'My last trip to Libya was cut short when a bomb went off outside my hotel' - Chester King

The co-owner of the International Group explains what it takes for British companies to succeed abroad.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 24 Jan 2020

Chester King (right) is co-owner of the International Group, a health, leisure and hospitality management company founded by his father Roger King in 1964. The company has run projects in 51 countries, with sales of over £17m in 2016, and has recently expanded into esports (competitive computer gaming) tournaments.

Interestingly, ownership of the group is split equally between King, his father and two elder brothers, all of whom are responsible for one division of the company (Chester King looks after leisure). MT picked his brains about taking British companies abroad, Brexit and the challenges of a family business.

You’re an international business – what impact has Brexit had on you so far?

King: We work in England and then outside of Europe, so it’s not really going to have an impact, apart from the exchange rate in the short term. It’s knocked the confidence of British companies to hold conferences and golf day meetings a bit. Tourism and individual spending is up but what we’ve seen is UK companies spending less in the UK.

But Britain is still held in the highest esteem globally, especially outside of Europe. I like to say we’re really good at weddings and funerals – we’re renowned at organising.

The International Group used to run the Bobby Moore Club at Wembley, the biggest restaurant in Europe with 1,900 seats. In 2009, we flew over to Bahrain with 300 waitresses to run a hen party for the royal family there, for 2,000 people – they wanted the ‘Britishness’ of delivering it and getting it done.

You’ve been in China for five years now. It’s a notoriously hard market to crack – how have you found it?

King: We signed two large, 20-year projects and both have been cancelled after three years. The first was to manage a private members’ club racing circuit. The client just ripped up the contract and it took us a year and a half in arbitration to get awarded full costs.

The other was a hospital project for one of China’s richest men, Wang Jianlin of Wanda. But the government decided he was too rich, so his company’s in limbo.  

That hasn’t put you off?

King: No, funnily enough we signed another hospital project two weeks after that, with Hong Kong Land. You’ve got to have good partners, take a long-term view and build a reputation. We’ve worked in Libya, Algeria and Ghana for years – in fact my last trip to Libya was cut short because a bomb went off outside my hotel window. We’re entrepreneurial because we go to places other people don’t want to go to.

A lot of family businesses struggle with factionalism, succession and sibling rivalry. How do you manage it?

King: We’re lucky because we work in different business divisions, so we’re not all in the same room at the same time. It means we can share the stress but still get on a plane if there’s an opportunity. Also, my father brought us up to work as a team and support each other. We hunt as a pack.

Aside from running the e-Games tournament, you also founded the British Esports Association. You don’t fit the usual gamer profile – how did that happen?

King: My son’s 17 and massively into esports. I got into it three years ago, after watching what he and his friends were doing. esports are brilliant from a mental health perspective – it’s competitive, you’re trying to outdo someone, you’re playing as a team, communicating and teaching each other strategy.

There’s been really bad positioning of esports in the UK. We’re not an alternative to football or cricket, we’re a great alternative to passive media.

Parents are worried about their kids getting too much screen time, but it’s the right screen time – I’d much prefer my son to play esports for two hours than watch Love Island or take a million photos of himself. esports are 20 times  better than chess, but you’ll never get a parent complaining you’re playing too much chess.

Lastly, any tips for British firms doing business abroad?

King: Contact the Department for International Trade before you go and try to visit the embassy. They will help you.

Chester King is speaking at the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong, 21-24 March, 2018.

Image: International Group


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