Ethics come first for Shih Wing-ching

Giving children a solid foundation in life means ethics must come first, Shih Wing-ching tells Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 6:52pm

Apart from two grand works of Chinese art, there's nothing in the modest office in Central's New World Tower to suggest its occupant has a business empire employing 30,000 people in Hong Kong and the mainland. Furthermore, Shih Wing-ching, the co-founder of Centaline Property Agency, glows with pride talking about the unassuming ways of his three children.

"My eldest daughter Janet, 26, and son Victor, 24, take the MTR to work every day. Like myself, all the children think food that has fallen on the floor is still edible if you wash it a little. When Janet started work, there was a new shampoo she wanted but couldn't afford. She only bought it after her probation ended, and she got a salary increase," Shing says.

Instead of living off her parents' money, Janet lives within her means, he says. She insists on paying her mother back if she buys her clothes.

"The monthly salary of her first jobs was just over HK$10,000. After dining out with colleagues at the beginning of the month, she had to scrimp and eat lunchboxes at the end of the month," he says.

His children's frugality and insistence on fending for themselves are hardly surprising. Shih, 63, spurns abalone in favour of beef brisket noodles and always doggy-bags leftovers. A self-made man, who contributed HK$5,000 to set up Centaline in 1978 with a friend, Shih told his children that people should rely on no one but themselves.

"Glory comes only from self-accomplishment. Reliance on family deprives one of the chance for hard work and self-discovery, leading to an unfulfilled life," he says.

Shih adopts a freewheeling approach to parenting, mirroring his famed management style of governing by "doing nothing" - something he learned from Chinese sage Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

"My management style at Centaline is like that of ancient emperors in China, who divided the empire into duchies and let the dukes rule the roost," he says. "I call it a jungle-style development model, where each tree is independent. This contrasts with the big tree-style development model. The trunk supporting the tree will buckle as the tree gets bigger and heavier."

His liberal approach is at odds with the discipline espoused by his wife, a teacher. "I contradict her all the time regarding our children's upbringing. She thinks that children need to study before exams. I think that it's OK, or even better, to study after exams. Those who study after exams will be smarter."

Shih sent his son Victor to study in Britain when he was in Form Four. Before he left, relations between him and his mother were tense because she forbade him from playing video games. "She got testy easily and scolded him all the time. I told her to take it easy and let him play for as long as he wanted. People are capable of introspection and won't play video games for the rest of their lives. The more you forbid them from playing, the bigger the urge to play."

Shih says children should be allowed to make their own decisions and take charge of their own lives. "The education theories my wife learned at teaching college held that parents should be united in their child-rearing so that children won't be at a loss over whom to follow. In my view, making them follow one set of views is no different from brainwashing.

"The world we live in is filled with dissenting voices. By exposing them to different views early on and making them decide for themselves which one to adopt, they will know how to confront contradictions in society when they grow up."

Shih's unconventional views often surprise his children at weekly family meetings, which he thinks are necessary for a good relationship. "I introduced my favourite philosophy books to them at the meetings. But my wife said they were too boring, and we decided the kids should come up with a topic to talk about.

"Once, Janet talked about the big demerit she got from school for leaking test questions to a friend in another class. We discussed whether she had done anything wrong. I told her knowledge should be exchanged among people. It's just that she had broken school rules and had to bear the consequences."

Born in 1949 in Shanghai, Shih came to Hong Kong with his family at the age of three. He started working in a factory canteen after school when he was just eight years old, to supplement the meagre family income. A less-than-stellar student who left school after Form Five, he does not place as much emphasis on academic results as his wife.

"Although my marks were not good at school, I remember more things learned from school than my wife, who's forgotten all her maths and physics," he says. "I urge my children to be the proverbial tortoise that crawls slowly towards the goal instead of the speedy rabbit that loses its direction midway. My classmates' marks were better than mine at school. But they veered off track and I, by crawling slowly, persisted."

Despite the Shihs' divergent views on parenting, their children seem to have found their paths. Janet graduated from Cambridge University with an honours degree in economics and is now a manager at Centaline, researching the mainland's secondary property market. Victor has an economics degree from Warwick University in Britain, and a master's from the London School of Economics.

He works as a project assistant with a property developer. Youngest daughter Vivian, 18, is at boarding school in Britain.

Rather than being forced to follow in his footsteps, Shih says, his children joined the property industry of their own accord. After graduating, Janet worked as an intern for a British consultant. The firm then took her on as a permanent employee to work on an underground railway project in Changchun, Jilin province.

"She later worked for a property company and ran into some of our colleagues, who asked her to come and work for us. I told her she was not qualified to take my reins as my experience was accumulated over three decades. If she, as a rookie, managed such a big juggernaut with more than 30,000 employees in over 30 mainland cities, there would be only two possible outcomes. She would either pretend to manage but not do the real work, or she would make a hash of things and drag the company down."

A second-generation family member working for the family firm often sets tongues wagging, but Shih brushes off suggestions of nepotism. "I can't prevent others forming the view [that Janet got her job through him]. But she should discuss work with her seniors. She will ask me for my view on business matters, but not seek my approval for everything. She has to work her way up. I don't want my children to inherit my business."

Shih relinquished the stock he held in the free tabloid AM730, and Centaline, worth billions of dollars, to set up a charitable foundation under his name on his 60th birthday. Although he is still on Centaline's board, he has resigned from the posts of chairman and chief executive.

While they have voting power on who serves on the board, Shih says his children cannot touch the foundation's funds. "The profits generated by the foundation must be used for charity. There's no point in my children fighting over the spoils because no one can pocket them anyway," he explains.

He hopes his philanthropic leanings will rub off on his children. "There's a limit to how much food you can eat and how much money you can spend. Having too much money will make you lose the motivation for work. When you have fulfilled all your financial needs, you have to show your worth by doing good deeds that benefit others. Money should be used where it is most useful."