Strand Lighting Asia celebrates its 30th anniversary against a backdrop of change When June became July, Hong Kong became China. For the past century a British territory, the land of laissez-faire rejoined the communist mainland, ending one empire and starting another. Questions about the future of the world's freest center of entrepreneurial expression, swirling since Britain agreed to part ways with its possession in 1984, will begin to find answers as this new chapter in Hong Kong's history commences. But Phil O'Donnell has long been unfazed by the typhoon of speculation.
"My position--our position--on the transfer to Chinese rule has always been crystal clear," says O'Donnell, president of Strand Lighting Inc. "We're in business; we're not in politics. Hong Kong is the correct location to operate from in Asia, and it's going to remain that way. We have no plans to run and hide from Hong Kong."
Speaking from Strand's USA headquarters in Rancho Dominguez, CA, just a few weeks before the transition, O'Donnell was as upbeat as he was resolute about the prognosis of Strand's piece of Hong Kong: Strand Lighting Asia Ltd., which occupies approximately 10,000 sq. ft. (3,048 sq. m) of corporate office space in Kowloon Bay. This October, Strand Lighting Asia marks a milestone of its own: 30 years' operation at the center of the world's most expansive economies, the first international lighting company to explore the possibilities of the region.
From 1986 to 1995, O'Donnell was at the center of that center, serving as Strand Lighting Asia's managing director. K.K. Mak, formerly the company's sales manager, has since assumed the driver's seat. The line of succession can be traced on one hand: The two men are only the firm's third and fourth managing directors, which attests to the company's stability in a continent of ceaseless change. The rough-and-tumble terrain of the Asian lighting marketplace, which Strand has done much to educate, standardize, and train over the years, is one O'Donnell knows well. "Before Strand Asia, it was a very fractured industry, all about agents, big commissions, and deals. The lighting was often buried in packages," he says. "You didn't have organizations like the USITT or the ABTT operating in these countries; you barely have any today."
Instead, the development of university- and government-sponsored arts exchange programs, which dispatch Asian students to study in the more sophisticated lighting markets of Europe and North America, has helped bring new savvy to the home countries. Returning the favor, Strand Lighting Asia supports those countries that lighting theories flow from, particularly the United States, England, and Australia. "These are where many Asians get their ideas and concepts about lighting practice from, so we have to have relationships with the lighting people in those countries, too, and help them operate in Asia," O'Donnell explains. "I don't know how many times I've had consultants from Europe and America call me up and ask, 'What's the standard plug for theatres in Thailand?' or something similar. Because there often wasn't one, or the standard was what the last guy did, we would often set it. Not arrogantly, but to try to blend our experience with what we think would work for our clients, to help them on their way."
Through its own agent network, in a chain of countries that includes China, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, Strand Lighting Asia has been eager to bolster the learning curve. In countries that had a more advanced understanding of lighting when Strand Lighting Asia started out, like Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, the company continues to service customers with the latest products from its North American and European factories.
"Strand Asia has been famous for its service and its technical abilities," O'Donnell says. "You have to be, because Asians aren't shy about electronics, and they're very demanding for service.
"We have found the agents who have the best profile for what we have to achieve in each country, who speak and write the languages, who we could train to have the kind of knowledge in architecture, theatre, and television they need to have," O'Donnell continues. "And we do a lot of training and seminar-type activities in the countries, trying to educate the markets. It's education with a commercial bias, but it's still a form of support."
Gradually, products spread through the Strand Lighting Asia network have become ubiquitous. Asia is now Strand's biggest market for architectural gear, with theatre, television, and, increasingly, themed entertainment venues all primary markets. As an example of Strand's dominance, take the recent handover ceremonies, and the $13 million entertainment extravaganza that transpired in Hong Kong Harbour to celebrate the transition.
Far from running and hiding, the company was scheduled to quite literally cover the waterfront. The ceremony was the opening event for the extension to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, whose harborside construction was an immense engineering feat involving reclamation of 15 acres (6 hectares) of land from the sea--and, ultimately, a big job for Strand. The extension was as huge an undertaking on the lighting side as the first convention center, opened in 1989 but already overtaxed, was for the company. LD Jim Tetlow's lighting for the ceremony was operated on one of Strand's 500 Series Lightpalettes. Tetlow and ceremony production manager Tom Janus are old friends of Strand Lighting Asia, and so are many of the key technicians who were involved in the historic event.
If you were lucky enough to get a hotel room to see the handover firsthand, more than likely the architectural lighting was provided by Strand (if you return next year and find that the hotel is gone--they are razed at the drop of a property valuation--chances are the replacement structure will be Strand, too). If you wanted to mark the exact time Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese rule, you could consult either the historic Kowloon Canton Railway Station Clock adjacent to the Hong Kong Cultural Center (another Strand project), or the bands of neon light that change color as the evening hours tick away, atop Hong Kong's Central Plaza--and you would have been looking at two more applications of Strand's architectural range. "It's nice of all these people to come out to Hong Kong to be lit by our systems," O'Donnell jokes.
