Over the past 11 years, Larry Wong has been to hundreds of race meetings at Happy Valley and Sha Tin. He's going again on February 4. And for the first time, he plans to place a bet. Lawrence Wong Chi-kong, retiring chief executive of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, chuckles. 'Senior staff have urged me to open a telebet account so I can support the club and keep up gaming revenues,' he said. Under strict rules, none of the 24,000 permanent staff of the club is allowed to have a flutter on the horses or even on the outcome of a football game. When football betting was approved in 2003, there was much discussion within the club hierarchy about whether staff would be allowed to participate. Mr Wong had the deciding vote. No, he ruled. 'Imagine if I bet on a football pool roll-up and won HK$5 million,' he said. 'There would be demands for a public inquiry. And quite rightly.' As executive head of Hong Kong's wealthiest, proudest and most respected sporting organisation, the 67- year-old is well aware that the Hong Kong Jockey Club and its staff must be beyond reproach. There must never be the slightest hint of impropriety. Betting must not only be scrupulously fair, but must also be seen as honest by the tens of thousands of punters who place their bets each week at either of the tracks, at one of the 109 off-course betting centres or through their 1.5 million telebet accounts. Last year, that vast torrent of cash meant club turnover swelled to HK$99 billion. Of that, HK$31 billion came from football. The horse racing industry worldwide is having to face up to the fact that betting on horses is in decline, with the drop in revenue in countries such as Japan mirroring that in Hong Kong, down a third over a decade. Fewer people, especially young people, go racing. Those who follow the nags, both on the track and off-course, bet less. Under an agreement last year with government, the structure of how the club pays taxes and betting duty has been amended. From the current season, the club guarantees to pay government HK$8 billion a year in tax. In return, it has permission to make more attractive offers to big betters aimed at luring the high-rollers away from illegal bookmakers. That seems to be succeeding, Mr Wong said. But then, in a lifetime in top business management, the suave Jockey Club chief has chalked up an impressive list of achievements. When Mr Wong was headhunted to run the club 11 years ago he admitted cheerfully that he knew nothing at all about horses. These days, he has a little more equine expertise. In his early days in the job, Mr Wong went on a world trip to examine racing venues. He was accompanied by former director of racing Phillip Johnson. The trip formed the basis of his knowledge of horses and racing. 'But when it comes to horses, I'm still an outsider,' he said. Before Mr Wong's surprise recruitment to the job, the Jockey Club's two former chief executives had been British army generals. At the time he was the head of Ford Taiwan, which had a turnover of US$16 billion, and he boasted a well-established reputation as a corporate wizard. In 1994 he was named the island's businessman of the year. Then came the tap on the shoulder from Hong Kong. 'You're kidding,' Mr Wong told the headhunter. 'I'm in transportation.' The recruitment executive had a sense of humour. He pointed out that millions of Hongkongers every season went for a wild ride on the horses. When Mr Wong arrived at the club's headquarters in 1996, it was in many ways a homecoming. Born in Fujian, where his father was a civil servant in the Xiamen city government, he arrived in Hong Kong aged 10 in 1950. The family lived in Happy Valley. His playground was the turf in the middle of the course. Mr Wong got an engineering degree in Taiwan, then a master's in engineering and computers in the US. He took a three-year leave of absence from his job at Ford to complete a PhD, after which he returned, working at the company's automotive research division. What he found on taking up the reins at the Jockey Club in 1996 was an august institution that history had left with a dual role. As the premier sporting institution in Hong Kong, the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club (the name changed with the handover) was a private club with then 12,000 members. It was also a leading financial institution whose taxes made up an astonishing 11 per cent of Hong Kong's total government revenues. Its chief executive has a duty to provide facilities to members, to manage the horse racing industry for the benefit of owners and the public, and to run the entire business so the government makes money. Then there is the charity arm, which last year paid HK$1.03 billion to 106 worthy causes. The job also has social and civic dimensions. Many of the club's members believe that their membership gives them significant social status. And the club has to care for more than 1,300 horses and operate the incredibly complex race business, which involves running two courses and three plush clubhouse complexes. 