Photo: Peter Hwang
Engineer-by-training Peter Hwang explains how a series of turning points and a lifelong dream to run his own company led him to global storage giant Iron Mountain
Iron Mountain Managing Director for Asia Peter Hwang’s career has been peppered with twists and turns but the journey has been anything but lonely. When we met, the 42-year-old executive had just returned from a two-week tour of the Nordics, his latest annual retreat with the Young Presidents’ Organization, a professional community and peer support network for CEOs below the age of 45.
“When you're young and put into quite demanding roles, it creates opportunities but also problems in your life. And when you’re at the top of the food chain, there aren’t many people who you can share that with,” he says, adding that he’s been fortunate to have such support networks and mentors throughout his career.
Taking me through his life, Hong Kong-born Hwang says he moved to Australia with his family at the age of 12. Through a local university exchange program, he found his way to the States, completing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering at UCLA in Los Angeles.
After a three-year stint as a Boeing engineer designing radiator panels for the International Space Station (“a very interesting engineering problem”), Hwang packed his bags and headed for Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley. This was at the height of the dot-com boom, and Hwang was pursuing a career in tech.
I had to ask: Surely working for the ISS is a dream come true for most aerospace engineers. Why did he give it up?
“Aerospace is quite a traditional industry in the sense that it doesn't change very fast. And I was looking around me and everybody was twice my age and had been with the company for 30 years,” says Hwang. “That wasn't the environment I wanted to be in long term. So that's why I went to Stanford for my MBA thinking that after that I would join a startup or, you know, the equivalent of Google back then.”
Forced to change tack again after the dot-com bubble burst midway through his MBA course, Hwang decided to enter the relative security of the corporate world. He joined consulting firm McKinsey right out of business school, spending a handful of years between their Hong Kong and LA offices before moving back to Hong Kong for good in 2007.
After that time Hwang continued his trajectory in the corporate world, holding multiple leadership roles including as President of a Hong Kong-based family office, and then as Chief of Staff at a Chinese pharmaceutical company that he helped lead to a stock market listing.
It was only in his next role leading business development and M&A initiatives at Asian health services group Zuellig that Hwang started to feel his lifelong “aspiration to run a company” was within reach.
“A typical career path for an ex-consultant is you get involved in transactions to buy companies and eventually you get placed as a CEO of one of those companies,” he says, feeling hopeful at the time.
Then just four months into Hwang’s new role at Zuellig came yet another turning point, when the company’s CEO – who Hwang respected and knew well – announced his departure for U.S. information management company Iron Mountain, and extended an invitation to Hwang to follow, which he accepted.
“That's driven some of my career choices in the past,” says Hwang, “just kind of following people when joining a company not necessarily because of the products or services but sometimes because of the people that I will be working with.”
Iron Mountain is a B2B information management company that helps its 250,000 corporate customers store their physical and digital information and assets in secure warehouses and data centers around the world.
The difference between Iron Mountain and self-storage companies is that its customers are all enterprises, says Hwang. They include firms in banking, law, accounting, engineering and architecture with critical, irreplaceable original documents or assets that need to go into high-standard facilities in terms of security, control and access.
“A lot more investment goes into the infrastructure of our facilities than regular self-storage facilities, so it's a lot more sophisticated than self storage... in terms of fire prevention, fire suppression, and in certain cases, climate control,” he says.
Hwang oversees Iron Mountain’s business in Asia (“the company’s growth engine”), which spans the 10 markets of China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
“Asia is the fastest growing region for the company. So there's a lot of pressure on maintaining the growth and accelerating that growth.” He explains this can be done mainly in two ways: Organically, which involves selling more services and improving the efficiency of operations; or via M&A, which is especially common in Asia, and how he says he spends half of his time.
In the four and a half years he’s been at the company, business has grown close to 20-fold, and from four to 10 markets. “You can't do that organically right now. A lot of that is from acquisitions,” he says.
With colleagues at the International Women’s Day luncheon 2018
In his capacity as Managing Director of Iron Mountain Asia, Hwang has already led two large acquisitions of competitors in the region, Recall and the records-keeping business of global removals and relocations company Santa Fe.
“The easy part is buying a company. I think the tough part is how to integrate that business,” he says.
Speed is key.
“There's a window where the customer might give you the benefit of the doubt. They know that you're busy, that you're distracted and that people are trying to adjust to a new way of doing things. But you need to earn their trust very quickly. It's no longer a valid excuse after six months or nine months.
“In terms of the brand, it is about what customers see when an employee shows up to collect your box. That person should be wearing an Iron Mountain uniform. The vehicle itself should be painted in our colors with the Iron Mountain logo,” he says.
Equally important is streamlining internal branding and integrating employees from the acquired company. “Maybe they are used to having the core values of the old company hanging there, and maybe even the old company's logo. We want to make that change very quickly… for the employees who are now a part of the new company,” he says.
Hwang says his gauge of a successful integration is when “after six months you stop hearing the other company’s name.”
Life lesson for a city
Like in other markets, Hong Kong’s information management industry is being shaken up by the global shift to digital. How soon the inevitable transformation occurs is just a matter of will.
“If I compare Hong Kong to – I hate to do this – Singapore, their government at least on the digital economy side has been a lot more heavy handed,” says Hwang, who thinks Hong Kong has the potential to go faster if it can shed the existing “legacy systems” that stop it from taking risks.
“When you have something like the Octopus Card which was such a successful thing that people got used to, it's hard to then say, ‘get rid of it and use your phone.’ I just think now it’s actually weighing down Hong Kong, whereas other markets have been able to leapfrog and go from paper cash straight to mobile phone payments,” he says.
But it is with good reason that local attitudes will take time to change. “We have systems that are already set and have served us well. How can you throw everything out the window? It’s much easier for emerging markets like China or India who have never had much and will happily adopt the latest trends,” he says.
The advice Hwang has for the Hong Kong government – to be open to change and accept the risk of failure – is a reaction to his own stern upbringing.
“One thing that I wish I had been more exposed to was creativity and the freedom to be wrong. Growing up there was quite a bit of emphasis on getting the right answer,” he says. “It's okay to be a little bit confused because that's how you find your way.”
Herman Knaust aka ‘The Mushroom King’
Iron Mountain was founded in 1951 by Herman Knaust, who had made a fortune from growing mushrooms. In 1936, he bought an exhausted iron ore mine and some land in upstate New York for US$9,000 to expand his production. When the bottom fell out of the mushroom market in 1950, Knaust hit on a new business venture that tapped into growing demand for secure and bomb-proof storage amid the tension of the Cold War – hence the company’s original name: Iron Mountain Atomic Storage.