Interview by our friends at Golfscape
Ken and Tenniel Chu, the Chu brothers, electrify the golf industry with their entrepreneurial nature by encouraging equality in the sport, collaborating with the greatest names in golf, and creating a “Golf & More” philosophy at Mission Hills. Fueled by the Chu brothers, Mission Hills is the vehicle that presents China to the World and the World to China. Take a glimpse into the lives of Ken and Tenniel as they conquer golf in China, through ambitious plans and magnificent designs.
1. First of all, we would like to start by congratulating you both in managing the World’s Largest Golf Resort. Did you ever imagine Mission Hills becoming this big?
Ken: Frankly, when my father, the late Dr. David Chu, decided to invest in golf in China when it was non-existent, it came as a surprise for me. But as a true visionary, he saw the opportunity of China’s reform and open-door policy in the ’80s. My father saw his mission as promoting international goodwill through golf, making the sport a medium. It is a tool, to link the East and the West, and to build trust and friendship. Golf remains a business language, a social networking tool, even until today.
Tenniel: When Ken and I took over the business, we knew that we had to go big or go home. We had to think big, think first or be the pioneer. The group’s mission now is to inspire “3H – Happy, Healthy and Harmonious” lifestyles and experiences for all. Our evolved vision of “Golf & More” meant that we had set our sight to be a leading world-class brand and a pioneer in the global leisure and tourism industry.
2. Your father had a huge ambition to be the greatest in the industry, and his vision became a reality. What inspires you both the most? What vision do you have for Mission Hills?
Ken: When I first joined the company, I was fortunate to have my father acting as a mentor, instilling in me the core values of “No pain, no gain; and you sow what you seed”. Therefore, when I had to take over the lead in the company, I worked hard to be recognized as a “hardworking second generation” and not a “rich second generation.” There is a Chinese saying that goes “Sustaining a business is harder than starting anew” and I strongly believed that if you don’t advance, you’d fall. With this realization, I moved on from being a “hardworking second generation” to become an “entrepreneurial second generation.” That is when, as a whole family, we decided to transform the business based on the leisure philosophy of “Golf & More.” With this, we took Mission Hills beyond golf.
Tenniel: On the golf front, our mission is to grow the game, so it’s available for everyone, beyond how it is seen traditionally as a prestigious and elite game. Each year over 25,000 juniors go through our doors – we have the World’s largest youth golfing program. We also have three golf courses that are free to juniors globally to access and experience golf.
3. Tenniel, you studied golf management at University, did you always know that you would work in the golf industry?
Tenniel: Golf is an international language; it is a sport like no other that has the means to connect with everyone in the same way. I’ve been playing for more than 40 years now, so yes, I have always wanted to work in the industry. Therefore, I took up a postgraduate program in golf course management at Humber College. This was followed by working at the PGA Tour headquarters in Florida. Beyond that, I also wanted the true on-the-ground experience to complement my studies. That’s why my first job was picking up golf balls at the driving range for Vijay Singh. I really learned from the bottom up.
4. Do you both have a favorite course to play in the resort? If yes, what course is it, and why do you enjoy playing it so much?
Ken: This is like asking me to choose my favorite child! What I can tell you is which courses are the most played at Mission Hills. These are Jack Nicklaus’ World Cup Course, Jose Maria Olazabal’s Olazabal Course, and Greg Norman’s Norman Course.
Tenniel: The best course would undoubtedly be the Blackstone Course at Mission Hills Haikou. The 7,808-yard signature course, built on a bed of ancient lava rock, was voted best championship course in Asia and hosted the 56th edition of the World Cup in 2011. The course begins with a wide variety of hole lengths and natural amphitheater green settings, while the final holes allow spectacular views of the closing holes with little need to move. 5. So how do you manage the World’s largest golf resort? We imagine that you barely have a chance to rest with so much going on!
Ken: It is really about delegation, discipline, and time management. I subscribe to another philosophy of 3Ps – profits, people and planet – I work for my company, for the people, and the betterment of society. In managing the company, I believe in getting the best person for the job, and while this is a family business, it is not run like one. All of our senior management are recruited professionally and have been working with us for more than a decade. We respect the professionals and let them take charge.
Tenniel: Indeed, we believe in empowering our team to deliver the best for the company. No effort is too small when it comes to shaping the guest experience. We have hired many professionals and we have great loyalty among our staffs and will develop them through time. We are thankful for our dedicated colleagues, who continue to power through challenges and to bring the business to new heights.
6. Is it important for you both to take some time out to recharge?
Ken: We definitely believe in giving our best during work time, but when it’s downtime we don’t even mention work. The passing of our parents inspired us to make significant lifestyle changes. For one, since my early thirties, I have made exercise a mandatory daily routine, and in fact, I eat so that I will feel a sense of guilt, which acts as a motivation for me to work out more!
Tenniel: It’s always very well balanced. With my father’s generation, it was always work and like an elastic band – you can only stretch so far. Both my parents passed away relatively early, so we felt we definitely needed a change in terms of lifestyle and how we conduct our work and life.
7. We understand that you work with Annika Sörenstam on the Annika Foundation to boost female participation in the sport. Is encouraging equality in golf an important part of what you do at Missions Hills?
Tenniel: Most definitely, youth development is at the core of Mission Hills. We are actively involved in growing the sport through our Junior Golf Program and several other initiatives. Since 2005, we have invested more than $6 million into our junior program.
