Family business goes beyond run-of-the-mill
Anna Healy Fenton
Shiu Wing Steel's Samantha Pong left a banking job to help run a firm founded by her grandfather
It is mid-morning in the offices of Shiu Wing Steel in Jardine House, Central, and jangling bells in the corridor announce the arrival of company chairman Cynthia Pong Hong Siu-chu, aged 84.
'The bells are for feng shui,' whispers her granddaughter, Samantha Pong Sum-yee, director of sales and marketing. 'She comes in every day and though she no longer deals in the day-to-day business, she has a very clear mind and amazing energy.'
The Pongs are one of Hong Kong's long-established families and Shiu Wing operates the city's only steel rolling mill.
Ms Pong's grandfather, Pong Ding-yuen, moved to Hong Kong from Guangdong in 1950 and started ship-breaking for scrap, graduating to steel production in Kwai Chung.
Development of the area for Container Terminal 9 forced a move to Junk Bay in 1958, where the company set up a rolling mill, along with two electric arc furnaces.
'Scrap was fed in and billets came out the other end,' Ms Pong, 28, said.
In 1991, government development of Junk Bay saw Shiu Wing relocate again, to its present $1 billion rolling mill in Tuen Mun.
Shiu Wing was the first company outside of Japan to cut bars to customers' required length, not just to the standard 12 metres. Its steel reinforcing bars have gone into most of Hong Kong's major projects, including both One and Two IFC and the Tsing Ma Bridge.
Although the mill does not produce at full annual capacity of 750,000 tonnes, demand from Hong Kong's construction industry is well in excess of that at more than one million tonnes.
Entirely family-owned, Shiu Wing supplies the local market and Macau's casino builders. The industry had picked up over the past two years, said Ms Pong, although like many commodities, steel has doubled in price over the past three years.
In 2004, Shiu Wing's China business was boosted by zero tariff status under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, with the mainland both the biggest producer and consumer of steel. 'Thankfully, construction always needs concrete and steel,' Ms Pong said,
But steel remains a turbulent industry. The US government protects its steel industry with anti-dumping and import quotas. 'But the [Hong Kong] government does very little to help us. We are the only heavy industry left in Hong Kong.'
Ms Pong's grandmother and late grandfather had five sons and two daughters, and at one point, all seven worked for the mill in various capacities, following the old Chinese custom of joining the family firm, she said. Of that generation, only one aunt and her father, executive director Edward Pong Chong, remain in the business.
The seven siblings produced 19 offspring but Ms Pong and two older male cousins are the only members of the third generation to work for the company.
Her father had discouraged her from joining the family firm. 'Don't come straight into the family business, you'll be treated differently, as the boss's daughter. Go and get shouted at somewhere first,' he advised.
Ms Pong joined Merrill Lynch's equity capital markets division. Although glamorous, banking soon wore thin. 'Getting up at 4am and going to bed at 1am was not for me.'
She left Hong Kong to do East Asia studies at Columbia University in New York City. But while in the US in 2003, she felt the tug of filial ties and decided the time was right to join the family business.
'I decided I would come back because I knew my brothers wouldn't. It was also driven by a sense of belonging and a desire to contribute to the family - plus I'm the only one of 19 to have studied engineering.'
She returned and started in business development before taking charge of sales and marketing and taking care of production. Her father is 58 and starting to delegate more. 'He's unloading some of his duties on to me.'
Donning a hard hat and discussing steel bar lengths is a far cry from banking but 'strangely enough, I love it', Ms Pong said. 'It's not as glamorous as banking but I prefer dealing with the factory people.' She sometimes groans at the prospect of site visits with a safety helmet and mucky shoes when she's sporting a new office outfit but admitted: 'Actually, it's quite cool, much more tangible.'
Ms Pong wants to see Shiu Wing do more than provide reinforced bars for the construction industry. She wants it to be innovative, with waste-free bespoke products.
'It's more cost-effective and protects the environment.'
Ms Pong is also a dedicated foodie. She and two friends, Amy Chien and Fergus Fung, produce the The WOM Guide (Word of Mouth) - Hong Kong's first survey-based restaurant guide. It has a web version at www.womguide.com.
They plan a Chinese version of the book which lists eateries under headings such as 'first date', 'third date', 'someone else pays', and 'where to treat your in-laws'.
When asked what her future holds, Ms Pong replied: 'Asking me if I want to run the company is like asking a five-year-old what they want to be when they grow up.'
One of her two male cousins who have more experience will be likely to take over the firm in the distant future.
'I'll stay until I start to get fed up with my customers but I actually prefer the demanding ones. I'll always need a challenge.'