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Interviews

Executive Vice President, UBM Asia Ltd – Hong Kong

Michael Duck

Interview by Barry Siskind on 9 April 2014

Michael Duck is a busy man. He is the Executive Vice President of UBM Asia, a Director of Shanghai UBM Sinoexpo International Exhibition Co Ltd, and a publisher of trade magazines. He is a member of UFI’s Executive Committee and the Chair of UFI’s Sustainable Development Committee. He has been a committed Rotarian for the past 16 years serving the Rotary Club of Hong Kong. In addition to raising three children he is also an avid collector of antique books, enjoys tennis, fly-fishing, good food and wine. His rise through the ranks of the exhibition industry charts a unique path that I found inspiring. His candor and wealth of knowledge is unparalleled.

Early years

Barry: What were your early career aspirations before you entered the exhibition business?

Michael: My earliest aspiration was to be a Helicopter Pilot in the Royal Navy. Then a farmer in New Zealand. But before I joined UBM in Hong Kong [it was called United Newspapers in 1994] I worked for Monsanto and Exxon Chemical in Brussels, Belgium, and then the Vestey group who were in shipping, agriculture, food distribution and many other businesses around the world. I worked for them in London, Italy, Greece, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia and often visited their businesses in South America and the USA.

Barry: Where did you go to school?

Michael: My education took place in the UK….I attended a Nautical College in England which was a school that was linked to the Royal Navy. So for 5 years I wore the uniform of a Royal Naval office cadet, better known as a midshipman. We all became members of the Royal Naval Reserve, so several times a year I spent time on guided missile destroyers, aircraft carriers , minesweepers and spent time on Royal Marine assault courses and jumping out of landing craft !. We were very fit! Apart from the usual ‘A’ level exams we also did exams in Seamanship [so I can still tie a ‘sheepshank’ knot] and also in Navigation – I can cross the sea using a sextant and stellar navigation! [Or I used to be able to!] I then attended several Business schools, first of all in the City of London with the Vestey Group, which in the early days of my career was the largest private company in the UK employing more than 36.000 people globally. We also had a floating helicopter pad outside the famous Oxo building which is still well known today and near UBMs HQ. I then went to Ambleside College and did an Army Captains course, then two terms at the wonderful Ashridge Business School outside of London and lastly at Cornell University in New York State at the Johnson School of Management. A stunningly beautiful University but boy does it get cold there in the winter!

Barry: Were you active in extra curricular programs?

Michael: Yes! Many!…in sports mainly I was an oarsman, spending a lot of time training on the river Thames, getting incredibly fit and enjoying regattas and various European championships representing college and country . I loved the time on the river even when it was snowing, but not when it was cold and raining. I then went on to row for the London Rowing Club and also in Queensland Australia. I played a lot of rugby in the UK and subsequently in Australia and New Zealand, and enjoyed Cricket when I could. I enjoyed fencing and am sure I could still wield a good sabre today! I was also the Chairman of the Fly fishing society as we were also fortunate to have a trout river flowing through the college. Sunday afternoons were bliss in the summer time when I could cook up a brace of trout with and for my housemaster!
I very much enjoyed our archaeological society and spent good time digging up a Roman villa that was found beneath what is now the M4 motorway. I very enjoyed our debating society which introduced me to the world of politics!

Barry: Do you remember your first trade fair?

Michael: My first trade fair was as an exhibitor in Auckland, New Zealand. It took place at the Ellerslie Race Course as there was no proper venue in the city in those days. The fair presented New Zealand products to International and Pacific Island businesses and distributors. I met the Prime Minister of New Zealand which at the tender age of 21 was a great thrill! I saw many Maori war and friendship dances, and got the taste for seeing how exhibitions are great for stimulating business.

Barry: What appealed to you about exhibitions?

Michael: With my previous employers, I visited many trade fairs around the world and exhibited at some of them. One was Anuga, the world food show in the mid 1980’s in Cologne so I was well aware of the tremendous ‘electric charge’ that fairs can generate. Meeting people for the first time, or the 100th time, seeing new innovations etc…all those things are special to our industry.

On UFI

Barry: You are very active with UFI and other associations. Why is your involvement in industry associations important to you?

Michael: It’s like a club and is only as good as the efforts the members put into it. If you are always one of those who say “Well what I will get out of it?”, and don’t add to it, then you will always be disappointed. UFI provides a worldwide platform to access industry knowledge, and for me to learn from global leaders in the industry and exchange ideas. Locally I have been active in the HK Exhibition Industry Association, also chairing it. We have made great strides in growing the industry and its recognition in Hong Kong and the Asian region. I feel a good sense of accomplishment in giving back to our industry and promoting the good elements of what we do.

