'Taipan' Cheng retires from HSBC's heights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am


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When Vincent Cheng Hoi-chuen got into a lift on his first day at Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp in 1978, a colleague politely asked him to get out - he was in the 'taipan' lift, for the chairman's exclusive use.

Little did he know then that he had taken the right lift, only 27 years too early. Cheng became the first Chinese taipan of the bank in 2005. Though the bank had dispensed with the chairman's lift by then, Cheng was the first local to move into 'Taipan House' at 19 Middle Gap Road, where he lived until last year.

Cheng, 63, now an executive director of HSBC Holdings, will call it a day on Thursday, after 33 years at the bank. As the city's most well known and respected local banker, he was a home-grown success story. As a boy, his family had to share housing with eight families, days which Cheng remembers as 'happy and fun' because 'it was like camping every day'.

The same positive approach helped him overcome a polio-induced disability at the age of six and drove him to fight for the rights of the underprivileged during university. While doing his master's at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, he was so poor that he could not afford a proper meal until he started washing dishes at a restaurant.

Returning to Hong Kong in 1978, he had two job offers right away - one, as a bond trader and the other, as an economist at HSBC. His girlfriend, now his wife, urged him to take the HSBC job for the low mortgage rate the bank staff then enjoyed.

'I loved working at the bank. When I first started, there were separate towels with each of the officers' names on them in the washroom. I felt so privileged!'

Cheng went on to become the chief economist in 1986 and vice-chairman and chief executive of Hang Seng Bank from 1998 until his appointment as the first Chinese chairman of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp - the group's Asia-Pacific arm - in 2005. He was made the group's executive director in 2008.

Once mired in poverty, Cheng had a salary of US$2.41 million last year and owns 674,565 shares in HSBC, which he plans to keep for the long term. 'I believe in the strategy of [chief executive Stuart] Gulliver so I'm a long-term HSBC investor.'

On his time at the bank, he said he learned a lot from former chairman William Purves, who was 'very disciplined, very demanding but also a very fair boss'. 'When I first joined the bank, Mr Purves once bumped into me in the corridor and apologised profusely even though he was the chairman and I, a very junior staff member,' he said.

Cheng says he took the same approach to staff and did not lay off people, even at the height of the Sars crisis in 2003.

A keen karaoke singer, he has sung to raise funds for the community chest and played table tennis with underprivileged children to help charities working with them.

'After retirement, I would like to do more community work,' he said. 'There are many books I want to read and many movies I would love to watch. And of course, there'll be more time for karaoke.'