The founder of Octave Institute argues wellness is not only a business concept but also a way of doing business
Wellness isn’t just a big industry – it’s a US$4.2 trillion behemoth spanning everything from athleisure to travel, meditation, complementary medicine and even “death positive” funeral planning. It’s easy to be cynical about why so many companies are scrambling to get a foothold in this lucrative market.
And that’s why it’s also rare to come across a business leader in the wellness industry who is committed to the idea of improving lives regardless of profit. But in 1995, when Frederick Chavalit Tsao became chairman of IMC Pan Asia Alliance Group – a Hong Kong family-run enterprise going back four generations – he was already rethinking the traditional corporate business models and cultures he was surrounded by.
To complement his new role at the helm of IMC, Tsao launched the East-West Cultural Development Centre. Billed as a research institute for the “study of human sustainable development”, the centre organised seminars and roundtables, and offered training to encourage business leaders to act as “stewards”: people who have a responsibility to society as well as their own organisations.
“Everything wasn’t making sense in the early ’90s,” Tsao explains of his early forays into the wellness realm – years before the term became widely associated with an industry. “Everybody was talking about modernisation. The Internet was just beginning, and globalisation was setting in. But, for globalisation to work, and for us to deal with the common challenge of sustainability, we needed a common worldview in a common language.”
In the decades since, Tsao has steered IMC to become a diverse conglomerate that encompasses investments, fund management and integrated industrial supply chains, while continuing to research and write books on responsible business leadership. Octave – the company’s real-estate platform focussing on wellness facilities – is now a conduit for these endeavours.
“What is wellness?” Tsao asks rhetorically. “We still don’t have a way to measure wellbeing. The industry is growing fragmentally and cannot agree what the definition is. So, I feel in China, we should participate and offer something Eastern into the wellbeing industry.”
In 2015, Octave opened its first physical iteration with The Living Room in downtown Shanghai. This award-winning integrated “urban support centre” occupies a 2,000m² heritage building, and offers customised programmes in areas including fitness, yoga, traditional Chinese healing, nutrition, life coaching, meditation and psychotherapy.
Octave’s next physical space, which officially opened this summer after a two-year soft launch, is Sangha Retreat.
Perched on the serene Yangcheng Lake on the outskirts of Suzhou, a canal-crossed city 100km west of Shanghai, Sangha is a model of a small urban community with wellness at its heart. There is a suite of high-spec amenities spread across its lush, 19ha space. These include guest rooms enhanced with healing crystals, extensive spa and hydrothermal facilities, a meditation and sound healing dome, a “village” dedicated to wellness and quantum leadership retreats and At One clinic, which offers Western and Chinese medical therapies. But its most unique feature is its collection of 108 “Sangha Villas” – large private residences that promote a wellness-centred lifestyle.
Designed to house multiple generations under one roof (in accordance with Eastern philosophies), the Sangha Villas reflect a traditional way of living that the modern world should once again embrace. “We all need a place for community to develop, connectivity, a place for support, a place for jointly exploring life and sharing and growing,” Tsao says. “And we all need physical contact. We put together a small community of people to test this prototype. When the whole family is living there across generations, it creates new dynamics and creates new connections.”
Given the freewheeling nature of his vision, it’s not surprising that Tsao isn’t committing to stringent short-term financial goals for Sangha. “We’re a family business, so we don’t think in terms of quarters – we think through generations,” he says simply. “That’s at least 25 years.” Indeed, a lot has changed in the generation since Tsao first started blending progressive ideas on wellness into his ultra-corporate surroundings. And with all that experience under his belt, he maintains that transforming companies from the ground up remains one of the best ways to improve wellness in individuals as well as society at large.
“You cannot collaborate in a workplace built on a culture of fear,” he says. “Only with love do you find unity and creativity. So, to find that, you need an entire HR system that attracts people through a recruitment process built on evolutionary leadership training. People must wake up to the reality that they can choose what life they want. But to choose the life you want, start by choosing the right company!”