On sustainability

Barry: What did you hope to accomplish as the first chair of UFI’s Sustainable Development Committee?

Michael: I was fortunate enough to be chosen! It pleases me no end to have been the first Chair. It’s in my DNA that I am a great fan of clean air, clean water, and a sustainable environment. That we all can make a difference to our environment is important to realise. We have seen may changes in how we and our industry operate especially in Asia where sustainability issues were not so well recognised in the past. Now many venues, organisers, stand contractors, forwarders and Governments take notice of what we as UFI have put forward to improve our industry …and this is expanding globally.
A lot has to do with education. Look at the kids today, they are already aware of issues when we were growing up we would not have thought about. Do you remember how easily people used to throw rubbish out of car windows onto the road, or that we used to be able to smoke in buses, trains, aircraft and cinemas! My kids laugh at me when I tell them that! It does not happen today.

Barry: From your perspective has the industry’s perception of the importance of sustainability changed?

Michael: No doubt the industry has had to sit up and take notice, and in many cases stock listed companies have to annually report their sustainability actions. This will also be soon increased by the demands of the GRI [ Global Reporting Initiative based out of Holland and on behalf of the United Nations] that investors demand of major listed companies. The Messes in Germany are also good leaders in best practice, and many medium and smaller companies are joining in. As our former CEO David Levin used to say’’ It just makes sense’.
I am pleased to also see a great UFI Sustainable Development awards programme which saw not one but two South African companies win last year!

Barry: What are the next challenges the exhibition industry faces in terms of sustainability?

Michael: We have to keep it alive. We have to not sound ‘holier than thou” or boring but rather it should be part of our thinking and our daily lives and we have the responsibility to transport it to other geographies. Not by showing arrogance but by giving the example and demonstrating how it makes sense. We in UBM now have several shows that do not have carpeting. Before the carpets were just thrown into the landfill so we are not just doing the right thing, we’re also reducing cost which helps profitability.

Barry: Where do you see the industry’s position on sustainability in 5 – 10 years from now?

Michael: I really believe we are on the right track, and that all companies will be having industry standards that are very similar. No more trade fairs with tonnes of paper brochures littering the floor.

Barry: What other issues affecting the industry would you like to see UFI tackle in the future?

Michael: There are two areas. The first which we are starting to address very seriously now is Health and Safety in our industry. ALL our staff and those working for our shows and venues as well as services and clients must be sure that they can trust the venue, the organiser and all the services to follow the right way in H&S. At the pinnacle of this is education. For instance now in Hong Kong through the local association here all contractors working in a venue have to complete a 1 day H&S course, They get a card, and wear a bracelet on-site showing they have the certificate. It’s not only the right thing to do but it’s important that each person understands his/her position in ensuring safety and that they are proud they have taken part.

The second is the continuous position of governments in many cities or countries that still don’t really understand the overall benefits our industry brings to them. I think we have a much bigger and better job in UFI to do in our marketing to the right people. In some countries our business has an ‘Industry status’ and is recognised but in many, it is not. We have to change this. We have to work hard at getting more tertiary institutions to teach our business to students. We have to also show people why our industry is a good, and a strong career to be part of and how it contributes to the profits of a company and the revenues of many such as hotels, restaurants, shops, airlines, and of course countless companies.

The next generation of exhibition professionals

Barry: Do you think the industry is doing everything it can to encourage the next generation of exhibition professionals?

Michael: No, I certainly don’t think that enough is being done. This needs much more energy and has to be driven with a mix of local and international associations, companies that are in the business now and tertiary institutions. I have lectured quite a few times in both Universities and Vocational training institutes with many students that were in Media Studies or in Hotel Management and Marketing, that knew very little about the exhibition industry. However, they became very excited when presented with what we do and of course when they get an opportunity to step into a Trade Fair, the smiles grow on their faces. It’s a bit like showing financial analysts about our business. They know little about our industry, but when they see a trade show floor and feel the energy and speak to exhibitors and visitors, their eyes light up!

Barry: What advice would you give to someone considering a career in the exhibition industry?

Michael: Try and get as much experience as you can in all sectors of the business so that you understand what each part of our industry does. Work on a show floor during build up, sell and close contracts, market the exhibition, work as a stand contractor and forwarder so that you completely understand and appreciate what you are entering into. Your enjoyment will be much more if you can talk knowledgably about the sector.

On business in Asia

Barry: As Executive Vice president of UBM Asia, where do you see the growth opportunities in Asia?

Michael: North Korea, Outer Mongolia, Central Australia. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that all the markets in Asia are continuing to grow and there are plenty of opportunities for all. The more people in the market, the more companies feel comfortable entering. What a difference in all markets new venues and competent service providers and professional organisers make!

Barry: What are some of the potential dangers of doing business in Asia?

