Luxury's Mandarin: A Hong Kong Empire Builder Buys Barney's (Dickson Poon's Dickson Concepts LTD Will Buy NY Clothier for $247 Mil and Add It to an Empire Which Includes the UK Chain Harvey Nichols Department Store)

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A Hong Kong empire builder buys Barney's

DICKSON POON GOT TO MANHATTAN the long way round. His father, a poor refugee from Guangdong, amassed a fortune selling watches in Hong Kong. Like many of the city's gilded youth, the younger Poon was sent to Britain and the United States for his education. Then he broke with tradition. Instead of joining the family firm, Poon borrowed nearly $1 million from his father in 1980. He opened a luxury watch-and-jewelry store in the territory, and 17 years later he has become one of Asia's leading retailers of luxury goods, with some 250 boutiques plus licenses to sell a range of prestigious Western brands. Now he's moving from one skyscraper-studded island to another. Next week Dickson Concepts Ltd., Poon's $500 million company, is expected to put the final touches on a $247 million deal to buy majority control of the bankrupt Barney's chain. If the deal gets the all-clear from creditors and a bankruptcy court, it will mark the first foray into the American market for the 41-year-old entrepreneur.

Poon has thrived by recognizing that newly rich Asians have a passion for status symbols. "People want to differentiate themselves from the masses, so they've moved toward foreign brands," says Alan Wong of the Hong Kong brokerage W.I. Carr. "Dickson spotted that trend and [licensed] labels that would be successful." Flush with cash, Pooh will now try to gain a foothold in the risky American market. If he succeeds, he'll become the first Chinese to build a truly global retailing empire.

In Hong Kong, Pooh is known more for tight budgets than creative vision. He has acquired an impressive list of glossy brand names--but unlike Barney's, his company doesn't make extravagant fashion statements. In Asia, Dickson owns licenses to peddle Polo/Ralph Lauren clothes, Joan & David shoes, Lalique crystal and Du Pont lighters, among other top brands. Poon's icy manner reflects his shrewd business style. Pooh claims he never gets caught up in the thrill of chasing a deal; he sets a price and waits. "We are not in business to be excited," he told NEWSWEEK. "We are in it to make the right decisions." Roberto Dominici, the managing director of the Joyce Group, a Hong Kong-based competitor, says that "Poon's strategic thinking is very sharp."

Brands help any retailer make money. Careful budgeting helps more. …