Features

Meet Tenniel Chu

UTSC grad and vice chairman of the world's largest golf resort

Laurie Stephens
Tenniel Chu standing on a golf course

Bring China to the world. Bring the world to China. This is Tenniel Chu’s mission in life.

The U of T Scarborough economics grad is vice chairman of Mission Hills Group, an international powerhouse in sports, leisure and entertainment that places a high value on social responsibility.

Headquartered in Hong Kong, Mission Hills established its roots as a golf destination and has since branched into property development, banqueting and conventions, international schools, shopping centres and entertainment complexes.

Chu (BA, 1999) spent most of his life in Toronto, living there from age six with his grandparents, three sisters and two brothers. His parents commuted back and forth from China to look after business interests.

Chu visited all three U of T campuses before deciding on UTSC, and he says the compact size of the school made him feel part of a tight-knit community.

“At UTSC, you could always be so connected,” he says. “At any time, I could go to any of the professors for extra inquiries.”

The quality of UTSC professors also impressed him. “They really made an effort to have a personality, to showcase and to share,” he says.

Chu juggled multiple demands while at UTSC. He would attend classes full time, then head home to be a surrogate parent to his younger siblings, chauffeuring them to skating or karate lessons, or attending parent- teacher meetings.

“I had to play all those roles, and it really shaped me to have perfect time- management and good planning skills in terms of how to manage your day- to-day, from personal life and family responsibilities to education, to even my own social life.”

And Chu has much to balance at Mission Hills. The resorts’ many attractions create a need for what he calls “mega-events”—international celebrity golf tournaments, carnivals and other forms of entertainment—to create buzz and attract patrons from around the world.

“All of these events are to raise awareness, especially of the game of golf or, on the broader spectrum, of the new China to the rest of the world,” says Chu, who is married with a young son and daughter.

The company is a family affair. Chu’s older brother, Ken, is chairman and CEO; their late father, David, launched the business, breaking ground on the first golf resort in 1992. Chu says his father’s vision was for a golf resort that would connect China to the business world. While most business deals happen at the office or around a dining table, his father believed that there could be a better, healthier way of networking.

“He thought that golf truly was the international language to connect the world to China,” says Chu. “It’s the only sport where you can have a captive audience for four and a half hours, to mingle and network.
Basically, he made the golf course an extension of the office.”

Today, Mission Hills is China’s ultimate playground, with significant expansion under way to serve the 1.4 billion Chinese who are enjoying newfound wealth as their economy grows. This emerging middle and upper class needs to be entertained, says Chu. So the company has established two new resorts. As well as the original Mission Hills Shenzhen in Guangdong province, there is now Mission Hills Dongguan, also in Guangdong province, and Mission Hills Resort Haikou on Hainan Island.

The company is starting a movie channel and opening a new phase of a shopping mall, a Ritz-Carlton/ Hard Rock Hotel, a Renaissance Hotel, a water park and a film-themed attraction called Movie Town. In total, Mission Hills has invested more than US$10 billion in the three resorts.

“I try to attract the very best of the world’s attractions, different brands or strategic partnerships to China where Mission Hills can be the ultimate platform,” says Chu. “At the same time, we work to invite international investors and partners to work together to bring a new lifestyle to the people of China.”

A U of T degree is a tremendous source of pride for Chinese families, Chu says. Every two years he attends a convocation event in Hong Kong where he sees the happy faces of parents whose sons or daughters have graduated. “They see that the branding and quality of a U of T Scarborough education can go a long way in terms of their life and development.”

After his own graduation from UTSC in 1999, Chu did a postgraduate program in golf course management at Humber College and then worked at PGA Tour headquarters in Florida.

He wanted on-the-ground experience to complement his studies. “That’s why my first job was picking up golf balls at the driving range for [PGA superstar] Vijay Singh—getting the golf balls out of the wet mud, driving the range picker to pick up all the balls, and cleaning them and bagging them,” he says. “I really learned from the bottom up.”

Working with the PGA Tour, Chu learned about golf course management and operations and developed a network in the industry, one he still finds useful as he looks for ways to build Mission Hills.

His last position with the tour brought him close to history—and tragedy. On September 11, 2001, he was working at the Pennsylvania Classic tournament with golf legend Arnold Palmer when United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked as part of the 9/11 attacks. Chu remembers that the hijacked plane “flew right above our heads and crashed right next to the golf course.”

After this close call, Chu’s parents suggested he head back to China to join the family business. As his “first gift to China,” he got golf star Tiger Woods to visit the country for the first time, to play in a tournament and raise awareness of golf locally and beyond.

Mission Hills now has close to six million golf visitors a year from five continents. With 22 courses designed by some of the finest golfers and course designers, the original resort is the largest in the world.

“When they come to China and when they think of golf, this is the only destination they want to experience,” says Chu. “Who would think China would have the world’s largest golf resort?” But once the world’s largest was established there, he says, “it really staked China’s global position.”

Chu is now working on two new projects that will further establish Mission Hills as China’s ultimate playground.

German tennis legend Boris Becker, who coaches the world’s top-ranked male player, Novak Djokovic, will launch his first tennis academy at Mission Hills. The goal, says Chu: to train the next world champion there.

Soccer is coming to Mission Hills, too. Chu says the Chinese government is keen to establish China as a soccer powerhouse, with the goal of having Asia’s top team by 2050. He says the government has committed to building 70,000 soccer pitches and more than 20,000 academies across China to develop the sport.

Mission Hills received a government contract to build China’s soccer headquarters, which will include training and administration facilities for the national team. The company will also host several high-profile exhibition matches.

All this expansion is in keeping with Missions Hills’ goal of creating a sports and leisure platform that will connect people around the world in positive pursuits. Chu says the company has developed the “3-H philosophy” of doing business, aiming to bring happiness, harmony and health to Mission Hills’ visitors by asking important questions: “How do we connect the world in a perfect, one-world, one-dream philosophy? And how do we bring a greener life, a greener environment, a healthier lifestyle to the Chinese people and all of humanity?”

Chu says his father, who died in 2011, had a vision that still drives the company today. “We are here to provide the ultimate platform to improve their business, and their whole life,” he says. “Whatever we touch, we try to make a difference."