Wilfred Wong neither yes man nor risk-taker

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 February, 2008, 12:00am

Ex-civil servant reveals key to success as right-hand man

Wilfred Wong Ying-wai claims he is not an entrepreneur, but that has not stopped the former ranking government official from forging a successful career as a right-hand man for some of the city's top property tycoons.

While his latest job as chief executive of Mission Hills Group keeps him well occupied, he also is a part-time politician and radio talk show host.

Mr Wong worked for the Hong Kong government for 17 years, rising to the position of deputy secretary for the civil service before leaving in 1992.

Since jumping into the business world in the early 1990s, he continues to be heavily involved in public service, sitting on seven different committees and councils.

Last month, the 55-year-old was elected to the 11th National People's Congress for a third term.

And if that does not make him busy enough, he also hosts a talk show three times a week for Metro Radio.

His main challenge, however, is to transform golf course operator Mission Hills Group into a full-range property company and hopefully list it.

He has been the right-hand man at a number of property companies including Shui On Land, where he was the vice-chairman from 2000 to last year.

This is your third term in the National People's Congress. What have you contributed?

When I was first elected 10 years ago, I was one of the youngest Congress members. But when I end my third term in five years, I will be old. After serving two terms, I am humbled. China is so big and I feel so small.

When I first joined, I thought Hong Kong was a good model and other mainland cities should follow us. Then I discovered policies that work in Hong Kong may not be applicable to the whole country.

But we can share our experience in turning the city into a services hub from a manufacturing centre.

How come you have so much time to be involved in public service?

I don't have time really. That's why I am always tired and have red eyes. But many senior government officials are former colleagues and when they ask for help, it is not easy to say no.

Why are you hosting a talk show if you are so busy?

A few years ago, I hosted a talk show that interviewed a group of pioneers who did business in China before the closer economic partnership arrangement was signed. Now I am hosting one three times a week.

Existing radio talk shows are too political.

We want an informative one that allows listeners to know about the mainland and the world. Also, I enjoy sharing my views with others and broadcasting is an efficient way to let more people hear me.

How much time do you spend with your family?

Just a little. I have dinner with my family once a week, but sometimes I can't make it. Luckily, my two sons are studying abroad and it's only my wife who is staying in Hong Kong.

You have been the right-hand man at different companies for more than 16 years. How do you become a good chief executive?

Don't be a yes man. There are so many yes men hanging around. The boss does not need to pay you so much if you are just another yes man.

Being a good and respectable chief executive, you have to think from your boss' perspective. You have to consider problems as if you own the business. If you only consider yourself an employer, you will never get your job done well.

Have you ever thought that your boss did not listen to your advice?

Every boss is like that. But once a decision is made, I fully back it up and get it executed.

You have served several property tycoons including K Wah International chairman Lui Che-woo, Henderson Land Development chairman Lee Shau-kee, Shui On Land chairman Vincent Lo Hong-sui and Mission Hills Group chairman David Chu Shu-ho. What are they like?

Mr Lui loves running businesses, from property to hotels to gaming. Mr Lee was already one of the richest men in the world when I worked (as chief executive of Henderson China). He is a man who knows the local and global economic beats very well.

Mr Lo's niche is good planning. And he does not only want to make money but also is concerned about the quality of his product. Just like his appearance, it must always be good-looking.

Mr Chu loves grand projects. Once he commits to a project, he wants it to be the biggest one, like his Mission Hills development.

You are a good chief executive. Why don't you set up your own company?

I am not a good entrepreneur. An entrepreneur has passion and vision and likes risk-taking. He has the ability to pass through the most difficult moments. I am too rational, I always calculate the pros and cons. I will see if there are any options to avoid risk-taking.

Why did you leave Shui On shortly after it was listed in Hong Kong?

You should know the best time to step down. When you help the company get through difficulties and bring it to its peak level, that is the right time.

When Shui On was listed, I thought I had done my job. By the way, Shui On has moved its base to Shanghai but my family is in Hong Kong. It is very tiring to be flying between two places all the time.

Do you feel bad when you leave a company?

I'm not an entrepreneur like Mr Lo and Mr Chu. Their enterprises are their babies. They will feel bad if they leave them. But I am a professional manager.

This is what I learned from my government stint. We were transferred to different departments every three years. I got used to this pattern.

Why did you join Mission Hills?

After I left Shui On, I decided to take a long holiday. But Mr Chu had asked me to join many times. He is okay with my involvement in public service and also supports my running for the National People's Congress. With such a boss, how can I say 'No'?

What is the plan to revamp Mission Hills?

Mission Hills is already famous in the golf resort business, so, what's next? It has a large land bank in Shenzhen and Dongguan and we will continue to develop it.

We acquired Hsin Chong Construction Group recently for about HK$700 million and it will focus on mass housing developments. We will also expand into the retail property business.

We have no plans to list Mission Hills but it is a goal we are targeting.

Will Mission Hills acquire more companies in order to expand?

I prefer acquisition rather than organic growth as it is the fastest way to expand.

Will you leave Mission Hills when it eventually becomes a publicly listed company?

We can talk about this in a few years' time. And I will be old enough to retire by then.

What are your plans for the future?

After retiring, I may spend more time reading, giving lectures at universities, or hosting more radio talk shows.