The mechanics of success

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 May, 1996, 12:00am

Industrialist Lily Chiang Lai-lei still remembers childhood days when her father would return from work early, smelling strongly of mechanical oils. The lubricants were so pungent that she and her sisters could smell them in their sleep in their San Po Kong home.

'At that time, the [machinery] factory was very close to our home,' Dr Chiang, now Executive Director of Chen Hsong Holdings, recalled. 'My daddy would hug and embrace me and my sisters on his return from work every morning.' During lunar new year and other activities organised by the company, heavy machinery was always in the background. She grew up with it. Later, she forged a career out of understanding it.

Dr Chiang is the only female voice on the general committees of both the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Hong Kong Industries. The chamber's general committee is influential in deciding economic and business policy, and last week she was re-elected with the highest number of votes, 936, in an election which saw seven candidates running for six vacant seats. Tomorrow , she will join the chamber's delegation to Beijing to call on the Chinese Government to relax foreign investors' rights for domestic sales in China.

'As a female who works in the field of mechanical engineering, I don't find it very tough to be in my position,' said Dr Chiang. 'Anyone who sits in any position has to be actually devoted to the job to secure harvests, regardless of whether they are men or women.

'In the field of mechanical engineering, people in general are more straightforward. And because you are a woman, they may treat you in a gentler manner.' At the age of 13 she left the territory to go the United States to further her studies. On her own in a foreign country for the first time at such a tender age, she learned to look after herself.

'The biggest difficulty which I encountered is that I did not know English at the time,' she said. 'Three months later, I could speak English fluently.' It did not occur to her at the time that she would follow her father, Dr Chiang Chen's footsteps in the mechanical engineering profession. She had dreamed of becoming a teacher or a nun. 'I wanted to become a sister [when I was small] because I studied in a Catholic school,' she said.

It was only after recovering from a skiing accident in Vermont that she was prompted to return to Hong Kong to start working as a trainee engineer in the company.

Today, Chen Hsong Holdings, the family business which her father chairs, enjoys international renown - and a turnover last financial year of $1.1 billion. The company's injection-moulding machines that mould plastics ranging from a tiny button, a camera, a tape-recorder, a telephone set, to a computer or a television set have grabbed about 10 per cent of the world market's pie.

Chiang is by no means complacent about the success. She hopes the company, which is already listed on the stock exchange and declared profits of $202 million last year, can get a bigger slice of the global market share by making improvements.

'For instance, to attain Japanese quality at the People's Republic of China's cost, and to instil the culture of total customer satisfaction in the enterprise,' she said.

Her time is precious and she gets as much out of it as humanly possible. 'Suppose you started working at the age of 20 and retired at the age of 65,' she said, tapping her fingers on the calculator on her desk. 'Forty years seems a very long time. But if you sleep for, say, eight hours a day, your working time will be deducted by one-third. As for daily transport, one would usually spend at least two hours a day in it.

'The time one spends on work is very short. Under such circumstances, one must fight for oneself. You must strike a balance in your life. If I went to see my boyfriend for three hours, I would be quite happy. But I would think about my other time as well,' she said.

Lying on her working desk and the floor of her office at Tai Po Industrial Estate are piles of files, photo albums, samples, gift packs and food snacks.

'I am quite lazy in tidying up [the desk],' she said. 'Some people say they can't work if their desks are not clean. In fact, if my desk is too clean, I'm afraid I may not be accustomed to it.' Dr Chiang, who is in her 30s, said her father did not expect her to join him in the business. His successes were an inspiration to her. 'It has not been easy for him to make the achievements that he has to date,' she said. 'He has gone through a lot of setbacks, failures, and difficulties.

'One cannot just sit idly and keep waiting. One has to fight for oneself. There are many opportunities. Whether a person is successful or not depends much on whether he or she is willing to grasp the opportunity and make efforts in his or her work.' Her mother passed away when Dr Chiang was very young, in 1979. Dr Chiang said: 'There are six daughters in the family, and father was in the machinery business. She certainly wanted her children to help, but she was a traditional woman who would not make too many demands.' Of the seven children only she and her two younger sisters, Maria and Helen, are still directly or indirectly involved in the family business. Her elder sister Agnes, who once assisted in the company's marketing, chose a very different career - singing.

Agnes is now a mother of three while Maria and Helen are both expecting.

As a single career woman, Dr Chiang envisages getting married one day.

She says several suitors are currently vying for her affections. 'But I'm not the kind of person who will get married for the sake of getting married.

'I am relatively impulsive and a bit domineering. It's possibly because I have been working for quite some time.'