In Profile...Stephen Lai

In Profile Stephen Lai

Having spent his childhood in Hong Kong, Stephen Lai came to the UK alone when he was just 16 years old. Fast forward to the present day and he is the Managing Director of the chartered quantity surveyors company, Rider Levett Bucknall, who work on high profile projects across the world, including the tallest building in China. 

Among other professional affiliations, Stephen is former President and Fellow of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors. He is currently the Chairman of the Mainland Affairs Committee of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors; a Director of the China Engineering Cost Association (CECA) and a Consultant of the Shenzhen Construction Costs Management Department (SZCECMD). 

Stephen graduated from Aston in Building Economics and Measurement in 1984, and here he shares his key projects at Rider Levett Bucknall, meeting the President of China and tips for today’s graduates who want to work in the Far East.

You graduated from Aston in Building Economics and Measurement in 1984.  Why did you choose to study at Aston?

I came to the UK to study my A levels at Andover College in Hampshire. I have some relatives who were based in London who collected me from the airport. At the time, I was the only Chinese student at Andover and I quite enjoyed that! I did a lot of sport at Andover and I played table tennis for Hampshire. I wanted to study Quantity Surveying and only a few places offered the degree course at that time. 

I was contacted by Professor Duggan from Aston University to offer me the place in the sandwich course of Building Economic and Measurement. I am so pleased that I choose Aston - the campus was lovely and the sandwich course gave me great practical experience

What memories do you have of your time at Aston?

I was a council member of the Chinese Society and we organised a lot of events, including Chinese New Year dinner and the most memorable movie night. The only way to obtain Chinese movies at the time was to travel to London, so I travelled down to collect the reels. We played it in the Great Hall and Chinese students from Aston and other local universities attended, as well as other students who came along for a cultural night. It was a very popular night, and we made quite a lot of money as a society.

The sports facilities at Aston were good and there is a great swimming pool.  I spent a lot of time at Woodcock and at the Shustoke recreational ground playing football and table tennis. I also played table tennis for the University Leaguer.

I made lots of friends at Aston, both Chinese and others and I am still in touch with my classmates. I enjoyed it very much

And after University you went back to Hong Kong?

In my final year I applied for positions in Hong Kong and at the same time I applied for jobs in the UK. I received quite a few offers and accepted a position in Wilson Large and Partners in Coventry. Having worked there for three years I was approached by Clifford Webb and Partners who had a company office in Matlock and a branch office in Hong Kong. They had two projects working with Glaxo [now GlaxoSmithKline] who were building a secondary plant in Taiwan and an extension in Singapore. They wanted someone bilingual (English & Chinese) to work there, so I decided to take up the job and returned to Hong Kong after ten years of being based in the UK.  The job was quite demanding, in particular, it involved frequent travel to both Taiwan and Singapore for the projects there for two to three years.

In 1989, I joined Levett and Bailey.  It is one of the largest Chartered Quantity Surveyors firms in Hong Kong.   They were working on really interesting projects.  Within a few years, I was promoted to the position of Associate, then Partner.  I am now the Managing Director.  I set up the first Levett and Bailey China office in Shanghai, and now we have 20 offices in the major cities in China. 

Our group is looking to be Global. Before 2005 we only had a small presence in Europe and in the past decade the construction industry in the UK has been booming and we wanted to have more a presence in the area.  So some of us went to London to look for a partner. We had shortlisted a few QS firms in London for interview.  One of them is Bucknall Austin and Partners who had rejected my application more than 30 years ago.  We had meetings with Mr. David Bucknall and I said to him, “When I applied a job with your firm in 1984, I was rejected, please let me have a good reason that I should choose you to be our partner now?!” Of course, It’s just a joke!

We chose Bucknall Austin at the end, whose Head Office is in Birmingham, and our group, Rider Levett Bucknall, have been successfully working together since.

What project are you most proud about and why?

We worked on the Shanghai Tower, which at 632 metres tall is the tallest building in China at the moment. It is a mix of hotel, apartments, offices and retail.  The 128 story megatall skyscraper has the world’s highest observation deck within a building and has the world’s fastest elevators with a top speed of nearly 46 miles per hour (74km/h). The Shanghai Tower has won many awards, and in 2016 the prestigious Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) awarded the Shanghai Tower the “Best Tall Building Worldwide”. I am very proud of this. 

In 2014, I was honoured to be invited to meet with the President of China, Xi Jinping, along with other industry leaders to share opinions and knowledge on our professional areas. I was delighted to be recognised in this way.

Stephen Lai meeting the President of China, Xi Jinping, along with other industry leaders
Stephen Lai (3rd on the right on the back row) meeting the President of China, Xi Jinping, along with other industry leaders

What projects are you currently involved with?

I have done a lot of travel with my role, including setting up offices in China, Seoul and Muscat over the last two decades.

In Wuhan, China we are working on the Chow Tai Fook Financial Centre, which is at the design stage. It will be the tallest building in Wuhan. The project comprises of super high-rise office buildings, residential towers and podium.  It will take 5-6 years to complete. 

I am working on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which at 34 miles (55km) will be one of the longest bridges in the world.  We are not working on the actual bridge, but all the facilities associated with it including Immigration Offices, cafes, and shops, government departments, administration buildings, custom, police medical centre and carparks.  The project is in Zhuhai, Macau.  It really is a huge deal, with a cost over HK$15bn.  The whole bridge connecting Macau and Hong Kong will take 10-15 years to complete. 

We also have project on Jeju Island in South Korea. It is the largest island off the Korean peninsula. We are building a large resort with a theme park, hotel, casino and shops. This is a very exciting project. 

Then in Oman we are working with the Royal Court of Affairs on their palaces, which is a very different project again.

You have a vast experience of working in the Far East. What advice do you have for our recent graduates and students who want to start their career in overseas?

China is currently enjoying great economic boom, bringing with it many projects and opportunities. For instance they are creating One Belt One Road Initiative.  This enormous project will link China, to Europe, to Africa and Asia. 

My advice to those students who want to develop their career in China is to equip themselves with a proficiency in both English and Chinese languages.  It is usually required to present both English and Chinese versions in most documentations.  Furthermore, it is even more advantageous to have a good command of spoken Mandarin.  A good communication skill is important to build up a good relationship with people especially in the working environment in China.  Also be open minded, do not worry about working too much and be open to opportunities.  Hard work always pays off. 

You are the founding President of the Aston University Hong Kong Chapter. What motivated you to give up your time to support Aston and set up the Chapter?

The then Vice-Chancellor Baroness Brown of Cambridge, came to Hong Kong in 2011 and held a reception at the British Council. I was proud to be an Aston graduate and I wanted to contribute if I could. 

I set the Chapter up as an official registered society in Hong Kong in 2012 and the Aston University Alumni in Hong Kong Chapter was launched. 

There are now over 600 members with some very active younger members, and we meet up regularly every 2-3 months to plan for future events, such as annual dinner, heritage buildings visit, career talks to new Aston students, social gathering like horse racing, drinks, etc.