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Partner of choice: James Lee

T urning a very large company around is much like altering an ocean liner’s course. It takes foresight to know when to make the decision and time to allow the ship – or company – to reach its new course.

James Lee, CEO and Executive Director of Paul Y. Engineering

As CEO and Executive Director of Paul Y. Engineering, James Lee has managed to direct this large company on a new course that will reshape its destiny irrevocably.

Incorporated in Shanghai in 1946 by Paul Y. Tso but based in Hong Kong since 1949, Paul Y. Engineering (PYE) has been a primary participant in the extraordinary development of Hong Kong, as well as Macau and mainland China.

Its expertise has contributed to some of Hong Kong’s outstanding development projects, including underground stations for its Mass Transit Railway, the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the Ting Kau Bridge.

Its commercial property division can count the Cheung Kong Center, Cyberport, The Center and the Landmark East developments in its portfolio. That breadth and scale of portfolio puts PYE almost in a league of its own in its contribution to the cityscape of Hong Kong and Macau.

It’s also a portfolio that attracted James to the company from a career that covered roles in architecture, banking and finance. He joined PYE in January 2014, and took over the role of CEO and Executive Director in April 2016.

Before then, he worked for over 25 years as an architect and consultant at an architectural firm, as a project manager for a previous client’s company, and as Deputy General Manager at the Bank of China.

His distinguished service as an architect has propelled him into honoured positions as a Chartered Building Engineer of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, the Institute of Arbitrators, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Real Estate Administrators, and as a professional member of the Hong Kong Interior Design Association.

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And, as if that’s not enough, he is also an associate member of the Hong Kong Mediation and Arbitration Centre. “Many staff at PYE come from an engineering or quantity surveying background,” James says.

“It’s rare for staff to have an architect’s background, so mine as an architect with experience in project management, property development, architectural practice and corporate management allows me to look at things from different angles and perspectives. I can bring new ideas, strategies and inputs into business operations.”

PYE is a ‘one-stop’ source of comprehensive construction solutions, backed by local knowledge and expertise. Its diverse portfolio encompasses the entire range of civil engineering and building services that enable clients to fulfil their goals, including engineering, land sourcing, project management, design, construction and fitting out, marketing and facilities management.

At the beginning of his tenure at the company, James considered that the construction industry in general had undergone minimal genuine changes in its approach to both management and operational structures.

It was time, he thought, for PYE to step ahead by implementing new strategies and methodologies to invigorate growth in the company and tackle a broader range of projects. His baptism of fire at the company came through two major projects that provided a valuable microcosm of the company’s structure and operations.

From these, he formulated a multilayered strategy to radically reform the company and take it into the next decade as a regional industry leader.

“I was stationed on two project sites from 2014 to 2016. These were the company’s largest single building projects at that time; one involved revenue of over HK$10 billion [US$1.3 billion],” James recalls.

“They were projects with high complexity, which involved hundreds of subcontractors. During those two years, as the majority of our staff were working at sites and major parts of the business were being conducted outside the office, I began to understand the company thoroughly through practical experience. I learned how the sites work and the ways to work with our stakeholders, such as clients, consultants, subcontractors, workers and suppliers, which was of utmost importance for my strategic business plans afterwards.”

Fighting COVID-19

At the outbreak of COVID-19, PYE remained vigilant, closely monitored the health of staff members, and implemented a series of precautionary measures to ensure the ongoing safety of staff and clients. “We always kept our staff and clients appraised of our latest precautionary measures and policies,” James says. These measures included the establishment of COVID-19 prevention mechanisms at offices and sites, such as filling in health declaration forms, providing guidelines for handling staff with upper respiratory symptoms and so on, increasing coronavirus prevention facilities and equipment, delivering health packs to staff, and setting up thermal cameras to monitor the body temperature of persons entering the office premises or sites.

James wasted no time in implementing his plans for a revamp of the company’s operations. When he was appointed CEO, PYE boasted nearly 1,500 staff, with a relatively narrow client base.

The company, now with about 2,000 staff, has expanded both its clientele and market share, resulting in a significant increase in revenues and more than 40 clients being served concurrently. “We started expanding the client base in 2016 with flexible strategic approaches,” James says.

“We went for projects with different scales, and even projects with smaller revenues. Our capability was tested, proven and strengthened when we undertook different types of works, and this let us see if the culture between PYE and our clients could tie in under our new management system and structure. In 2018, after a two-year implementation, we had about 60 projects in a year and successfully expanded our client base. And, in 2019, we began to adopt a slightly different tendering approach – we focused on projects on a larger scale and on different project contracts, in which we were particularly specialised.”

PYE also teamed up with different joint venture partners to tackle civil works to leverage both parties’ strengths and gain a winning edge in tenders. The strategy worked, and won the company more civil projects.

In its current business portfolio, it boasts building works and services, civil projects, specialised interior fit-outs, E&M works, and more.

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“We have diversified our business portfolio and expanded to a very sizeable market share with a variety of projects,” James says. “This approach also safeguarded and diversified our business risk from a single source of projects.”

