Career Path

Starting from scratch

by Grace Chan

Kam Lam
chief executive officer
Plan In Interior & Contracting
Photo: Edde Ngan

When Kam Lam was a young student of economics at university in Osaka, he never expected to end up in the interior design profession. However, his fluency in Japanese led to one opportunity after another, culminating in a total career change.

After graduating, he aspired to seek employment in Japan but flew back to Hong Kong to take up a six-month translating job for a friend's design company that won a contract from a Japanese investor in golf clubhouses in Zhuhai China.

After the stint, he returned to Japan, only to realise that career opportunities in his chosen field were extremely limited for foreigners. So when his friend back in Hong Kong offered him a position with his company's newly established Japanese division, he grabbed it.

Having made the move back in 1985, Mr Lam started learning the ropes of the interior design industry. His initial role was to win contracts to do fit-outs and refurbishing for Japanese companies.

Now chief executive officer of his own company, Plan In Interior & Contracting, Mr Lam counts a list of major Japanese corporations among his clients. The firm specialises in top quality interior decorating work and has more than 80 staff members in Hong Kong.

Moving up

Mr Lam's road to success was via the interior design division of a large Hong Kong-based Japanese department store Takashimaya. He had been impressed by the quality projects carried out by the division and took the initiative to approach the executive manager in Hong Kong. His enthusiasm and Japanese language skills impressed the company, and he was offered a job.

"Although my main role was to act as translator, liaising between the Japanese engineers and Hong Kong designers, I learnt all the fundamentals in engineering and subsequently equipped myself with project management skills," he notes.

About eight years later, after being the first "foreigner" to be promoted to manager and then to taking charge of the department store's entire Hong Kong division, he decided to go it alone, establishing Plan In in 1992.

He manages a tight working schedule and spends a lot of time in client meetings, but Mr Lam visits all the company's project sites once a fortnight. "I share with my project managers the same vision and goals, and we tackle any difficulties together," he stresses.

Admirable workmanship

Over the past 18 years, Plan In has gained a strong foothold in a market that demands only the best quality. Currently one of the few local businesses capable of providing fully integrated service in terms of superior interior design and contracting, Plan In has a diverse pool of clients, ranging from commercial and residential buildings to show flats, hotels and restaurants.

"It gives me a great sense of achievement to fit out a showroom for an upscale apartment block," says Mr Lam. "But it's even more thrilling when the developer's competitors subsequently approach us to do work for them."

He likes working on restaurants most. Seeing people dine happily in an agreeable environment created by the Plan In team is another aspect of his job that gives him the greatest satisfaction. "Showrooms are seen only by a limited number of potential buyers, but restaurants are open to everyone, so our work can be appreciated by more people," he adds.

In recent years, he has noticed that there has not been sufficient new blood coming into the profession. "Young people are daunted by the long working hours and tough environment. Many experienced practitioners are getting closer to retirement," he observes.

Industry prospects look good, considering Plan In's workload. "In the last few years, we've always had about 20 projects running at the same time. This means I never have a problem paying my contractors on time, and all my employees receive year-end bonuses. My only regret is that I sometimes have to reject projects because of a shortage of manpower."

In addition to professional qualifications, prospective recruits must be hard working in order to excel in the field, Mr Lam stresses. "Others can sense it if you do your very best."

China opportunities

Mr Lam started exploring business opportunities in mainland China in 1993, but withdrew from the market after just 10 years to focus on Hong Kong. "At that point, mainland's standards of workmanship lagged behind those of Plan In and they still had a long way to go," he says. However, as many of his clients, especially property developers are now tapping into that market, he has since reconsidered business potential across the border. "We recently worked on a Chinese restaurant project within an international five-star hotel in Shanghai and the experience proved that the quality of work there is indeed improving. This time, I was 90 per cent satisfied."

Taken from Career Times 11 June 2010, B11

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