Asian Games 2018

How Asian Games medallist Malina Ngai reached the top of the corporate ladder from the athletics track

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 9:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 8:00pm

She was a one-time track and field star and a top rower who represented Hong Kong at the highest level, but when her impressive athletics career came to an end, Malina Ngai Man-lin wasn’t sure what she would do after sport.

But after more than 20 years after hanging up her rowing oars with a bronze medal at the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games, Ngai is sure glad she made the right move.

Reflecting on her post-sports career, the former all-round athlete, can safely say she has not only made the big time on the sports arena, she has also shone in the corporate world too, where business empires are built, rather like the foundations needed to become a world-class athlete.

Ngai is the chief operating officer of the A S Watson Group, one of the oldest “Hongs” in Hong Kong that manages a network of 14,300 stores in 24 markets world wide under 12 retail brands.

You probably heard of ParknShop, Watsons and Fortress – if not Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, who last month stepped down as head of one of the world’s largest corporate conglomerates.

From the athletics track, Ngai has moved to the executive boardroom, where she has been hobnobbing with some of Hong Kong’s most powerful businessmen. She has done pretty well for herself as a former athlete and she owes her sporting background for giving her the drive and determination to reach the top.

“My major responsibility is to help the group CEO deliver our business plans,” said Ngai in her office headquarters in Fo Tan. “If you want to call me the number two in the company organisation structure, you can say that,” she said of the company that has 130,000 staff world wide and an annual revenue of HK$156 billion. “But I never aimed at any job promotion nor did I think I would become a senior executive in a big corporation like A S Watson.

“I always wanted to make a difference in life and make improvements [in anything] each day, just like when I was an athlete. As an athlete I wanted to do the best in the next race and win it. I think I owe my career to my sports background. It helped me reach the level I am now.”

The former Hong Kong record holder in women’s discus said her athletic background gave her the positive mentality to succeed in the business sector.

“I was never a talented athlete when I first started and I had to double my efforts competing against other athletes,” explained Ngai, who also broke the Hong Kong junior record in shot put and heptathlon during her track and field heydays.

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“Being an athlete, I learned how to be disciplined and I worked hard so that I could make progress. This has helped me a lot over the years.

“In fact, I still wake up at six o’clock every morning to exercise before going to work. And I set goals every day like I used to when I was a competitor. The discipline helps me find something to improve on everyday.”

However, sport didn’t come natural for Ngai at first. She showed no talent at primary school when running last in any school competition was a common sight. She only picked up track and field in secondary school when encouraged by her PE teacher.

The once shy student then took a liking to sport and the rest, you can say, is history. Without having much natural ability, she worked harder than all her teammates to achieve success. Ngai first broke the Hong Kong discus record in 1986, bettering her own mark on five more occasions the following year.

But her sporting career came to a standstill when she suffered a serious injury. Ahead of her A-level examinations, she took part in an Olympic selection competition for the Hong Kong team. After two successful javelin throws, she wrong footed on her third attempt and tore her left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

“Every time I watch the video footage, I would cry,” said Ngai of the injury which was filmed by a local television station. “It was not only [physically] painful but mentally and emotionally straining. I thought my athletic career was over or at least I would not make a full recovery.”

Some athletes would have given up then and there, but Ngai was determined to make a comeback

after having surgery on her knee. Knowing she was not going to be a top track and field athlete any more, Ngai made an astonishing move that would later define her athletics career. She would change sports to rowing.

“I was still determined to win a medal for Hong Kong at a multi-sport Games and I focused on getting a medal at the [1994] Hiroshima Asian Games in the lightweight category in rowing as my physique and athletics background fit the requirements,” she said. “I would not have won a medal if I had just stood there and dreamed of winning a medal. I had to make it happen.”

Recruited by head coach Chris Perry, Ngai started training and after three years of hard work, she won a bronze medal in the lightweight double sculls with partner Tsang Hau-yuk in Hiroshima.

Ngai completed her university studies in sports in Australia and joined the newly set up Sports Development Board when she returned to Hong Kong in 1991. Five years later, she moved to an event management company before joining Watson’s parent company, Hutchison Whampoa in 2000 where she quickly moved up the corporate ladder to occupy her present perch at the top.

“This is a big commercial company but I still apply sport theories when building my teams,” said Ngai, who is now in her late 40s. “Team work is always an important element and there is no better way to illustrate it through sports. I have shown my teams a video footage of a Formula One pit stop and the record that now stands at 1.92 seconds. It’s amazing team work, isn’t it?

“One of the major challenges in the commercial world is to build a good team with the right talent. Thanks to my sporting background, I know it well. The positive mentality of sport plus the desire to learn new things have worked well for me, especially in the retail business where we are always finding ways to suit the needs of customers.”