'We throw Hong Kong's two biggest parties twice a week for 10 months a year,' Mr Wong said, pointing out that meetings at Sha Tin can draw more than 50,000 people. Keeping the punters happy is another major part of the job. At an institution once notorious for its stuffiness, Mr Wong has lightened the atmosphere. No longer is there an insistence on men wearing jackets and ties or tailored safari suits in club restaurants. He has also overseen improved food and services for the average punter in the public stands. 'The infrastructure has not changed much,' he said. 'The mindset has.' He has changed the perception among his staff and the public towards race-goers. They were not merely horse racing fans, he insisted, but customers. And just because the club held a solid monopoly on horse racing did not mean it could complacently assume it would enjoy a rosy financial future. 'We had to redefine our market,' he said. 'I held a meeting with the club's 300 top managers. I told them we had to change our focus, that I couldn't guarantee them a job, nor could the club, nor could government. The only people who could guarantee their jobs were the customers.' This not only meant looking after members, but also the wider public upon whose continued patronage the club depended for its survival. Mr Wong stressed that the 14,000 members (who now pay HK$250,000 to join and HK$1,300 in monthly fees) do not dip into betting income. 'The club's [facilities] have to pay for themselves,' he said. 'They are private clubs and must stand alone. There is no subsidy from racing revenues.' Retirement will not mean idleness for the energetic manager. He plans to travel for a few months, then to return to Hong Kong, where he and his wife, Agnes, have decided to make their home. He wants to take up music, something he loves but for which he has never found sufficient time. 'I don't have a lot of talent,' he admitted. 'I'm trying to pick up the piano. When I was a boy I tried a lot of instruments. I wanted to play the saxophone but when I was growing up there was not a lot of money for instruments, so I played the harmonica. It was all I could afford.' Another love is reading. 'Reading is my greatest joy,' he said. 'It's a constant pleasure to learn new things. That's one of the wonders of the internet, how you can find out anything.' But you won't find many thrillers on Mr Wong's bedside table. His idea of a good read is a hefty tome on management, particularly leadership. To Mr Wong, leadership is the key not only to successful management but almost to life itself. It's a subject on which he can speak fluidly and with barely contained enthusiasm. 'A lot of people have different ideas about leadership,' he said. Mr Wong's own notions of how to lead have been honed over a lifetime of running companies and the club. 'One person cannot know everything,' he said. 'So you find the best possible person to run an operation, then get the hell out of their way. As a leader, you are there to give guidance and all the support you can. You're rather like a combination of sporting coach and big brother.' Mr Wong leaves the Jockey Club's top job with some treasured memories. Perhaps his fondest is of the turn of the millennium. Looking back today, the fear of a global computer meltdown as the internal clocks in all manner of machines clicked over on midnight on December 31, 1999, seems ridiculous. But at the time it was a terrifying prospect that had the world holding its breath. So a good 12 months before the start of 2000, when Mr Wong suggested holding the first race meeting of the millennium and staging a race at midnight, there was much opposition. He talked colleagues into the idea and the horses raced at midnight. 'I'm glad we did it,' he said. 'It was a huge confidence boost for the club and Hong Kong. Our IT boys were the unsung heroes.' He will remain chairman of the Sir Edward Youde Memorial Fund Council and hopes to expand his interest in training young people in management. And it is hardly surprising that Mr Wong, who is considered by some to be a guru of management, is being sought by other companies, or that a few commercial directorships are already beckoning. In addition to all Mr Wong's management credentials, his education in computers at the dawn of the IT era has helped him enormously in guiding the top professionals he has recruited to fine-tune the computer power that runs the club's betting systems. He gives a taut grin, and asks: 'Can you imagine the uproar if our IT system went down for 30 seconds in the middle of a meeting?' It's not a scenario he finds appealing. It has never happened, of course. And he is betting it never will.