Lincoln Leong: the new man in the MTR driver's seat
Lincoln Leong is relishing the many challenges he faces as chief executive of the railway operator
In his first face-to-face media interview since taking office last month, MTR Corporation chief executive Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen is fond of using the word "challenge".
There are challenges, he says, in completing the cross-border high-speed railway project - already the costliest line on earth by distance - which legislator Michael Tien Puk-sun estimated on Monday would cost 30 per cent more than first budgeted. The price tag will be about HK$85 billion by the time it is ready in 2017.
There are challenges, he stresses, in carving out the tunnel and the iconic rooftop of the railway's terminus in West Kowloon, never mind the troubling questions of who and how to settle the ballooning bill.
There are challenges, he goes on, in easing the construction congestion of four continuing projects including the high-speed line in the face of a 20 per cent shortfall in workers, 2,000 posts, needed for the projects.
Even as he recites his challenges, the 54-year-old MTR veteran puts up a brave front. "But I am happy as a CEO," he says in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post. "I have many good colleagues, many of whom have worked here for more than 10 years."
Leong took up the post formally last month but he has been in the driver's seat since becoming acting CEO last August. That was when the career of his predecessor, Jay Walder, screeched to an unexpected halt in the middle of his two-year term.
Walder and former project director Chew Tai-chong were blamed in an MTR Corp internal report for "poor judgment" on the delay and cost overruns on the high-speed railway that will link Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Walder was also criticised for failing to inform the MTR Corp's board and the government in a timely manner.
"We don't do everything right," Leong says. "But we keep learning and improving."
Leong says he is "constantly learning" through frequent visits to construction sites, including the high-speed railway terminus in West Kowloon, the exchanges being built in Admiralty and Hung Hom, and the MTR station being constructed in Whampoa.
"These are the stations I go to more often, which are most challenging, too," he says.
His colleagues are no longer surprised to see him rolling up his sleeves. Since taking over, he has become known for showing up at between 2am and 4am - the only time the tracks can undergo daily maintenance - at the East Rail terminus in Hung Hom to check on the works.
"I learn a lot from going and talking to colleagues down there, to know more about the challenges they have. They have a very short window of time, normally between 2am and 4am, to carry out their work.
"It's always better to see with my own eyes than reading a report in the office."
Leong, with experience in finance, operations and management here and overseas, started out at the company as a backroom manager, joining in 2002 as finance director. He climbed the ranks to become deputy chief executive in 2012 before becoming acting CEO for about eight months.
Corporate governance activist David Webb, a former Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing director, says: "Whoever the CEO of the company is, he/she has a great challenge in balancing the interest of the government and the public over the interest of its minority shareholders."
While the jury is still out on Leong's new role, he has personally made a big leap forward in the use of Cantonese. He chooses to speak Cantonese as much as possible when handling the Hong Kong press instead of English, which he used for years.
During the hour-long interview with the Post, much of the conversation was conducted in accent-free Cantonese. And it is still "improving", he says. "I am surrounded by many Cantonese-speaking colleagues."
It is understood that Leong, who spent years abroad studying in the United Kingdom and Canada, stepped up his Cantonese tutorials last year when he was made acting chief executive to handle the troop of Cantonese-speaking journalists.
Leong is known for his hard-working habits and arrives in his Kowloon Bay office at about 7am after fetching a Starbucks coffee at Telford Garden shopping mall. His down-to-earth ways belie the fact that he hails from a prominent family.
His grandfather, Henry Leong - a Guangdong native - was a former top trader at British hong Jardines in the 1920s.
Lincoln Leong's wife, Kan Yu-san, is a former Morgan Stanley staffer and serves alongside Leong on the executive committee of the Society for the Protection of Children. She is the cousin of renowned graphic designer Kan Tai-keung.
"My wife did say she has seen less of me since I became CEO," Leong says. "But she is supportive." Their 14-year-old son moved to the United States last year to study and that has meant less daily attention required on his part.
Leong squeezes time to practise kung fu, a hobby he has sustained for the past four years. No doubt, being fighting fit will help him tackle all of those challenges.
April 15, 2014 - Delay of high-speed railway project is confirmed
July 16 - MTR Corporation releases its first report on the high-speed railway delay
August 15 - CEO Jay Walder steps down
December 28 - West Island Line opens
March 16, 2015 - New CEO Lincoln Leong takes office