems every day. It’s kind of a game. It’s a challenge, but it’s a manageable challenge.”
Fung launched his flying school when he realized that there was a worldwide pilot shortage and a growing demand from North American baby boomers for recreational pilot licences.
He invested $1.5 million to buy five new single-engine planes and an unspecified amount on a hangar. He claims to offer training on newer planes than his competition owns.
Fung understands the flying business from different perspectives. When the 56-year-old was younger, he earned his own pilot’s licence and flew around Canada and Asia.
That personal connection with his businesses’ products is one of the few common threads that run through his empire.
The Magee high school graduate took baking courses in Japan during his 20s. When he returned to Vancouver in 1984, he founded the first of four Saint Germain Bakery outlets. Now, as the Canadian master franchisee for the popular Japanese chain Beard Papa, Fung also operates the cream puff store at Aberdeen Centre that is well known for hour-long lineups on weekends.
Fung took film-making courses in New York in the late 1970s while completing a business degree at New York University. His Fairchild Films now distributes Paper Moon Affair, which Fung wrote and filmed on Bowen Island.
Finally, Fung is also an avid non-fiction reader and diarist. So it’s no surprise that he operates an extensive media empire and sometimes contributes articles to his Popular Lifestyle magazine.
That media empire is growing.
In January, Fung surprised observers by spending an undisclosed amount to partner with Sing Tao Daily to buy Toronto’s Chinese language AM1540, a radio station that will compete with one of Fung’s six Fairchild Radio stations across Canada.
Other media holdings include Fairchild TV, which broadcasts across Canada, and the Internet portal and web host venture Eseenet.com.
“He combines business acumen with creativity,” said Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie. “He doesn’t think within the regular boxes that most of us think within. He’s pushing boundaries all over the place. Then, once he sees his vision, he is very determined in pursuing that vision even though very large investments are on the line.”
Longtime acquaintances agree, but say his biggest talent is turning businesses around.
These attributes coincided when Fung tore down the original Aberdeen Centre, which he built in 1990 for $10 million. He then rebuilt a mall three times the size on the same site.
“A lot of people told him he would not succeed, but he went ahead anyway,” said S.U.C.C.E.S.S. CEO Tung Chan, who has known Fung for decades.
“He has deep pockets. So at the beginning, when rental wasn’t going as well, he just opened his own stores. You don’t see that in any other development.”
Fung confirmed that Henderson Development, owners of the long-struggling International Village shopping centre, has asked him to help it transform its largely empty facility, which houses the Cinemark Tinseltown theatres.
Chan believes Fung’s financial resources and local presence are the big differences between the two retail centres.
“International Village has a local manager who can’t get resources as readily as Thomas can. Thomas can say, ‘It’s my money. I write the cheque.’”
Accolades aside, Fung is the first to admit that he has made mistakes. He points, for example, to a joint venture project in China in pharmaceuticals.
“I was not one of the controlling shareholders, and I didn’t manage the company,” he said of the 1990s venture.
The company flopped, and even though Fung believed he knew how to turn things around, he was ignored by majority shareholders and management.
From then on, he vowed to either be a controlling principal or manager.
Fung travels extensively, but finds time to take his wife, Amy, dancing at Seventh Heaven Café on weekends. The couple have one son, Joseph, who works in Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, the Vancouver Board of Trade honoured Fung with its Spirit of Vancouver leadership award. – 2008 April 22 BUSINESS IN VANCOUVER
Thomas Fung, the Fairchild Group chair and CEO, wife Amy Chan and her sister Carmen threw a dinner at Fung’s Endowment Lands mansion Tuesday for politicos, diplomats, bankers, corporate brass, institutional folk and a few below-the-salt fifth estaters.
As the seamless event unfolded, it was amusing to consider that a wrecking crew was simultaneously tearing down Fairchild’s 110,000-square-foot Aberdeen Centre in Richmond – surely the first local demolition of such a large 11-year-old structure. By November next year, Fung blandly said, the miscast facility — which has always been overshadowed by the nearby, much larger, anchor-tenanted and thoroughly occidental Richmond Centre — will be replaced by a 380,000-square-foot complex drawn by firecracker-hot architect Bing Thom and handled inside by upscale design darling Colin Steven.
Thom also penned the University of B.C.’s Chan Centre, whose $10-million benefactors, Caleb and Tom Chan, attended the Fung beano.
Digging into the sushi too was Vancouver Aquarium president and CEO John Nightingale, who is emerging as the chap who’ll spearhead a $3-million drive to install a state-of-the-art organ in the acoustically peerless Chan Centre.
