Sir David Tang, who died last week aged 63, was once The Spectator’s distributor in Hong Kong. His special achievement in his later entrepreneurial career was to turn his own stylish tastes in clothes, restaurants, clubs and cigars into a highly personal international brand, and to make it all look like great fun. In many ways he was comparable to Sir Richard Branson — except that Tang was a much more lovable personality, capable of filling a room with bonhomie without resorting to Bransonian stunts. But how good a businessman was he?
The key to running a corporate empire, Tang told me — over coffee at his house in Eaton Terrace, served by his butler Kevin — was cash flow. ‘Arnold Weinstock [MD of General Electric Company before its 1990s demise] taught me that: it’s the way he monitored all those hundreds of businesses in GEC… Too many people focus on profit and loss … they don’t look at cash flow until it’s too late. Jewish and Chinese businesspeople, we know that cash flow is God.’
But he admitted to difficulties at Shanghai Tang, his clothing chain, where a fraud by one of his managers led to Tang being bought out by his co-investor Richemont, the sharp-pencilled South African luxury goods group. And while we chatted, a call came in from his bank manager warning that he had busted his credit card limit: ‘a bad night at Aspinall’s’ was his twinkling explanation. So we might conclude that financial control was not, in truth, his greatest strength. But his ideas were bold, his repartee sparkled, and I’m forever in his debt as the owner of one of his signature garments, a dark green velvet Mandarin jacket, which even on me looks elegant for every occasion.
This is an extract from Martin Vander Weyer’s ‘Any Other Business’, from this week’s Spectator