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Hong Kong MTR

MTR Corp boss Frederick Ma turns down Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s offer of three-year contract extension for more time with family, sources say

  • Ma agrees to extend existing contract by six months to June 30 as he is responsible for recruiting new CEO, according to insiders
PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 11:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 11:28pm

Hong Kong’s rail giant the MTR Corporation will be hunting for a new chairman as incumbent Frederick Ma Si-hang turned down an offer from the city’s leader to extend his contract by another three years, the Post learned.

In an announcement on Monday afternoon, the government – the rail operator’s majority shareholder – said Ma had been reappointed as MTR Corp chairman for a term of six months to June 30 next year, confirming a Post report earlier in the day.

His current three-year term expires at the end of this year.

“The government is identifying a suitable candidate to succeed Professor Ma as the chairman of the board of directors of the MTR Corp and will announce the appointment at an appropriate time,” it said.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Hong Kong’s chief executive, last month asked Ma to stay for another three years, but he recently declined because of family reasons, a source familiar with the situation said.

His decision means the corporation will have new faces in the No 1 and No 2 positions next year, a rare situation for any blue-chip company.

Ma said on Monday he had told the government he hoped to extend his contract by six months due to the concerns of his family.

His wife Linda and daughter Christine did not want him to come under additional pressure, while he wished to spend more time with the family, the source said. His daughter has just announced she is pregnant with twins due next year.

MTR to revamp top management as heads roll over rail link scandals

“[Ma] really decided to go, and Carrie finally gave up trying to persuade him,” the source said.

Ma said he had “great satisfaction” during his chairmanship as three new rail projects, including the cross-border express railway, had been delivered.

“My work is also full of challenges. Everyone knows the work’s busy and heavy. Given that I also have other public roles and public duties, to be honest, my family has some opinions about my time allocation,” he said.

It was not the first time Lam had asked him to remain in his role as non-executive chairman of the corporation. Ma revealed in August he had offered to resign twice soon after news broke of a construction scandal involving the HK$97.1 billion (US$12.3 billion) Sha Tin to Central link, Hong Kong’s most expensive rail project.

The scandal, which came to light in May and is subject to a commission of inquiry, centres around claims that steel bars were cut short to hide improper installation into couplers on a platform at Hung Hom station and that supporting walls were changed without authorisation.

The main contractor, Leighton Contractors (Asia), has denied the allegations.

The government demanded that heads roll over the scandal. It was revealed in August that CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen would quit earlier than expected, while Ma would stay until he hired Leong’s successor. Projects director Philco Wong Nai-keung resigned with immediate effect, while three other general managers of the project also left.

New Hong Kong-Guangzhou high-speed link outpaced by pre-1950s service

With Ma at the helm, the 26km Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link came into service in September after its budget overran by a third and the opening was delayed by three years.

However, the alleged shoddy work and express rail link setbacks took place in 2015, before Ma joined the corporation. At that time, the chairman was Raymond Chien Kuo-fung.

Ma said three key tasks he had to complete over the remaining days were the recruitment of a new CEO, managing issues over the commission of inquiry and a report on safety concerns over Hung Hom station.

“These problems should be resolved in half a year,” he said, meaning within his extended term.

Recruiting a new chief for the corporation, which has a market capitalisation of HK$243 billion (US$31 billion), will be an arduous task.

Candidates need to have political wisdom as the corporation is 75 per cent controlled by the government, with the rest under minority shareholders.

“This means he or she needs to balance the conflicting interests of the public and shareholders,” a source with knowledge of the hiring process said.

Another equally important skill is experience in the business sector, as the company is listed in Hong Kong and its portfolio is large and complicated.

“This is not to mention the candidates must be capable enough to convince the corporation’s more than 10,000 staff with his or her leadership,” the insider said.

MTR scandal humbles Hong Kong’s ‘tyranny of experts’

“They cannot be media-shy as there are many opportunities to speak to the press.”

With the corporation also operating in mainland China and training railway personnel in some belt and road countries, its future leader will need to press on with such initiatives as Ma has promoted the MTR brand extensively over the years. The “Belt and Road Initiative” is China’s plan to grow global trade.

As for hiring a CEO, Ma said an international headhunter had been engaged to find candidates and he was confident the recruitment would be completed by the end of his extended contract.