Michael: Being arrogant and coming into a market for the short, quick buck is dangerous. You need to invest in competent staff with training and encourage pride in the company and the business. The downside of not understanding your client base and riding roughshod over local sensitivities is they can come back and bite you very hard especially when you are not looking!
Always treat people as you would like to be treated and then things usually work out well. Asian friendships are long term and are well regarded.

Barry: Asia is a big place. What are some of the regional differences that an organizer should take into account if they are considering doing business there?

Michael: Yes, geographically Asia is an enormous place and Hong Kong is geographically very central to most of it. People are different in each country in Asia. A big mistake of many Europeans and Americans is that many believe all Asians to be similar in thought, and character. There is a huge difference between most cultures and nationalities, but diversity is wonderful in language, food, religion etc.
So when coming into the market listen, learn, understand the culture of the country you are going to well before entering. And try and spend some time absorbing this cultural difference. And above all as I said earlier treat people how you would wish to be treated and you won’t go far wrong.

Barry: After increasing UBM’s postion in Asia, you formed UBM India. What were some of the early challenges you faced? How did you deal with them?

Michael: Interestingly there were powerful institutions that thought we were going to ‘steal their market share’ and so many obstacles were initially put in our way. This actually backfired for them when we went to see many Government offices and met people who understood what we were going to bring into India in terms of investment and employment. More recently the market has been much more open. Some of the issues in the Indian market need attention such as modernizing venues in major cities or reduction in the amount of licences needed before opening a show, reduction in ‘entertainment tax’ and also employing and training people who have an interest in our industry to be part of a new business in India. Many of these things applied in the early days in China.

The life of an exhibition professional

Barry: How do you spend your leisure time?

Michael: I enjoy spending time with my family when possible [ 2 girls and a boy…all young adults now] and with friends hiking in the Hong Kong hills [ we do have them you know !] , playing competition tennis, fly fishing when possible [ not in Hong Kong regretfully] going to the Theatre, especially in London, trying out new restaurants with friends, cooking, good wine, I like good clever humour and trawling through old bookshops as I collect old books and maps [my favourite place for that is Hay on Wye in Wales].

Barry: What book are you reading now?

Michael: I am an avid reader and always have three books ‘on the go’. I have just finished ‘Winter in Madrid’ by CJ Sansom. He writes with so much character, also The History of The Ben Line – a historical run through of a famous Scottish shipping line was a wonderful read ,written by Michael Strachan a former CEO who obviously did his homework and collected great photos and I am getting through a weighty tome by Chris Hitchens called ‘Arguably’. Unfortunately he is no longer with us as he passed away in 2012…but was one of the best debaters I have ever seen or read. Thanks to YouTube I can watch him often.

Barry: What book would you recommend to your colleagues as a must read?

Michael: There are so many …and it’s easy to talk about all the great business books that there are…but my father always carried with him ‘’ Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome so that after long meetings in foreign lands when you are feeling exhausted, I enjoy his bit of wonderful English ‘silliness’ that brings you back to the simple life of the river, humour and friendship. It also has some of the best pages describing the River Thames I have ever read anywhere.

Barry: Which volunteer activity has brought you the greatest satisfaction?

Michael: In the past 20 years I have been a Rotarian, serving as VP for the Hong Kong club which is the oldest and largest in the region. It has given me great satisfaction as I have been involved in many charity events with them in Hong Kong and the wider region. UBM and Rotary is jointly doing such things as building some schools in China, Myanmar and in Thailand post earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis.

Barry: How do you balance the need for travel with the desire to have a strong family life?

Michael: Certainly it’s tough especially when my children were very young and I had to be absent for two to four weeks at a time. You need an understanding wife/partner and when you are with your family you have to devote as much time to them as possible. Of course nowadays it’s a lot easier as aircraft are a lot quicker, communication is a lot faster and one can see ones family for free by Skype from anywhere.

Michael’s crystal ball

Barry: In your opinion, what is the future of face-to-face?

Michael: It is the most sustainable form of marketing that we have. It’s a natural human instinct to be able to meet clients, meet new suppliers, feel the trends in an exhibition and feel the trends of an industry. You can’t get that sitting behind a computer.

Barry: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

Michael: Oh! I never look that far forward personally ….maybe in business but personally it’s important to enjoy each day and month and year. They all go as fast as you undoubtedly get older. But hey, we all feel so much younger these days than our parents…so we have a lot to be positive about!
I am an eternal optimist and I find it just too boring and tiring to be a pessimist!

Press Contact

For additional information please contact:

Ms Angela Herberholz
UFI Communications and Marketing Manager
17, rue Louise Michel
92300 Levallois-Perret, France
Phone: (33) 1 46 39 75 00
Email: angela@ufi.org