Months of violent protests have landed a heavy blow to big and small businesses in Hong Kong. But for Clement Lai Ka-chi, a former police chief and bodyguard to visiting presidents, the unrest has been a boon.
His private security firm, Clement Shield, has been in high demand as the protests plaguing Hong Kong have escalated and became more volatile.
Formerly a close protection officer in the Hong Kong Police Force’s VIP protection unit, Lai was responsible for the personal safety of visiting Chinese leaders including President Jiang Zemin and then Vice-President Hu Jintao, as well as overseas dignitaries such as US President Bill Clinton.
But he quit his job four years ago and decided to put his talent to good use providing protection to private businesses, educational institutions and public organisations.
He set up Clement Shield in mid 2015 with just eight staff, most of them experienced fellow police officers. The company’s strong background in policing helped it to acquire clients and grow steadily.
While most of the company’s expansion was driven by a couple of big government contracts awarded prior to the social unrest, the violent protests, now in their seventh month, have increased demand for professional security services by private companies, according to Lai.
“We had about 70 staff at the beginning of this year and now we have 350. I will expand the size of the team to 500 in the next 12 months,” said Lai.
“We have been very busy. Among the top 10 developers in Hong Kong, four are my clients.
“For instance, one client recruited 160 of our officers with just 24 hours notice to protect their premises for a minimum of six months.”
To prepare for further growth, the company plans to move into a 5,000 square-foot office in Central later in January, nearly four times the size of its existing office in Wan Chai.
The protests began in June, initially triggered by a bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China, among other jurisdictions. The bill was later withdrawn but the unrest continued and evolved into a broader anti-government movement demanding an investigation into police behaviour towards protesters and democratic reforms.
The latest phase of the riots began on December 24, as protesters stormed some of the city’s busiest shopping malls.
Lai said the city lacks a high-calibre security agency, and he believes his firm is the one filling the gap.
“Hong Kong has been a safe place for too long. Companies had no experience to deal with the unrest, even the government did not know how to handle it,” said Lai.
The job often calls for cool heads and the ability to defuse tension.
He recalled an occasion a couple of months ago when protesters and pedestrians ran into his client’s mall in Causeway Bay after the police fired tear gas along Hennessy Road.
“We decided to close the mall immediately after inspecting the environment,” said Lai. “But we could not detain them in the mall. So we opened the back door to let them leave. After they left, we allowed the police to enter the mall. We avoided clashes.”
Months of violent protests have hit businesses in a number of shopping malls in prime areas of the city such as New Town Plaza in Sha Tin, Times Square in Causeway Bay and Langham Place in Mong Kok.
Festival Walk, an upmarket mall in Kowloon Tong, has been closed since November 13 when protesters vandalised multiple floors and set a large artificial Christmas tree on fire.
The mall’s owner, Maple Tree of Singapore, aims to reopen it before Lunar New Year, which will begin on January 25, according to a spokesperson for the shopping centre.
Of the 350 staff at Clement Shield, 60 per cent are not Hong Kong natives but have residency in the city.
He prides his company on having one of the most experienced and qualified teams in Hong Kong.
“We are expensive, but good quality comes with a price,” he said.
Lai did not disclose the fees his firm charges clients, but he said each member of security staff can take home as much as HK$2,500 a day in wages.
Lai joined the Hong Kong Police Force in 1992 and took charge of the Airport Security Unit. He was promoted to the post of superintendent in 2012.
His impressive CV helped his company beat nine bids from local and international security agencies to win HK$300 million contract to provide security during construction of Hong Kong’s third runway in April this year.
Lai has big plans for the future. He said he is aiming to list his company on the Growth Enterprise Market board in Hong Kong in the next 12 months as a way to expand the business and the brand of Clement Shield.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Fewer Hongkongers out for last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve, with uncertainty over protests
- Did Beijing send five Hong Kong civil servants to UN as an olive branch to city’s youth in hope of quelling protests?