EVERYONE in Hong Kong knows about Li Ka-shing's daily golf game, his 'Superman' nickname, his youngest son Richard's flashy corporate braces and his pretty girlfriends. Larry Yung Chi-kin's equine interests are a matter of record. The territory is still waiting for Gordon Wu Ying-sheung to fulfil his pledge to take a plunge in Victoria Harbour, for Dickson Poon to buy a second upmarket British store and for Michael Kadoorie to buy another fleet of Rolls-Royces for The Peninsula - but just who is Peter Woo Kwong-ching? Yes, he is chairman of the Wheelock Group with its collective asset value of more than US$12 billion (HK$92.6 billion), his membership of boards and committees as diverse as the Hospital Authority, Hong Kong Polytechnic, the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum and his position as an adviser to Sichuan Provincial People's Government. Yet none of this really tells us who Woo is. That we know so little is not because he is afraid of publicity - his bulging newspaper-cuttings files are evidence of that, and of the territory's fascination with the man. 'As a measure of fame, Peter got far more attention, measured in reporter-minutes, than Canto-pop star Leon Lai,' quipped the South China Morning Post 's Lai See column after a Christmas charity event in Times Square last year. In the past four years, Woo's profile and that of Wheelock and its main subsidiary, Wharf (Holdings), has grown substantially. Under Woo's stewardship the company, formerly the empire of his father-in-law and one of Hong Kong's most celebrated tycoons, the late Sir Yue-kong Pao, has moved into telecommunications, following the end of Hong Kong Telecom's monopoly of domestic services, and has the vast potential of China in its sights. Woo has also overseen the opening of the Times Square complex in Causeway Bay, the successful tender for the third cross-harbour tunnel, the building of several ritzy property developments in Hong Kong, a land bank in China of more than 600,000 square metres and a large stake in the development of Wuhan. Having assembled a management team he felt could take Wharf into the next century, Woo stepped down as chairman to concentrate on his role at Wheelock, Wharf's dominant shareholder. Even as he was becoming a more public figure, his private life has remained something of an enigma. 'In the past several years, he has allowed the outside world to get to know him better,' said one former colleague. 'But maybe it's difficult for people to see that.' Certainly, anyone who leafed through the articles in which Woo expounded on his business strategy or China's economic potential would have found few clues as to the man behind the gold-rimmed spectacles, Lanvin suit and Cheshire Cat grin. Those who keep up to date on environmental issues might be more enlightened as to the nature of the man who once used to swim across the harbour. 'Can you imagine doing that now? The environment is the biggest assassin of all, it is slowly killing us,' Woo has said. 'You can choose the food you eat, the water you drink, but unless you are planning to run around Central with scuba gear on, you have no choice but to breathe the air,' he commented after Wheelock donated $50 million to help clean up the environment. But even that apparently altruistic gesture had an ulterior motive; to make the territory a more pleasant place to live and therefore prevent a further brain drain. Woo, it seems, is all business. IN WHEELOCK'S penthouse offices on the 24th floor of Wheelock House in Pedder Street, Central, there is little more to be gleaned about Sir Yue-kong's successor. Visitors are directed across a disconcertingly large empty space to wait for their appointments in the leather Chesterfield sofas from where they can gaze at the Wheelock corporate propaganda neatly arrayed on a table. Woo appears from his office away from the main reception area, and leads the way into another inner sanctum where a member of his staff is preparing a cassette recorder to tape the interview for the company's records. Although the Woo-man (a nickname created by his Wheelock colleagues after VJ David Wu of STAR TV's Channel V) is smiling and affable, it is nevertheless apparent there are many other things he would rather be doing. Born in Shanghai in 1946, Woo moved to Hong Kong in 1950 with his architect father and mother. The family settled in North Point, the home of many former Shanghainese, and although his father could not immediately resume his profession since his German qualifications were not recognised here, Woo did not suffer the impoverished childhood experienced by many who left China after the 1949 revolution. His father ran a car and among Woo's earliest memories is falling into the fountain of the Botanical Gardens trying to retrieve a toy sailboat. By the age of eight he was a weekly boarder at St Stephen's in Stanley, after spending two months of the summer holidays cramming English to pass the entrance exam. 'I was very weak; a small chap - one of the smallest guys in the class,' Woo recalls. 