It hasn’t been without its challenges, however. James points to one project that stretched the company’s capabilities, but it ultimately not only overcame the myriad problems as they surfaced but finalised the project ahead of its deadline.

“The Studio City project in Macau is one of the most challenging projects we’ve undertaken,” James remembers.

“There were several construction challenges, such as a tight schedule. It was scheduled for completion in 31 months – a challenging target in both size and resources. Ultimately, it was completed in just 28 months. The project delivery goals were expedited by streamlining the construction process and breaking it down into components. Advance planning and close, effective coordination with all our stakeholders also contributed to the smooth outcome. We avoided having to repeat work by adopting the ‘right first time’ principle.”

A team effort

Of course, a large part of that success can be laid at the feet of PYE’s staff, who rose to the occasion at every stage. Their abilities are a source of pride for James, who instituted a systemic approach to staff training and qualification as part of his multifaceted strategy to drive the company forward.

To build expertise in staff, the company provided ongoing training to keep them up to date. It also attracted more young professionals, who are now well versed in working cooperatively with clients, consultants and subcontractors.

We have diversified our business portfolio and expanded to a very sizeable market share with a variety of projects.

“Currently, the average age of staff members is around 40, which helps to enhance our competitive edge,” James says. PYE is particularly focused on team morale enhancement in management, with regular sessions to iron out problems and advance plans for future growth.

Senior managers meet for several hours every fortnight to go through strategic initiatives and promote close, open dialogue among the team. “By doing that, it brings in good ideas from our staff, instead of passing down a single line of instructions,” James says.

We work closely with clients and consultants by putting ourselves in their shoes and aligning common goals for the benefit of the project, creating a win–win situation.

“With our company’s scale, we do need everyone’s intelligence and input on different aspects of our activities. Everyone is invited to speak up with their ideas, and the close communication among staff is pivotal to our company’s continual growth. We cannot rely on a single-handed approach in project management. We cherish and have proactively strengthened staff communication in the past few years.”

New ideas, new technology

Digitalisation of the company is another focal point of James’ business strategy. The company has introduced new construction technologies in line with Construction 2.0 promoted by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR Government).

It has also developed initiatives like Modular Integrated Construction (MiC), and established a new business arm, XenseTech, for integrating new technology in construction and project management.

It has also adopted a project called InTech Workplace to improve productivity, efficiency and quality, and minimise unnecessary man-hours.

“We partnered with iMax of Singapore to establish a company, Paul Y. – iMax, to extend our reach in developing MiC solutions,” James says.

“Prominent examples of our MiC implementation are the Student Residence at the University of Hong Kong at Wong Chuk Hang, a pilot MiC project under the Development Bureau of HKSAR Government, and our recently completed project, Sai Kung Temporary Quarantine Facilities, which has been recognised by the Buildings Department as a ‘pre-accepted MiC System’.

“We hope to advance the site set-up in the areas of the site office and worker shelters, improve air quality, mitigate noise and dust and improve the surrounding area. We have rolled out InTech Workplace in several project sites, and it is one of our new directions as we move forward.”

Close relationships work

Coordinating sectors of the size and scale of PYE’s projects requires close communication with clients and contractors to ensure compliance and streamlined operations.

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“We work closely with clients and consultants by putting ourselves in their shoes and aligning common goals for the benefit of the project, creating a win–win situation,” James says.

“We believe the importance of long-term partnerships is revealed through fair dealings and credibility, and recognising their role in developing and maintaining operational excellence. This, in turn, benefits the supply chain in both good and bad times.”

James breaks partnerships into two categories – clients, and consultants and contractors. He points to quality and timely delivery of projects as of paramount importance in maintaining good relationships with clients, as they affect the return on investment of projects from the client’s perspective.

“This is always our target, to complete the project on time and with high quality,” he says. “Most of our projects have been completed not just on time, but ahead of schedule. To cite examples, we have undertaken some educational institutions – The Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex | The University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong, and the French International School Tseung Kwan O Campus.

For academic buildings, construction time is critical to suit the institution’s timetables. To ensure smooth progress in construction, we identified and addressed the risks in advance. We also conducted high-level meetings with consultants and clients, on a monthly basis, for review.

“Studio City in Macau was the first project I worked on site full-time with PYE, and is another example. The whole project was completed ahead of schedule, we had over 350 subcontractors working with us, and there were no disputes. The key was that we maintained a very close working relationship with the client and different subcontractors.”

James’ leadership style has cemented a sound future for PYE through innovation and agility to meet changing circumstances. By looking beyond its self-imposed boundaries, the company has reached new markets and clients, and forged a formidable team of experts ready for the next decade.

“With an aim of developing sustainable advantages, we will continue to strive for growth in diversifying the core business portfolio, enhancing and improving capabilities, and continually advancing the construction management approach,” he says.

“We maintain a proactive attitude of constant learning, growth and striving for improvement. This attitude will result in PYE being the partner of choice among clients and consultants for complex and challenging projects by leveraging our expertise and professionalism.”

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