Tired of seeing constant issues go unaddressed in his adoptive home, ex-US navy officer and businessman David Schaus is hoping to bring his big ideas to improve life for the residents in the Bays Area constituency in his election bid for District Council in November

By Georgia McCafferty

The 2016 US Presidential race may have begun in earnest, but one expatriate American has set his sights on a different type of office, right here in Hong Kong.

Maritime businessman and ex-US Navy officer, David Schaus, has better hair than Donald Trump, but like the presidential hopeful, he also has big ideas for change. And while he is more likely to be found in overalls than a suit and tie, he also has a commanding way with words.

But for all his youth and energy, Schaus faces significant challenges in his bid to run as an independent candidate for councillor of Hong Kong’s Bays Area Constituency in elections to be held on November 22nd.

Covering Shouson Hill, Deep Water Bay, Repulse Bay, and portionsof Chung Hom Kok and Wong Chuk Hang, the district includes some of Hong Kong’s richest residents – Li Ka-shing among them – as well as a mix of middle-class families and grassroots villages. Some of these voters, especially older local residents, are likely to have misgivings about an expatriate representative.

At the same time the incumbent councillor, Liberal party member Fergus Fung Se-goun, has been the Bay Area representative since 2007. One of the founders of food magazine, WOM Guide, Fung is a respected Hong Kong businessman who enjoys support from many established local families and is well known in the community.

However, Schaus, who lives in Repulse Bay, is a man on a mission to fix the problems he says he sees in his local area every day. Disappointed by what he describes as Fung’s lack of action on the area’s on-going traffic problems, he finally decided to run for council himself while sitting in traffic, when he should have been at home with his family.

“The thing that’s really got me fired up to run for district council is the terrible traffic congestion in our district,” Schaus says. “When I look around I don’t see any action being taken, certainly none being taken by any of our elected officials to deal with this, and maybe part of that is because our current district councillor doesn’t even live in our district.”

From New Hampshire to Hong Kong

Schaus, who was born in New York but raised in New Hampshire, was awarded a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corp scholarship (NROTC) when he was in high school and went on to study mechanical engineering at Auburn University in Alabama.

Commissioned as an Ensign in the US Navy on the same day he graduated from college, he met his future wife, Mary Totin, while conducting pre-deployment training in Norfolk, Virginia. After finishing his training, his first duty station was on USS La Salle, which was stationed in Gaeta, Italy, where he earned his surface warfare qualification.

Totin, who was herself completing law school, visited Schaus 11 times over the two years he was in Italy, and on completion of his tour of duty on La Salle they got married. Schaus’ next assignment was as the ship’s navigator on USS Gonzalez, after which he was transferred to Hong Kong and, in layperson’s terms, became the US port operations officer.

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In this role Schaus kept things running smoothly when US Navy ships docked in Hong Kong, including managing the ships’ provisions, setting up water taxis to transfer personnel to and from the boats and working with the Hong Kong government to manage anchorages.

“Sometimes, when the sailors had a bit too much fun I even got to go down to the police station in Wan Chai and give them a helping hand home,” Schaus says. “I could tell stories for hours, but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience working with the consulate there.”

But at the end of his three-year assignment in Hong Kong, Schaus had a difficult decision to make.

“I loved my time in the Navy but Mary and I loved living in Hong Kong and I wanted to make this our home. I had a choice – I either stay in the Navy and leave Hong Kong, or I stay in Hong Kong and leave the Navy. So I decided to stay.”

Business lessons

Schaus subsequently spent four years working in shipping for Danish conglomerate, Maersk, managing their Asian-based ship repair business. With workshops in China, India and Malaysia, he said it was a lot of responsibility for the then 33-year old, but the commercial lessons he learned enabled him to go on to establish his own successful businesses.

“I was fortunate working for Maersk that have a very structured environment,” Schaus says. “They taught me a tremendous amount and I never could have had any of the small degree of success I’ve experienced on my own if I hadn’t gone through that four years of school with a big corporation.”

“When I was in the military the focus was on operational capability, whereas in the commercial world, the ultimate gauge of success is your financial viability. So I’ve taken a lot of the lessons I learned and incorporated them into my own companies,” he adds.