'I'd sit on the ground in front for school photographers with the older guys at the back. It was only after I started taking swimming seriously that I started to develop physically.' Like his intensive English tuition, the way Woo took up swimming is a life-long characteristic - if he saw a shortfall in his own knowledge or abilities he would relentlessly toil and study until the problem was resolved. After taking a degree in physics and mathematics at the University of Cincinnati he went to Columbia Business School in New York. There Woo decided he was in too much of a hurry to take the two-year, four-semester MBA course, and instead completed it in three semesters squeezed into a year. Woo's father, John Woo Shao-ling, figured strongly in his conversation and, like Sir Yue-kong, was a major influence on the young Woo. John Woo studied in Germany for 13 years and his wanderlust never left him. Every four years during the 1950s and '60s he would go to the Olympics and when his son was 12 he was put on a plane to London to spend the summer travelling around Europe and staying with his father's friends. Later, when Woo was at university, he agonised for weeks before calling his father long-distance (it cost US$3 a minute and you were only allowed three minutes on the line, Woo recalls with characteristic attention to detail) to tell him he wanted to drop his architecture studies and with it his father's plans for Woo to continue the family business. After Columbia, Woo started work for Chase Manhattan in New York in 1972 and stayed with the bank for three years. Once his training period was over he was offered two jobs with the company - one in Toronto and the other in Hong Kong. He chose the latter because 'I was getting married and thought I should come back here'. An inquirer might get more information about Wheelock's corporate strategy from Woo than about his family life. Despite several affectionate references to 'my wife' and 'my children', neither Bessie nor the couple's two daughters and their son were ever mentioned by name and Woo politely but firmly questioned the necessity of mentioning that the girls were both studying at the smart Wellesley College in the US. He deflected questions about how the couple met, saying they were simply part of a crowd of Hong Kong students studying overseas who hung around together in the summer holidays when Woo returned home, at the age of 24, for the first time in six years. Within three years of returning to Hong Kong, Woo had joined Sir Yue-kong's World-Wide Shipping as a senior executive director. 'The most interesting aspect was not the job. It was the opportunity to work with Y.K., that was the most important thing. Young people, when they set out after school, they do not have the opportunity to really work closely with a master ... You could see his emotions, his approach to doing things, how he dealt with difficult issues. It is like you have the opportunity to watch him with a close-up camera. Or using the osmosis process to soak it all up,' Woo recalls, a large portrait of Sir Yue-kong on the wall behind his right shoulder. But even when Sir Yue-kong was peering over his shoulder in the flesh, Woo was always his own man. 'I am responsible for running the company,' he said in June 1990. 'In a family situation we talk business, we talk about opportunities. Of course, I ask his advice. It would be crazy not to, in the sense that you have such a successful businessman who is on your doorstep. But if there is a project I want to do, then I do it.' His arrival coincided with his father-in-law's sale of most of his shipping assets before the general collapse in value that beset the industry in the late 1970s. World-Wide bought the asset-rich but sleepy Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company. Sir Yue-kong, with Woo now managing director of Wharf, fought a bruising but successful battle with Malaysian financier Khoo Teck Puat to take control of Wheelock Marden, which owned Lane Crawford, a stake in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and Hong Kong Realty. By the time Sir Yue-kong died on September 24, 1991, Woo was chairman of Wheelock and Wharf and heir apparent to the old man's position as chairman of the holding company, World International. While Austrian Helmut Sohmen was the first of Sir Yue-kong's sons-in-law to take a job with the shipping tycoon, it was always Woo who was slated to take control. Woo was no longer a bit player but a corporate mover and shaker, albeit in a company that was a byword for steady, safe and unspectacular investment with a huge back-up of financial liquidity, and with a personal image that was anything but high-profile. Once he assumed control it was a chance for Woo to show, as he did with his father when he abandoned his architectural studies, that while he respected an elderly mentor for his advice and leadership, he was determined to be his own man. The announcement in November 1993 that the World International name was to be dropped in favour of Wheelock was a case in point. Sir Yue-kong would doubtless have had some choice words to say about how his empire was now named after the company he won in one of the bloodiest takeovers in the 1980s. WHEN Woo