How Dinner with a Chinese Millionaire Helped Me Recognize My Principles
The restaurant was nicer than a single guy on Reddit’s self-description.
Hong Kong, lavish, expensive. Not “nice occasions” expensive; nobility expensive, the kind of place that taxes your breaths if you lack a trust fund. I remember the impressions more than objects: Red lighting, Chinese designs. The tables were round like King Arthur’s.
Ours was in the center of the upper hall.
The millionaire was waiting on us. He was an advisor for my university’s marketing course and had invited us all to dinner. Generously, thankfully, on his dime.
A Cliché And a Dilemma
Me and my classmates, we were eight minutes late. He excused us graciously. Then, about eight minutes into our dinner, he noted on another subject, “I remember hiring an employee, and then, on his first day, he was five minutes late. I fired him, of course.
“You cannot allow employees to disrespect you by wasting your time. I had taken the time to hire that man and give him a chance at my company. I could have made many other investments with that time. And then he thought he could take even more of my time without consequence. He was wrong.”
Then the first course was served and he offered to refill my drink.
So, I, personally, felt like there was subtext in this. And certainly we shouldn’t have been late. But while the advice, “Time is money,” has been worn into cliché, it struck me here as my own secret dilemma.
Because I had arrived early.
At the MTR, Hong Kong’s metro system, another classmate and I had arrived with twenty minutes to spare. We’d waited for the rest of the class.
It was at night in an unfamiliar corner of a dense city. I was the only guy in the class, and I wasn’t under the impression everyone was comfortable navigating the streets by themselves. If we went together, nobody would get lost on their own.
They ended up taking longer than we had, and walked so, so slowly. Maybe it wasn’t the right moment to be chivalrous.
I probably would have bonded better with the millionaire if I’d left my classmates behind. That said, I’d see my classmates again. They’d help me out more times than the millionaire would.
I can’t claim any of them would later give me a job because of that time I didn’t walk ahead. But I don’t think I necessarily made the wrong choice for my career.
And I feel pretty confident about my choice as a person.
Funny Stories From a Wealthy Employer
The millionaire loosened up as dinner went on. His stories came like the courses, plentifully.
He decided to tell some funny ones too. Once he’d caught an employee using the office printer to print out a piece of paper for his own use, so he’d fired him. The millionaire chuckled as he recalled the incident.
There was another man he’d found in the office at almost 5:45 in the evening. The millionaire went to thank him for working late, but then saw that the guy was just surfing the internet on his phone. He fired him too.
“He was saying, ‘It’s my phone, I just finished working.’ I asked, ‘Then why are you still here?’”
He laughed, taking a bite of chicken. “He had the lights on, he was using my electricity — these little things cost money when you add them up. You cannot allow your employees to take advantage of you.”
I liked the design of our table. It wasn’t just round; in the center was a platform you could spin, to give everyone a chance to reach their fair share of food.
The Millionaire’s Work Ethic
The millionaire considered himself fair, though. If he’d inherited his wealth, he never let us onto it. He was unquestionably passionate, almost manic. Not about any particular pursuit, but simply about the pursuit itself. And always cheerful, with unimpeachable politeness to his lessers, like us, the youthful students he patronized.
“I never ask people to work harder than I am. I work well over 12 hours every day. I live in my office, visit all my companies — I’m never at home, I’m flying all over, from Tokyo to Shanghai to Singapore.”
He laughed. His son, probably ten or twelve, was also at our table. The millionaire glanced at him. “My son can attest, I’m never at home?”
“Never,” the kid muttered. It was his only contribution that evening.
“Yes!” the millionaire beamed. “I’m constantly working! Every hour you aren’t working is another opportunity to earn money that you have wasted. I do relax. I love football. But I only relax for as long as I need to, and then I keep going.”
Yet another course was served.
Envisioning the Future
The millionaire praised remote work. This was before the pandemic; this was forward-thinking.
It gave him more control. If he could monitor his employees' screens, he could know their full contributions.
And it increased efficiency. In fact, he intended to replace all in-person meetings at his company with videoconferencing, even for employees working in the same building.
“When people attend a meeting in-person, what do they do? They talk, they ask about each other’s day, they take time to get settled in their seats. That’s wasted time. With video conferencing, they log on, they get down to business. They’re working.”
The millionaire put down his chopsticks. “Employees are a resource, and we must use all our resources efficiently. I am constantly looking for ways to maximize profits in my businesses. Video conferencing is a wonderful tool for us to take advantage of.”
How to Be a Millionaire
The millionaire’s company was vaguely named. Most notable for its size, it crossed borders and fields. It did have focus areas, of course, but this was all for practical reasons.
The millionaire did not have a passion project. He held no affection for any particular industries.
He invested where he saw opportunities to make money. By his own account, that was his sole priority, though I’d hope some regard to ethics survived unstated.
There was an almost admirable extremity to it, like he was a monk of some kind. He certainly seemed content, smiling and laughing. Capitalism was his religion and wealth was his zen.
The last course was over, the plates emptied. I tried to take a picture of the restaurant but was told no photos. We left.
The Roads to Success
My fellow students and I walked back to the MTR. Our conversation was unrelated to the millionaire.
Most of my classmates were Chinese, and they’d seemed disquieted by the man. A European student alone struck me as chirpy throughout the dinner. I later asked her what she thought. She’d been very impressed with the millionaire.
His advice certainly worked out for him. I don’t think that’s the only approach to business, though — or life, for that matter, which is also important.
I’ve talked to Google employees. There are many companies out there making their employees feel at home. It seems to work out for them, too. And if there are multiple paths to success, why choose the one that makes you a worse person?
I can’t claim the millionaire offered me a job but I turned it down. I doubt he was particularly impressed with me. I’m alright with that.
I’m not even 100% sure I’d have turned down a job if he’d offered it, being a college student and all. But I do know I’d have regretted it if I’d accepted. I certainly wouldn’t have stuck with his company.
I wouldn’t have had loyalty to him.
Or, for that matter, to any of my theoretical co-workers. I wouldn’t have known them. Chit-chat is inefficient. So are whatever insights we might have come up with together, outside the video calls.
But regardless, the millionaire left the restaurant a different way than us. I don’t particularly recall our goodbye. It was quick, though, whatever it was.
I wonder if he went home with his son or back to work.
I compulsively like people. I liked the millionaire, too. But I don’t think having money means having wisdom.
The millionaire is not my role model, in any regard. I have a whole career ahead of me, and his strategies seemed to maximize short-term success.
You’re welcome to consider the millionaire’s points your takeaways; he’s certainly more successful than I am. But, unless you’re as zen as he is, I don’t think it will make you happier. And, ultimately, I think we’re all seeking financial success to enable happiness, either our own or someone else’s. Why sacrifice your ends to achieve your means?
Still, I’m thankful for his advice: He gave me a lot to think about.
I’m a capitalist living in a capitalist world. I want financial success, but I have limits, and he helped show me what they were.
Everyone has a lesson to teach you, but, sometimes, it’s not the lesson they intend.