Recognising outstanding achievement
ESF Leaders: Carlson Tong
[Sponsored article] After retiring from his role as Asia Pacific chairman for KPMG, one of the world’s largest auditing firms, Carlson Tong happily embraced his new position as ESF chairman in 2011.
With the support of his wife and children, two of which had graduated from ESF schools before going overseas for study, he decided that it was time to give back to the Foundation when it was at the centre of media attention amidst its revamp in school governance, and the pending end to the government subvention which was 12 per cent of ESF’s total operating income.
“It was a challenging but hugely satisfying role,” says Carlson. “It was definitely tough at times, but I was always motivated by the belief that we were doing something very important for ESF.”
With his professional background, Carlson was no stranger to Board meetings. Still, in all his years as an auditing professional he had never worked with a Board as large as that of ESF, which boasts 26 members including parent representatives, teacher representatives, school principals and independent council members.
Following through on the work on corporate governance started by his predecessor, Professor Felice Lieh-Mak, Carlson’s job was to implement changes on the Board to ensure transparency and accountability. The most challenging part of all, he says, was ensuring that each of the council members understood that they had been appointed on an “ad personam”, or individual, basis—and that they had not been appointed to represent a particular stakeholder group.
It was essential that each of the Board members look beyond their personal interests, and even the interests of the particular group they represent, and concentrate on making the best decision for ESF as a whole. Only then could meaningful, progressive conversations take place regarding sensitive issues such as school fees and teaching staff pay scales.
“There were some conflicts at the beginning when the Board members had yet to make that mental switch,” explains Carlson. “I still remember that our second Board meeting started at 5:30 pm, and did not finish until 11 pm. There was a lot of work to be done to overcome the conflicts of interest between various stakeholder groups, but the end result was worth it.”
Carlson immediately set up a task force and produced a Board manual to explain the responsibilities and rights of Board members according to the best corporate governance practices of organisations worldwide.
Another memorable milestone was reaching an agreement with the government with regard to the timetable of phasing out subvention for the Foundation. After two years of lobbying with lawmakers, government officials, community leaders and the media, it was clear the government would not change its stance. Carlson then worked out a plan where the government would continue the subvention until the intake of the primary one students in 2016. This fully protected the interests of all those students who were already studying in ESF schools until they eventually graduate from the Foundation.
“The government’s stance was clear: no international school in the city is to receive any government subvention,” he says. “However, I believe ESF schools are, contrary to public perception, local schools. In fact, close to 20 per cent of graduates stay in Hong Kong to study. We are not exclusive to the rich either; many parents come from the middle or working class.”
Carlson also feels strongly about creating a sense of belonging across all of the ESF schools. He initiated an ESF-wide annual award where he honours students’ various achievements in academics, sports, arts, community service and more. ESF even created the Carlson Tong Award in honour of his efforts to bring solidarity among schools after he finished his four-year tenure as the chairman.
“By doing this, we ensure that every ESF school is conscious of the common goals and standards set under the umbrella of the Foundation,” he says. “We have been, and always will be, a firm believer in the whole-person development of our students. This is something we are proud of.”