Projects like the two convention centers, the cultural center, and the Academy of Performing Arts in Hong Kong are massive multimillion dollar undertakings which draw on the close relationships the company has developed with architects, designers, specifiers, and government officialdom over time. And these are not necessarily the biggest: The firm's handiwork can be found throughout the jumbo skyscrapers that annually vie for "world's tallest building" honors as the competition moves east. All this is made possible by the purposeful coordination of Strand Lighting Asia's agent network and its Hong Kong staff, now numbering 38. Mak's team includes sales manager Frank Scarlata, whose career includes stints at Kliegl, Teatronics, and Victor Duncan Inc.; finance and administration chief Thomas Chan; marketing manager Philip Lehmann; and engineering chief Eric Kwan, hired around the same time O'Donnell was drafted to head up the firm.
Strand Lighting Asia began in 1967 as Rank Electronics Asia, part of Rank Industries Asia. The company, initially an agent for Strand products, was set up by an Australian, Nick Dowling. In 1985, Strand's North American president at the time, Marvin Allman, asked Rank for control of the Hong Kong-based company, as so many of its activities were Strand-related. "He wanted to make Strand a global company and have an Asian outpost," O'Donnell recalls. In nine months, the deal was done, but the company, renamed Strand Lighting Asia, quickly foundered under a new, short-lived management team. Strand culled a new manager from within its ranks: O'Donnell, who joined the firm in 1978, and was its vice president of operations in 1986. The new boss was given two weeks to relocate to Hong Kong, a place he had never before visited, and start to get the company back on track.
"My take on the situation was to mix the elements of East and West and take advantage of what were obviously going to be the growth economies in that part of the world," O'Donnell says. "And we did that. Asia is very much about business; Strand is a mixture of art and money. It's getting the mixture right that probably changed the fortunes of Strand Asia."
O'Donnell realigned the company, dropping all non-Strand activities and properties except Rank Cintel, makers of the telecine machines widely used in broadcasting and postproduction. The company now has two divisions, one for stage and architectural, and another for TV, film, and related broadcast or postproduction activities. Mak was put in charge of the latter unit, whose members include its indefatigable studio project sales manager, Vic Gibbs.
In a 24-year career with Strand Lighting Asia, Gibbs has brought Quartzcolor and other Strand products to TV stations and film studios in countries whose resources had previously been threadbare, including Vietnam. Gibbs now uses a fully CAD-equipped engineering office to provide proposals for complete studio lighting packages, including motorized rigging, for clients that most recently have included Measat in Malaysia and PTV Studios in Taiwan. Such big-money projects, increasing as independent TV stations pop up amidst entrenched government-run outlets throughout Asia, involve considerable coordination with Strand's local distributors.
Because Asia's demand for theatres was small in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the company turned to architecture, and a juggernaut was born. At first the company adapted its theatre line locally for architectural customers in different countries, but by the mid-1980s more was required. Strand's purchase of Electro Controls Inc. in that time frame gave the Asian operation immediate access to a better architectural product; now, Strand's Premiere control system, combined with LD90 and Digital Environ dimmer racks, is all over the landscape ("It would take an hour to name all the hotels Strand Asia is in," O'Donnell says). Competition has risen, but in Asia, there's always more to compete for: "There's a 'mine's bigger than yours' mentality, particularly between Hong Kong and Singapore," O'Donnell notes.
Hong Kong is currently ahead in theatres, with two 900-seat auditoriums, both Strand-equipped with stage lighting and theatrical rigging, going up in Yuen Long and Kwai Tsing for openings next year. Both are joint ventures with Tele-Stage Associates; the consultants are, respectively, Carr and Angier (Keith McLaren project consultant), and Techplan (Richard Brett principal). More leisure time for Asians means more leisure spaces for Asia, and theatrewise O'Donnell is particularly impressed with the new breed of impresarios developing in countries like Thailand. "There's a visionary architect there, Suchai, who in Chiang Mai built an amazing theatrical space, the KAD Theatre, in a hotel and shopping mall complex he owns," O'Donnell says. "It's not easy to get audiences up there, but he builds whatever he can get the banks to fund. The attitude is a bit like, 'If you build it, they will come--and if they don't come, it's still there and anyhow we have this shopping center generating cash flows to deal with the bank debt.' There's so many people like him that want to do projects that are visually stimulating and exciting."
Strand Lighting Asia, like the rest of Strand and Rank's Precision Industries companies, has since last September been under the umbrella of UK-based Schroeder Ventures, a private equity fund manager with extensive holdings in technology- and manufacturing-related companies. O'Donnell says that the Pacific Rim reports to him, and he visits a few times a year. Faxes, e-mail, and Federal Express, plus a close alliance with Mak, also keep him connected to his old stomping ground, "which gave me a life experience that most people aren't lucky enough to get a chance at."
"We've been working together hand-in-hand since I came to LA," O'Donnell concludes. "In fact, the bridge between Strand Asia and America is naturally much stronger now than it was then. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to continue dealing with Strand Asia in an official capacity, but I'd do it anyhow because my relationship to it is so strong."