Interview: Shaolin QS

Interview: Shaolin QS

Rider Levett Bucknall managing director Stephen Lai Yuk-fai talks about QS training and working on some of the biggest jobs around

 

Danny Chung

Let’s say you go to an office and talk to any locally qualified quantity surveyor (QS) working for a contractor, a developer, a government department and related organisations or some QS firms.

There’s a good chance that the person you’re talking to may have undertaken his initial training and qualified as a professional QS at leading cost consultant firm Rider Levett Bucknall.

For company managing director Stephen Lai Yuk-fai and also incumbent president of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, this is a source of quiet pride.

In fact, some people regard the firm as the finishing school in Hong Kong in all matters QS.

“They always call us Shaolin,” Lai said, referring to the famed monastery in Henan Province that trains Buddhist monks in martial arts.

Like Shaolin then, to keep up standards, the firm company prefers to train up quantity surveyors in-house.

This year, starting in February, it interviewed about 140 final year students and made offers to about 80 students.

The students come from the three local universities offering surveying courses plus some from the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE).

In the end though, the number of confirmed job hires was about 60.

Putting this figure of 60 into perspective, the three universities have about 40 students in each surveying course.

“That’s 120 people. We take a lot of them,” Lai, who is in his early 50s and a QS veteran with 30 years of experience , said.

Not all surveying students take the quantity surveying option so the number of QS students available for eventual hiring goes down further.

As such it is not difficult to see then that RLB is a major employer of QS trainees.

Last year, the company hired 50 trainees.

“This year there are more as there is more work to do [in terms of work],” Lai said.

Indeed, the construction industry seems to be drowning in a flood of work from the public works and from the private sector.

Figures from the Census and Statistics Department show the value of construction output in 2012 reached HK$159.6 billion, up 25.2 percent on the year before and easily the best performance since 1998.

RLB is currently working on some of the biggest public works such as the redevelopment of Kwong Wah Hospital and the Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point.

RLB managing director Stephen Lai Yuk-fai says the firm prefers to train up staff in-house  (Danny Chung)

RLB managing director Stephen Lai Yuk-fai says the firm prefers to train up staff in-house (Danny Chung)

There are more projects to come in the next five years or so, Lai said.

These include the 10 major infrastructure projects such as the Shatin to Central Link and more housing projects as fellow surveyor, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, activates more housing projects in a short time scale to alleviate the shortage of housing.

“And then there are the long term plans,” Lai said referring to major new town developments such as in the northern New Territories and the extensions to Tung Chung.

It also has a major presence on the buoyant market in casino construction in Macau and is currently working on projects for the listed casino operators such as MGM China (2282), Galaxy Entertainment (0027) and Sands Macau (1928).

“These projects are at such a large size and all have to be done at the same time. Where do we get the people to do them?” Lai said.

And then there’s the biggest market of all.

“The opportunities in China are so large it’s hard to imagine it,” Lai said, warming to the theme.

He started early enough when he set up the first few mainland offices of the company, then known as Levett & Bailey, in Shanghai in 1995.

Further offices were added in Beijing and Guangzhou soon afterwards.

However the company’s involvement in China dates back to 1979 when it did its first project in Nanjing, for the Jinling Hotel.

Currently it has 18 offices in the mainland employing up to 1,300 people.

Lai recently came back from Xian after attending the 17th Pacific Association of Quantity Surveyors Congress as the HKIS representative and waxed lyrical to Construction Post about Shanghai Center which RLB is working on as cost consultant.

On completion next year, it will be one of the top three highest skyscrapers in the world.

Designed by US architect Gensler, the 632 metre Shanghai Tower (third from left) will be one of the world's tallest buildings on completion in late 2014 and would tower over the adjacent Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. It reached 501.3 metres with the completion of the 108th floor on 11 April this year   (Shanghai Tower Construction and Development website)

Designed by US architect Gensler, the 632 metre Shanghai Tower (third from left) will be one of the world’s tallest buildings on completion in late 2014 and would tower over the adjacent Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. It reached 501.3 metres with the completion of the 108th floor on 11 April this year (Shanghai Tower Construction and Development website)

The company has also been expanding overseas with offices in Seoul and Singapore.

In 2007, Levett & Bailey joined forces with Rider Hunt of Australia and Bucknall Austin of the United Kingdom to form the global firm Rider Levett Bucknall.

Back in Hong Kong though, Lai is considering how to fit all the newcomers into the office.

The company currently occupies four whole floors in Eastern Central Plaza office building at Shaukeiwan.

“Here, 40,000 square feet is not enough,” Lai said.

As such it is currently looking for suitable space to act as a satellite office and is currently in negotiations over a lease.

One thing that the company won’t be doing is leaving Shaukeiwan because of rising rents.

“This is our own [property],” Lai said, adding that the company bought three and half storeys in 1997 and recently added another half storey.

Being good at quantity surveying though means the company’s staff are in demand by other people.

Lai said his staff have gone on to work for other companies especially the local Hong Kong developers such as Hutchison Whampoa (0013), developers from the mainland such as Huawei and to the Macau casino operators.

“Macau is actually done by Hong Kong people. In all honesty, with a population of 500,000, there is basically no such [QS] profession,” Lai said.

Complicated projects such as hotels and casinos required the professional skills of a quantity surveyor.

The problem with deploying trained staff to work on such projects for clients was that the client would sometimes like his own in-house quantity surveyor.

And where better to get one than from a specialist firm?

Hiring in replacements from outside could sometimes not work as well as intended because the person may not be used to the RLB way of quantity surveying.

In any case, RLB is competing for staff with other people such as the contractors, clients and government organisations.

Lai noted the Housing Authority was now busy building more public rental housing and as such is now being forced to replace the staff it had to let go during the last downturn in the early 2000s.

“So that’s why we are all along nurturing our own graduates,” Lai said.

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