Chairwoman Sabrina Chao steers Wah Kwong Maritime past rocky shoals

Wah Kwong Maritime chairwoman Sabrina Chao enjoyed a profitable 2013, despite volatile shipping rates which hit many of her rivals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 11:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 4:37am

Sabrina Chao Sih-ming's life hasn't been plain sailing since she took control of 61-year-old Wah Kwong Maritime Transport a year ago.

It has been a year in which the volatile market for dry bulk shipping mauled many of the firm's rivals.

The daughter of former film star Lily Chao emerged from her office wearing little make-up, her hair hanging over her eyes, and sporting a turtleneck jacket, looking a little as if she had spent the night poring over documents before a key business meeting.

Wah Kwong's chairwoman often stands out amid a gaggle of shipping tycoons and has got used to being the only woman in the room.

"Actually I find myself quite used to being around men, because when I was a teenager, I studied for my A-levels in a boys' boarding school," she told the South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong could be a maritime hub positioned right between London and Oslo

After graduating from Imperial College London, she dived into the testosterone-dominated financial industry.

Still, she was apprehensive when she was asked to lead Wah Kwong in place of her father, George Chao, who suffered a second stroke in 2010.

As the eldest daughter, Chao had joined the company in 2002 and was focused on the financial side of the business before being appointed vice-chairman in 2007.

She still calls herself a "learner" in an industry infamous for its volatility as companies grapple with evolving environmental regulations, uncertain business conditions and the introduction of complex financial tools for shipowners.

Wah Kwong relied on an anticyclical strategy when the Baltic Dry Index - used by shipping firms to determine the prices of their cargoes - gyrated wildly last year, ranging from a low of 735 points to a high of 2,337 points towards the end of the year.

The company ordered 12 dry bulk vessels and, when freight rates recovered late in the year, sold two very large crude vessels in November.

"You have to have guts when the market is low," Chao said in her 27th-floor office in Wan Chai decorated with Chinese antiques and pictures of her father and her grandfather, Chao Tsong-yea.

Wah Kwong's strategy worked, as the firm posted a profit last year, extending a winning streak dating back to 2008, even though 2013 was the worst year since the 1980s in terms of freight rate levels.

Volatile conditions caused her to worry at times that clients could break their contracts and then take advantage of lower spot rates.

But thanks to the prudent approach to client selection passed on from the previous two generations of leaders, Wah Kwong did not get burned last year.

Reluctant to take the credit for the "buy low-sell high" financial strategy, Chao attributed it to her colleagues, especially Wah Kwong's chief executive, Tim Huxley, who runs the daily operations and watches out for the bottom line.

Wah Kwong owns a fleet of 27 ships, including dry bulk vessels, tankers and liquefied petroleum gas carriers. It plans to increase the size of the fleet to 40 by 2016.

Chao believes oversupply of vessels in the industry will ease slightly in the second half of this year and continue to narrow until an equilibrium is reached in about two years.

She wants to diversify the business into ship management in the next three to five years. The firm has set up a training school in Qingdao, Shandong province, to train up to 100 crews per year.

As a board member of the Maritime Industry Council, Chao is keen for the city to remain an international maritime centre.

"Hong Kong could be a maritime hub positioned right between London and Oslo," Chao said.

Hong Kong is an international financial centre as well as a base for shipowners, so it can be a shipping finance hub like London, she said.

Chao believes Hong Kong can compete with an ascendant Singapore, especially after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying vowed to set up an interdepartmental bureau to promote the maritime business.

While she is willing to assist if the government invites her, she said others in the industry can help as well.

"Ten years' experience in shipping is nothing. I know people who are more senior than me who are willing to join the government," she said.