Anthony Nightingale has been having a busy year. In February, Mr Nightingale, who sits on the board at Jardine Matheson, the original Hong Kong hong, climbed the 6,958-metre Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. In April, he was elected chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the city's oldest business group. The ability to conquer mountains is probably an important qualification for the newest leader of Hong Kong's business community. As he steps into the top chamber post, Mr Nightingale is fully aware of the two mountains the city's economy needs to tackle - atypical pneumonia and the mounting deficit. 'The major problem facing Hong Kong is this Sars epidemic. But before that, and still something we need to remember, is we've got the fiscal position of Hong Kong, the large deficit,' said Mr Nightingale. 'If you were to ask me what I see as the major problems facing Hong Kong ... those would be the two issues on which the chamber is focused,' he said. As chairman of the chamber, Mr Nightingale heads the business group with the loudest voice in Hong Kong. The chamber, founded in 1861, represents about 4,000 businesses ranging from foreign multinationals to small and medium enterprises and even sole proprietorships. Mr Nightingale succeeds Christopher Cheng, chairman of the Wing Tai Corporation. Other corporate names represented on the chamber's general committee include HSBC, Swire Pacific, accounting firm Ernst & Young and investment bank Morgan Stanley, as well as politicians and other tycoons. As such, the chamber's leadership, made up of the general committee and the chairman's committee, usually reads like a who's who of Hong Kong business. The chamber has also traditionally had a seat on the Legislative Council. Mr Nightingale's election represents a return by Jardine Matheson to the forefront of the business and political scene in Hong Kong. The history and fortunes of Jardine have tracked that of the former colony but it has had a stormier relationship with the city's new political masters going back more than a century and a half, when the company was involved in importing opium. More recently, the company tried to distance itself from Hong Kong before the handover. In 1984, chairman Simon Keswick moved Jardine's legal domicile to Bermuda and its stock market listings to London and Singapore, citing Hong Kong's uncertain future and the board's lack of confidence in its legal system. In 1993, the company further provoked the mainland when Martin Barrow, a Jardine executive and legislative councillor, voted for then governor Chris Patten's constitutional reforms, which the central government did not approve. That same year, Mr Barrow was ousted from the chamber's general committee in a move many saw as punishment by pro-China businessmen, ending Jardine's long-running representation at the chamber. It was three years before a Jardine man, this time Mr Nightingale, made it back on to the committee. And it is also the first time in four years that the Hong Kong General Chamber, which has traditionally been known as the western business chamber, has had a non-Chinese chairman. It was not until the 1980s that the chamber had its first Chinese chairman, Jack Tang, an industrialist from Shanghai. Former Swire chairman Peter Sutch, the previous non-Chinese chairman, held the job from 1998 to 1999. Subsequently, C.C. Tung and Christopher Cheng held the chairman's job for two years each. All these developments would suggest the business community's attitudes have been shifting to a more China-friendly attitude in the past decade, especially among foreign-owned businesses. But Mr Nightingale does not agree with that assessment. 'I don't believe there has been any significant change in the way business is conducted since 1997,' he said. 'Rather, the Asian financial crisis, the rapid growth of China and now Sars have had the biggest impact. Hong Kong remains an international city which welcomes firms from all countries,' he said, adding that three-quarters of the chamber's membership consists of local companies, with foreign corporations adding another 20 per cent and mainland firms making up the remaining 5 per cent. And have foreign businesses been losing out to mainland-backed firms since the handover? The chairman believes not. 'Mainland companies in Hong Kong operate on the same level playing field as everyone else,' he said. Neither does taking up the job of chairman mean anything special for Jardine, one of the founding members of the chamber, he said. The chairman's job probably seemed easy enough until the Sars outbreak. Before that, it looked as though the government's bulging budget deficit, which swelled to $61.7 billion in the 2002-03 financial year, would be the chamber's main focus. Not any more. Now Sars has wiped out major parts of the economy and the chamber's members are hurting. At the same time, he is sure that these latest hardships will pass and Hong Kong will thrive again. 'Unless we're very unlucky and somehow it becomes a much bigger problem again, Sars will die down, it will be contained,' he said. 'And then we still have the problem of the deficit to manage. We think the deficit's not an easy problem but there are solutions to it,' he said in an interview held in the 48th floor boardroom of Jardine House, Central. Meanwhile, the chamber has taken suggestions from its members and come up with a set of proposals on how the government could help revive business and the economy. Short-term suggestions include waiving provisional tax payments, extending concessions on water and sewage charges and rates, freezing government fees and charges, and temporarily freezing or reducing commercial rents in Housing Authority buildings. It presented the proposals to Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung at a special meeting in mid-April. About 10 days later the government presented a relief package worth about $11.8 billion that incorporated many of the proposals. Mr Nightingale said the chamber was pleased with the measures, although it 'would like to have seen a bit more help given to airlines and franchise operators'. Equally important was the need for crisis management and image control, Mr Nightingale said. He said the Sars outbreak had tainted Hong Kong's image, with business people and tourists afraid to come to shop, sightsee and make deals, and they will probably stay away even after the outbreak is over. That will take plenty of work to fix, Mr Nightingale said, adding that Hong Kong needed to be relaunched as a business and tourism centre. 'I listen to the international TV stations, read the international press as well as the local press. It's noticeable how often the negative side is focused on ... the misunderstandings and misconceptions internationally are quite considerable,' he said. 'What's needed is more of an effort on a world basis to get across the good things Hong Kong has done.' The chamber has played its own part in that regard, sending letters to about 300 other chambers of commerce around the world 'to give them the facts as we see it of Sars and clearly to put Hong Kong's efforts to overcome that and the real situation of Hong Kong in a more positive light'. For the longer term, the chamber has also pushed for broader projects to help improve the image of Hong Kong. Cleaning up the city's air and water should be a priority, as should an urban renewal programme aimed at renovating old apartment and office buildings. The government should also work to develop Hong Kong into a centre for biotechnology and healthcare, and set up an infectious disease research centre similar to the world renowned Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Clearly, Anthony Nightingale has his work cut out for him. And that is on top of his day job. A career Jardine man, Mr Nightingale joined the company in Hong Kong in 1969 at the age of 22 after graduating from Cambridge University with a bachelor of honours degree in classics. Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1947, Mr Nightingale has spent almost 34 years with Jardine, rising through the ranks to become chairman of several subsidiary companies. He also sits on the board of a number of other related businesses. He has lived in Hong Kong for 19 years with stints in between in Japan and Saudi Arabia. But if he is proud of his achievements as an executive, he does not show it, instead peppering talk of his career with the phrase 'I've been quite lucky'. Outside the office, Mr Nightingale says mountain climbing, skiing and tennis are his favourite pursuits. Mr Nightingale is enthusiastic about his climbing. 'Probably the greatest satisfaction has come from some of my climbing expeditions,' he says as he gazes through one of Jardine House's characteristic round windows. Perhaps the office view of Victoria Peak, shrouded on this day by clouds, reminded him of his expeditions. As the interview draws to a close, Mr Nightingale again emphasises the need for the government to tackle the deficit. The chamber's position is that the administration needs to cut back on spending, widen the tax base and allow more public projects to be financed by the private sector. 'I'd say good use of those three measures can balance the books,' he said. 'Hong Kong's had some pretty difficult times in the past and it's overcome those. I see every reason why it should be successful in overcoming the issues it faces now.'