Moving Forward

Effort needed to tackle labour shortage in artisanal, technical and trades-related professions, says Towngas director

The South China Morning Post posted five key questions to interviewees in the Moving Forward series, seeking their insight on the city’s future. Here are the views of Hong Kong and China Gas (Towngas) Managing Director Alfred Chan Wing-kin

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 12:20pm

Do you think Hong Kong is still an ideal place to do business?

Hong Kong is still a blessed city for business. Despite a slowdown, the mainland’s economic growth is still at 6.5 per cent, which cannot be found in many places. China will still be a relatively dynamic place economically in the next decade. Hong Kong people need to adjust their mentality to the “new normal” when tapping into the mainland’s resources and opportunities. Although political infighting has increased, I don’t think it has damaged the fundamentals of the business environment. Hong Kong is still a safe place with low crime and low unemployment. Hong Kong still has rule of law, low corruption, good corporate governance and sound protection of intellectual property. Hong Kong is still a great stepping stone for mainland investors to purchase properties, assets and businesses.

How is your company coping with the ­economic downturn in Hong Kong and the mainland?

We faced a marked slowdown in gas demand on the mainland last year due to the economic slowdown and an erosion of gas’ competitiveness from the sharp drop in international oil prices and lagging cuts in regulated gas prices.

But after a 25 per cent price cut in November, our gas sales growth has rebounded to 12 per cent in the first quarter from 2 per cent last year. To boost sales, we are developing new markets arising from the expansion of China’s middle class, such as winter home heating in eastern China and gas-powered clothes drying in southwestern and eastern China.

An average family that adopts gas heating uses 10 times the gas volume of those who only use gas for cooking and bathing in the winter.

Besides, to cut costs, we have been automating the production of our gas pipes fittings. To save pipe inspection and maintenance costs, Towngas has been using drones at high-rises to check for gas pipe wear, rusting and gas leakage, besides deploying self-read smart gas meters to cut labour hours on the mainland. These initiatives require innovative thinking and fastidious implementation.

What do you think the government should do to help your businesses to do better?

The government can build more homes to increase supply and address high housing costs, and build more sports facilities for workers to pursue a healthier lifestyle. It can also do more to encourage innovation in Hong Kong and its commercialisation in the mainland and abroad.

The government should also guide young people who may not fit into the university academic environment to pursue artisanal, technical and practical professions where talent shortages abound.

What is your advice to young people to achieve a successful career?

There has been much discontent among Hong Kong’s youth and students in recent years. Many hope they can buy their own homes soon after graduation, but find housing unaffordable. I didn’t have such dreams when I was young. Their aspirations are understandable, but they need to work very hard at it.

Becoming a graduate trainee is one way to enter the fast track. Towngas hires around 10 graduate trainees from diverse fields who have good academic achievements, an enthusiastic service aptitude and team spirit.

They rotate around different departments for 18 months to get to know operations from road digging and gas pipe laying to customer service, and to establish their networks of people. Then they have six months to complete a project on the mainland where most of our new businesses are located.

If you had one sentence to say how Hong Kong could move forward, what would it be?

Hong Kong needs more positive energy to move forward, and a centripetal force to induce people to work towards a common goal. Without unity, it would be difficult for an organisation or society to move forward.