Hong Kong Faces

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 January, 2009, 12:00am

The first woman in a private company to be named director of the year got to where she is through hard work and perseverance. But Lau Ka-shi is more than just a tough businesswoman. The arts lover is also a dutiful daughter and an activist for women's rights

Businesswoman Lau Ka-shi made her mark in a male-dominated profession with hard work, perseverance and an unflagging optimism that is typical of her.

Ms Lau is the managing director and chief executive of Bank Consortium Trust, a company that manages retirement funds. Last November, she became the first female executive director of a private company to be named director of the year by the Hong Kong Institute of Directors.

That is no mean achievement, given that only one in 10 board directors in Hong Kong is a woman.

But Ms Lau, who had worked as a banker and regulator and is an activist for women's rights, has always been an overachiever. Her nickname, given by colleagues, is '24 Hours'. 'If you worked to 120 per cent of your capability while people recognised only 90 per cent of it, it's still a recognition,' she said.

She was born in Hong Kong to a Chiu Chow family with caring and strict parents. 'My dad was very concerned about my grades. Every time the school gave out students' reports, he would get off work earlier.' Getting a score of A- was not good enough, as her parents believed she could get an A. 'My mum used to say I wouldn't get a present even if I got an A, as it was my responsibility,' she recalled.

Her businessman father later moved the family to Bangkok, where Ms Lau attended high school, and then to the United States, where she was the happiest.

She liked Americans' straightforwardness and made many friends there. She fitted in so well that her father warned her not to turn into a 'banana' - yellow on the outside, but white inside.

Business was not her first love. She graduated with a bachelor of science, and had intended to study music and child psychology. But her father objected, calling her choices impractical. The dutiful daughter promptly enrolled herself in the masters in business administration programme at Cornell University.

'He loved me so much, I needed to make him happy. I don't regret it,' she said of her choice. 'A musician needs an audience. Let me be the audience.'

She worked in New York for 10 years and, during that time, enjoyed a colourful cultural life. She watched Broadway shows and chilled out at jazz concerts and art galleries.

New York was the best training ground for a financial career, she said. She started as a management trainee at American Express and worked on risk management.

'Twenty years back, I was the only girl or Asian in my training class,' she said. She had to perform better than others to get the same recognition, and got promoted two years later than her peers. Some days were so bad she cried.

She knew she could always go home to a welcoming family, but she insisted on staying until she made her mark. 'I had to walk out of the bank with a smile on my face.'

Opportunities went to those who were hard-working, she said. 'Young people should be a 'sponge' and not be afraid they will be taken advantage of.'

Ms Lau returned to Hong Kong in the 1980s when her late father's health started failing, again choosing family before work. Her father was still based in Bangkok, and she returned to Asia to be nearer him.

She joined Citibank here, and later completed stints with the Securities and Futures Commission, ABN Amro and the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation. Every time her father's illness took a turn for the worse, she would quit her job in Hong Kong so she could tend to him in Thailand. 'That made me treasure my family even more,' she said.

She was grateful her parents did not press her to be a housewife.

Her success has inspired her to do more for other women. Ms Lau, a member of the Women's Commission, lobbied the government to stop domestic violence and sexual violence, and is a strong advocate of the five-day work week.