Nightingale may also install a satellite of the Stanley Park aquarium in the reborn Aberdeen Centre. And that fishy facility could adjoin a spinoff of False Creek’s Science Centre, which was represented at the Fung dinner by boss Bryan Tisdall
Caterina Chu’s eyes lit up later, when it seemed possible that some diners might trip from their tables into Fung’s granite-boulder-rimmed indoor swimming pool. Chu is the TV talk-show host and movie producer who, with Kong Kong-based director-husband Jamie Lukkimming, has made 20 romantic and situation comedies — elements of which were echoed chez Fung. – by Malcolm Parry VANCOUVER SUN 16 May 2002
Businessman realizes dream of making a film
He has built malls and a media network, but Thomas Fung always had a secret ambition
Vancouver businessman Thomas Fung doesn’t exactly come across as your dreamy, starry-eyed romantic.
He is the founder of the enormously successful Fairchild Group, a multi-million-dollar media and real estate empire. He is the builder of Asian-theme shopping malls and Chinese-language television networks and radio stations. Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in Canada.
But for more than 20 years, Fung has been walking around with a secret.
All this time, he has been dreaming up this story of a beautiful, mature Asian woman, the kind teenage boys fall in love with.
It happens all the time, he claims.
“When you are a teenager, you will probably meet or see a lady some time in your life. She is beautiful and high class and something you cannot reach, but she fascinates you and so you fantasize about her and try to find ways to approach her.”
That is the underlying theme of Paper Moon Affair, the inaugural film for Fung’s latest commercial brainchild, Fairchild Films International.
Film crews headed to Bowen Island Monday to begin filming the story of Hart, a young man saddled with the care of Bill, his alcoholic father who has fallen from affluent fishing boat owner to the town drunk in a remote West Coast village. He is drawn to Keiko, a mysterious and radiantly beautiful Japanese woman who lands in the village with her cold but wealthy husband.
Asked to describe the film, Fung responds without a trace of hesitation, “Romantic and sensual.” His tone is so blunt, it’s hard to believe he used those words.
The start of shooting was ground-breaking in more ways than one. It’s not every day that the man financing and finagling the details for the show has also dreamed up the plot. With the help of director David Tamagi and producer Michael Parker, he turned a wisp of his imagination into a script.
“I’m wearing two hats. I have to watch over the budget and be responsible for distribution, cost and putting everything together. In a way, I have to manage it like a businessman. At the same time, I’d like very much for the film to have production value which I emphasize a lot in the cinematography, the art direction, lighting, music and the story.”
Of the two hats, Fung says it is the creative one that is his passion. “Whenever I have spare time, I go into the creative part of the arts.”
The question had to be asked: Did Fung himself harbour such fantasies as a teenage boy? He is sure he did but he is cryptic about the details. “One way or the other, to some extent. I can’t even remember. I’m getting old now.” Fung is in his early 50s.
Fung spent most of his teen years in Hong Kong, emigrating to Canada in 1967. His father, who headed a Hong Kong banking empire, expected his two sons to enter the family business.
Fung had other ideas. He studied filmmaking on the side at New York University when he was sent to New York City to train at the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm. Then he went back to Hong Kong, staying 10 years and starting a film-production company, an advertising agency and a public relations firm. In 1984, he moved to Vancouver where he built the Aberdeen Centre shopping mall.
As long as Fung breaks even with the film and he has produced an artistic movie, he will be happy.
The budget for the film is $1.5 million. The shooting schedule is tight. The entire 100-minute film will be shot in Bowen Island, Mission, Vancouver and Tofino in three weeks.
Finding the right person to play Keiko was not easy. “The difficulty was to find a lady that acts and looks graceful, elegant and who can speak English and someone who is willing to have some frontal exposure, some nudity.”
He found that in Misa Shimizu. The 34-year-old Tokyo-born actress has won several awards, including one for best new performer in 1991 at the annual Japanese academy awards.
Hong Kong star John Lone (Rush Hour 2, The Last Emperor) makes a special appearance as her husband. Brendan Fletcher (Equus, The Law of Enclosures) stars as Hart, and Sebastian Spence (Crossing, Dawson’s Creek) stars as Vern, an unhappy romantic who must decide how much he is willing to lose for the possibility of love.
Fung expects his movie will resonate better with audiences in Japan, Asia and Europe than in North America. Part of the reason, he explains, is class distinction, which contributes to the teenage boy’s fascination. “When a young boy grows up, they will go through the experience more frequently [in these countries]. In North America, you don’t have that kind of a class separation as much.”
In the U.S., he suspects Paper Moon Affair will be treated as an oddity. – 2004 June 2 VANCOUVER SUN by
A.C. Nielsen DJC research from 1998 noted Fairchild Television reached 82,900 people each day and Fairchild’s radio station, AM 1470, reached 60,100. The daily newspapers Ming Pao reached 46,700 readers andSing Tao reached 45,700 people. * – Glen Korstrom BUSINESS IN VANCOUVER September 12-September 18, 2000.