Commission's Laura Cha a woman for all seasons

AUTHORITATIVE, capable and professional are all words which have been used by Laura Cha's superiors and peers to describe this diminutive executive director of the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC).

Added to her abilities is the distinction of being both the first non-expatriate and the first woman to take charge of the SFC's corporate finance division which she did early this year.

Mrs Cha's appointment last July was challenged by some on the grounds that she had a conflict of interests. This fear of conflicting loyalties probably stems from her impeccable connections.

Her father-in-law is Cha Chi-ming, the chairman of three listed companies: China Dyeing Works International, Hong Kong Resorts International and Mingly Corp.

He is also a member of the working committee for the Special Administrative Region Preparatory Committee and was on the Basic Law Drafting Committee.

Mrs Cha's husband Victor, is the managing director of China Dyeing Works and a director of Hong Kong Resorts International.

Mrs Cha firmly rejects rumblings that her strong family connections to listed companies with significant China connections could lead to a conflict of interests.

'It is very obvious that I alone could not control the SFC which is a policy-making body, there are many people in our organisation so that any abuse would be extremely difficult,' she said.

'In fact, when I joined them, my background was very clearly gone through by the authorities.' In business circles, Mrs Cha seems to have no shortage of admirers. Merchant bankers regard her as very professional and capable and say she has an image of authority which stops short of being bureaucratic.

'She has given me a genuine authoritative impression,' said a local merchant banker. 'She convinces me with her competence.' Her self-assurance and business know-how probably come from her professional training in as a lawyer.

She practised as a commercial solicitor for eight years, first in San Francisco with Pillsbury Madison & Sutro before moving to Coudert Brothers' Hong Kong.

She joined the SFC in January 1991 as assistant director and became senior director in March. But she was earmarked as Ermanno Pascutto's successor when her former boss left after five years in his post.

'Laura is an outstanding and a logical person,' Mr Pascutto said before his departure earlier this year. 'She has the perfect background for this kind of position with American legal training, a corporate background and significant knowledge of the local market and China.' Given her background, she is particularly interested in talking about corporate finance issues from a legal point of view.

'Unlike the US, our legal system has not developed to provide a strong enforcement power to the regulatory bodies,' she said of the local regulatory framework.

'Maybe eventually, the local securities industry will be enforcement-oriented but not now,' she said.

With Hong Kong's prevailing laissez-faire attitudes, she reminded investors they had a greater responsibility to read carefully about the companies they intend to invest in.

'Those companies may be approved by the authorities, but it doesn't mean that the authorities guarantee that they will make money,' she said.

Newly-listed companies frequently have no idea what's needed, so they must hire professionals to assist them, she added.

'I remember the days when I was a lawyer, we kept on asking questions and sometimes the director just did not know,' she said.

Mrs Cha, who is largely responsible for monitoring Hong Kong's merchant banks has a direct and simple answer to inquiries about them.

'Generally the standard of Hong Kong merchant banks is good'.

But she would like to see more self-regulation and suggested local merchant banks should link up to establish standard codes of practice.