After 32 years in the property industry, Shih Wing-ching yesterday retired as the chairman of Centaline Group, the largest property agency in Hong Kong. The city's best known and most vocal property expert, Shih, 61, is also recognised for his wide-ranging interests and philanthropy. He writes a daily column in the free newspaper he founded, covering real estate, business and politics, which he says he will continue. Once a Marxist, he remains friends with the controversial politician 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung and is a strong advocate of corporate social responsibility. He once even held a seminar on sex. Many in the industry see Shih's retirement as a loss for the city's property industry. 'The outspoken attitude of Shih Wing-ching helped to raise the social status of property agents in the past few years,' said Henderson Sunlight Asset Management chairman Tony Tse Wai-chuen. He said one of Shih's major contributions was pushing agents towards a corporate standard. Shih's firm also set up a database with market and transaction data for buyers. Shih formed Centaline Property Agency in 1978 with a staff of four. It now has 21,700 employees. 'I have changed the practices of the real estate agency and advocated the improvement of market transparency,' said Shih. 'I'm proud to say the transparency of Hong Kong's property market is higher than in other cities.' Most Chinese companies are inherited by the children of the major shareholder, but Shih donated his stake in Centaline Group to the charity fund he runs in March 2008. The foundation runs poverty alleviation programmes in mainland rural areas and disaster relief projects. His portion of the profit generated by the group will be transferred directly to the fund. His shares in AM730, a free newspaper he founded, will also be donated this year. Shih postponed his plan to retire two years ago when the global financial crisis erupted in 2008. Centaline and listed Midland Holdings are the two largest property agencies in Hong Kong. 'The monthly turnover of Centaline Property Agency surpassed that of Midland in 2009,' said Shih. 'We will strengthen our Hong Kong agency business this year and plan to widen the gap.' Commission income of the group soared 69 per cent to more than HK$7.5 billion last year and it generated a profit of HK$1.2 billion. With the strong profit growth and 'saturation' of the agency business in Hong Kong, Shih said yesterday he had decided to step down from the Hong Kong operation. He will continue to be involved in the mainland business in the short term and will focus on his charity after that. Shih expects Hong Kong property prices to surge 20 per cent in the first half on the influx of liquidity and rise in small unit prices, but said prices would drop in the second half if the economy improved as government support measures dwindled. Former Centaline vice-chairman Sherman Lai Ming-kai was named chief executive of Centaline Group and head of the Hong Kong and mainland agencies.