Schaus now has three companies based around shipping services that he runs from a company headquartered in Hong Kong. OSRO China Limited is an oil spill cleanup and oil waste recycling company; Irwin Marine Services is a Shenzhen-based container ship repair operation; and the newly-launched Irwin Rotational Lining is an environmentally-friendly factory that recoats and recycles old shipping pipes into new.

OSRO China Limited has grown to become one of the largest oil sludge collectors and ship pollution response companies in mainland China, with approximately 700 ships under management. He also employs more than 40 people across all three organizations, although Schaus acknowledges the role luck has played in helping his business.

“Three months after I started up OSRO China, they had the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and we ended up moving close to 17 miles of oil [containment] booms right off the bat,” he explains. “That gave us an immediate cash infusion and we were doing real business and had real revenues. Right place at the right time, tremendously fortunate.”

“My ultimate goal had always been to have my own company and when you look at the business environment and the regulatory environment for marine engineering in Hong Kong, this is the place you want to be [at] if you are going to do that,” Schaus adds.

“Business may be 70 percent hard work but it’s definitely 30 percent luck and things have really lined up for me on this.”

District council drive

Schaus has now lived in Hong Kong for just under twelve years and as well as three businesses, he has two Hong Kong-born sons, aged six and two. His wife is also employed as a training and recruitment executive with a large law firm and he describes Hong Kong as his family’s lifelong home.

It was this love for his home and his desire to protect its “tremendous quality of life” that he said factored into his decision to run for council and turn his engineering skills to improving the community for residents in the Bays Area.

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As well as advocating for a permit system to limit the number of ‘nonfranchised’ buses that operate separately to the public transport and minibuses, Schaus also wants to put his navy skills to use on something he has dubbed the “Southside Sealink”.

“I love our franchised bus system because most of the drivers here are experienced drivers, they know the roads, and they’re set up by the government to serve the residents to begin with,” he says. “It’s the non-franchised buses that sometimes overwhelm our roads at peak times and on holidays. These are the buses that stop in the middle of the road and let off their passengers and back up the traffic for kilometers.”

“I also want to develop sea links between the new MTR station in Ap Lei Chau and run water taxis out of there directly into Repulse Bay, Blake Pier in Stanley and the beach at Deep Water Bay,” he adds. “What is so tremendous about this ‘Southside Sealink’ idea is that it’s a low impact solution. Let’s get the tour buses off the road and replace them with water taxis that don’t clog up our road.”

Schaus says with his experience running logistics for the Navy, he believes he could operate four, 90-passenger capacity water taxis out of Ap Lei Chau to Blake Pier in Stanley, a jetty near the Pulse in Repulse Bay and to a pier at Deep Water Bay. For such a system to run sixteen hours a day, every day of the year, Schaus believes it would cost in the vicinity of HK$20 million.

“I am hoping the Hong Kong Government may be able to subsidize something like this because the alternative is to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure projects when we may be able to get the same results without turning our community into a construction zone for years,” Schaus points out.

For all of Schaus’ big ideas and experience, an incumbent like Fergus Fung has an immediate advantage when running for office, and Schaus faces even greater challenges.

Although he has lived in Hong Kong for over a decade, he only speaks a little Cantonese. Not having been born here, he is also likely to run into some healthy skepticism about his ability to understand grassroots Hong Kong problems and advocate for change.

When presented with these potential issues, Schaus is well prepared on the language barrier, and even more passionate about where his home is.

“I am by no means a Cantonese speaker, but I am fortunate that the majority of my constituents do speak English and English is an official language in Hong Kong,” he says. “I also understand the need to communicate to everyone and I have people within my support organization to assist me with the Cantonese translation and communication.”

“I’m here for the long term. I live in this community and when I’m hiking the hills in our community, when I’m down at the beach in our community, when my children are going school here and being born here, I’m a part of this community.”

“And if someone were to say that I don’t understand the Chinese people, well I have three successful businesses in mainland China and I don’t think I’d be able to operate those businesses if I don’t understand China.”