We work with some of the World’s greatest names in golf, including Sir Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus, and Annika Sörenstam. Together, we bring their junior programs to Asia for the first time. Rory McIlroy and Tseng Yani are two notable graduates. In late 2018, we also embarked on a new long-term partnership; Mission Hills is now home to China’s first PGA of America Academies.
8. Going back to the beginning when your father founded Mission Hills, he became one of the most powerful people in golf. What are your earliest memories of your father? How would you describe him in 3 words?
Ken: Our Father had very strong Chinese values and believed in the virtues of diligence and frugality. During high school, I was earning pocket money by taking up part-time jobs, which shaped my character today. When I joined the company, I started from the ground up. I worked to earn the respect of my seniors and supervisors. Every day, I would work 12-14 hours and didn’t go on vacation for the first three years. However, that certainly helped me pick up the ropes quickly. To me, my father was a visionary, a patriot, and a truly self-made man.
Tenniel: Well, for me, it had to be his tough style of bringing us up. There were six of us siblings, and everyone had their own roles and duties. I recall during my upbringing in Canada, he would get me to wash his car every day at 6 am; even during the winter months. When he was teaching me how to swim, he used to pick me up with all my clothes on and throw me into the pool – expecting me to find a way to survive. So, he really did always throw us in at the deep end! But for me, he was disciplined, loving, and a true role model.
9. After purchasing the land in Shenzhen, did your father start practicing the game of golf?
Ken: He certainly enjoyed the game and believed in the game of golf being a business language. So yes, he built a platform for which he was proud of and learned to love the sport.
Tenniel: We always joke that people talk politics and business on the golf course and talk golf in the office! We have basically created a green office. Many great politicians and entrepreneurs, like Jack Welch, do a lot of business on the golf course, and I think it works very well.
10. Do your other siblings have an interest in golf? Do you think any of your other siblings will join the Mission Hills team?
Ken: Our younger sister, Catherine, is already onboard the Mission Hills team, taking care of our education segment. Since young, she has had a passion for nurturing the next generation of leaders, taking after our father. He has left a legacy by donating to many of our alma maters and other education institutions to benefit education efforts. Under Catherine’s charge, the group partnered with Bromsgrove School, a top British independent school with over 540 years of history. Bromsgrove School Mission Hills offers an innovative and holistic bilingual education.
11. It was incredible to hear from The R&A that the prize funds for the AIG Women’s British Open have now increased the prize funds by 40%. Do you think that the golf industry has a long way to go to build participation and equality? How do you think equality in the sport should be approached?
Ken: The sport of golf has traditionally been a male-dominated sport, and until today, golf remains mainly a business language. With that said, ladies generally do not participate in it. This gives rise to the term, “Golf widow,” which I am a disbeliever of. Therefore, we think that a key aspect of approaching equality in the sport is to open up access to all genders and ages. This was also our motivation when we created tournaments such as the Mission Hills World Celebrity ProAm. By tying in the tournament with the energy of entertainment and various sporting stars, we opened doors to non-golfers who want to catch their favorite celebrities on the course.
Tenniel: I am proud to say that we have changed the game of golf, evolving it from being a sport for the affluent to one that caters to the mass market. By making Mission Hills Haikou accessible to the public, we aim to promote the game of golf by making it affordable. In addition, by introducing many more attractions, facilities, and amenities, we encourage families to visit a golf destination collectively to have a good time.
12. Can you give us some insight into the plans that you have for Haikou?
Ken: Our future focus will definitely be to continue growing our integrated destination resorts, and there is huge growth potential to be reaped. Hainan, for one, is well-positioned to interface with the international markets given its status as an international tourism island for the past decade. We can be certain of further boosts to the number of international visitors, especially tourists from the 59 countries who will now enjoy visa-free access to Hainan.
Tenniel: On the sports front, we are also developing Mission Hills Haikou as the sports training base for Southern China, with football academy operated by FC Barcelona and basketball academy operated by NBA, complemented by interactive museum experiences. The Barça Academy Pro in Haikou will be the first overseas FCB football school directly managed by FCB and staffed by FCB coaches. On the other hand, the NBA Basketball School – Mission Hills Haikou will open to male and female players, from junior level to professionals. NBA players and legends will visit the school to provide additional instruction and training to young players, fostering their development.
13. What have been the standout moments in your careers?
Tenniel: At Mission Hills, we are either the first to do something, or we do it the biggest. Whether it’s bringing the first international golf tournament to China – the 1995 World Cup of Golf, Tiger Woods’ first visit to China, or creating the World’s largest golf resort, we definitely showcase a new China to the whole World. That’s very rewarding.
Ken: I would say that some of the key highlights in my career would be developing Mission Hills Haikou from the ground up. We completed the ten courses in a record-breaking 18 months, and that was when I was pretty much a freshman when it came to project development. However, I am grateful for the support from partners such as Brian Curley who helped designed these amazing courses.
14. Last but not least, where do you see Mission Hills in the next five years?
Ken: We will continue to build on our existing foundation based on the group’s “Golf & More” leisure philosophy, expanding on our business segments. We will continue to branch out into a wider range of investments and offerings, and focus on our role as a “super-connector”, bringing into China brand offerings and experiences from around the globe. By building on our strengths, opening up new markets, and exploring novelty projects, we will offer our guests more diverse, vibrant, and memorable experiences.