married in December 1973, the gushing prose printed in the South China Morning Post, describing the ceremony as the 'social wedding of the year' and trilling on about bride Bessie's 'elegantly simple gown and train of ivory silk', was based on the fact her father was Sir Yue-kong, at the time the world's largest shipowner and perhaps Hong Kong's richest and most influential resident. Among the 1,500 guests at the Hilton Hotel reception was the Governor Sir Murray MacLehose, the colonial and financial secretaries, Jardine's taipan Henry Keswick, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank chairman G.M. Sayer and Sir Run Run Shaw. Princess Anne sent her greetings and there were messages from then British Prime Minister Edward Heath and his counterparts in Japan and Singapore. 'It was a major event at the time,' Woo recalled with some understatement. But all of that happened a generation ago. Sir Yue-kong's ships, whose total tonnage was six times larger than that belonging to Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis at his peak, have long been consigned to the four winds or the breaker's yard. In his place, at the head of the empire renamed Wheelock, is Woo. Wheelock incorporates a vast portfolio of business interests including Star Ferry, Hong Kong Tramways, Lane Crawford, Harriman Realty, Wheelock Properties, Wharf Cable TV, Wharf Telecommunications, Cross Harbour Tunnel, Modern Terminals, Omni Hotels, Marco Polo Singapore, Harbour Centre and a series of regional property and infrastructure companies in China. 'His success has been based on the firm belief that the company shall not simply be a financial investor, that it should be in control of management services,' said John Hung, managing director of Wheelock Marden. 'He squeezed everything he could from the company, in terms of trying to utilise its real assets: for example, turning the tram depot into Times Square. He has taken it to a position where it can control its own destiny.' Ultimately what Hong Kong really respects is a healthy balance sheet. However, the city that makes popular heroes of its business tycoons also craves for flashes of character, be it a barely concealed streak of cold-blooded ruthlessness, an extravagant love of attention or a string of mistresses. Woo, a determined and steady achiever who has hardly put a foot wrong since Wharf's humiliating involvement in Hong Kong Cable Communications, gives very little away. 'I think he's a very tough taskmaster, a brilliant strategist,' said Woo's former colleague. 'He keeps people challenged to such an extent that they give him 110 per cent and that's a unique skill. Sometimes people in that kind of position - well, it's very lonely. Everybody likes to be seen as affectionate and we all like to be loved. But in itself that does not get things done. It's easier to get things done when people respect you.' 'There is no doubt he is a pretty tough taskmaster but he's not really as difficult as some people think he is,' said Hung. 'Once you know him and understand him you see that. He's an achiever: he plays hard and works hard. He's a good golfer, tennis player, swimmer and skier. You won't find a comparable figure who does as much as him. He doesn't waste a single moment of his time. 'Add to that his work on issues like the environment, the Hospital Authority and so on and he utilises every second of the day. He's a great internationalist like his father-in-law.' With this higher corporate profile, including sponsorship of events like the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes, there has been an increase in Woo's personal image. There are those who suggest that Woo's increasing visibility, exemplified by his chairmanship of the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, his willingness to offer very public advice about China business to the west and his recent listing in the pro-China Mirror magazine as a possible post-1997 Hong Kong chief executive - is also an excellent opportunity to promote himself on a larger stage and to eventually command the same international standing that his father-in-law enjoyed. 'Yes, I am much more high-profile than I was in 1990. I enjoy my job. As far as the public profile is concerned I believe that is 75 per cent of the job. If you have an event, if you have a project, then the newspapers and the media in general will look to you to get a view of what it is all about. 'We all have to learn how to deal with the media. It's quite complicated. Unless you have a fairly well organised public profile, the public profile you project might be confusing for the people. Therefore you have to be pro-active ... you have to push it by necessity.' Depending on your view of Woo, his answer could be that of a man who regards a high personal standing as part and parcel of pushing his company. On the other hand his detractors might argue that Woo, like the French King Louis XIV, now firmly believes when it comes to Wharf L'Etat c'est moi (I am the state). What can't be argued is that after his time in the shadows, the Woo-man is joining 'Superman' and his fellow taipans in the Hong Kong plutocracy.