Good for­tune

phil­an­thropic ty­coon peter woo dis­cusses his mission to make en­trepreneurs of the city’s most dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren

Hong Kong Tatler - - Front Page - Photography lau­rent se­gretier Styling adele le­ung

The morn­ing re­cess be­gins at Lok Sin Tong Yu Kan Hing Sec­ondary School. The bell rings—a shrill, alarm­ing squeal that trig­gers mem­o­ries of snacks wrapped in cling film and lib­er­a­tion from maths class. Doors fly open and stu­dious si­lence ca­pit­u­lates to ca­cophonous chat­ter as the stu­dents de­scend on the play­ground. Within min­utes, the Wang Tau Hom school­yard is a hive of ac­tiv­ity. A vol­ley­ball game springs up at one end, a bas­ket­ball game at the other—and Peter Woo wants in on both.

Cut to an air­borne Woo launch­ing a bas­ket­ball on a tra­jec­tory that sees it sink ef­fort­lessly through the hoop. The charis­matic 69-year-old is light on his feet, dart­ing from left to right with­out break­ing a sweat, his teenage team­mates be­wil­dered by the ad­di­tion of this mys­te­ri­ous six-foot sil­ver bul­let. I shouldn’t be sur­prised. Woo, the vet­eran chief of the multi­bil­lion­dol­lar Whee­lock and Com­pany em­pire, took up ski­ing at 65, plays ten­nis four times a week and last year earned his cer­tifi­cate for deep sea div­ing.

We’ve come to the school to ob­serve how it has ben­e­fited from Woo’s phil­an­thropic brain­child, Project Wecan. Lok Sin Tong Yu Kan Hing is one of 44 band-three schools—those with the city’s low­est aca­demic rank—to have signed on. The project is a ma­jor com­mu­nity out­reach pro­gramme that strives to arm dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents with ba­sic life skills and open up dy­namic ca­reer paths. Founded three years ago as a Whee­lock/ Wharf ini­tia­tive, it has since evolved as an open plat­form through which any brand or busi­ness can “adopt” and spon­sor a school. The part­ner­ship not only in­volves fi­nan­cial sup­port and ad­di­tional re­sources, but also in­valu­able op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to taste life in the cor­po­rate world, in­ter­act with pro­fes­sion­als, find what they’re good at out­side the tra­di­tional school cur­ricu­lum and de­velop achiev­able goals. But be­fore we look around, Woo wants a lit­tle time on the court. He high-fives his team and they reshuf­fle, ready for the next points.

Woo has al­ways been a team player—and a bril­liant ath­lete. In 1965, the Shang­hai-born Hongkonger, an only child from a mid­dle-in­come fam­ily, moved to the US to study at the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati. As the sole Asian male on cam­pus, he strug­gled at first with the cul­tural dif­fer­ences, but his for­mer class­mates say he was soon one of the most popular and re­spected men on cam­pus. Woo was the first Asian mem­ber of his fra­ter­nity, Delta Tau Delta. By grad­u­a­tion in 1970, he had chaired the fra­ter­nity’s in­tra­mu­ral sports pro­gramme and the cam­pus in­tra­mu­rals, led the fra­ter­nity’s vol­ley­ball, ta­ble ten­nis and bad­minton teams to mul­ti­ple cham­pi­onships, coached his dor­mi­tory’s foot­ball team and helped his fra­ter­nity

win the cov­eted uni­ver­sity sports tro­phy three years in a row. But sport wasn’t the only area where he ex­celled. Hard work helped Woo score im­pres­sive grades and the hon­our of de­liv­er­ing the vale­dic­tory ad­dress. Af­ter gain­ing an MBA from Columbia Uni­ver­sity, he was snapped up by Chase Man­hat­tan Bank and grad­u­ated to the big leagues of busi­ness.

Since then, Woo has con­tin­ued to dis­tin­guish him­self in all as­pects of life. In 2012, he was awarded the high­est hon­our for ser­vice to the Hong Kong com­mu­nity, the Grand Bauhinia Medal. His friends and busi­ness as­so­ciates are unan­i­mous in their ad­mi­ra­tion for what they call a nat­u­ral and com­pas­sion­ate leader, and he’s been her­alded as an “am­bas­sador of free en­ter­prise” by his alma mater. Not that he’d ever ad­mit as much. Calm, af­fa­ble and mod­est, Woo is at ease speak­ing about ev­ery­thing but him­self and his suc­cess, his mel­low voice no­tice­ably gath­er­ing gusto when our con­ver­sa­tion turns to phi­lan­thropy. Over two days ob­serv­ing Woo in meet­ings, lunches, schools and con­fer­ences, I’m struck by the de­gree of re­spect he com­mands, hold­ing court ef­fort­lessly.

Woo’s fam­ily fled Shang­hai on the eve of the 1949 revo­lu­tion and set­tled in Hong Kong, living for many years in a sin­gle room within some­one else’s apart­ment. His fa­ther had run a flour­ish­ing ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice on the main­land but was barred from work­ing in the colony be­cause his doc­tor­ate, ob­tained from a uni­ver­sity in Ger­many, was not recog­nised in Hong Kong. “We had some hard times,” says Woo of his child­hood. Nev­er­the­less, he rel­ished idyl­lic af­ter­noons swim­ming in the ocean af­ter lessons at St Stephen’s Col­lege. “It was a very healthy life. The beauty of it was that you knew ev­ery­one. Some of my good friends are

still my friends from school,” he says, re­fer­ring to Ti­mothy Fok, David Liang, Ray­mond Ch’ien, Tung Chee-chen and Po Chung.

Woo was a strong sports­man and brimmed with con­fi­dence, re­calls Chung, DHL In­ter­na­tional’s found­ing chair­man, who has known Woo since 1957. The two served as pre­fects to­gether. “In high school he was a lit­tle brusque, a lit­tle bit sure of him­self,” says Chung. “But now we look at him and say, ‘ We need more men like this.’ He’s a good leader. A good leader needs com­pe­tence, char­ac­ter and care, and Peter has all th­ese qual­i­ties. He has his own ideas about things—his opin­ions rarely con­form to what peo­ple ex­pect—but he can al­ways back them up with sound and per­sua­sive ar­gu­ments, and I ad­mire him for that.” Ch’ien, who was a few years be­hind Woo at school, laughs as he re­mem­bers his friend as “tall and big and fierce.” “To­day he’s kind, has a good heart and is very com­pet­i­tive. He’s a very as­tute busi­ness­man. He has no fear.”

While work­ing in New York City, Woo met Bessie Pao, the daugh­ter of the late ship­ping taipan Pao Yue-kong, who was there vis­it­ing her sis­ter. Woo re­quested a trans­fer to Hong Kong and they were mar­ried shortly af­ter. Im­pressed with his son-in-law’s busi­ness

“In high school he was a lit­tle brusque, a lit­tle bit sure of him­self. Now we look at Woo and say, ‘We need more men like this.’ He’s a good leader” —Po Chung

acu­men, Pao asked Woo to join him at the World-wide Ship­ping Group in 1975. It was a crit­i­cal time for the com­pany—on the eve of a ma­jor down­turn in the ship­ping sec­tor, Pao was try­ing to di­ver­sify his busi­ness in­ter­ests. World-wide di­vested it­self of much of its fleet and bought a con­trol­ling stake in what is now The Wharf (Hold­ings), then called The Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Com­pany—a large dock­side ware­hous­ing busi­ness that owned and op­er­ated the Star Ferry and Hong Kong Tramways. In 1985, World-wide also took con­trol of prop­erty, re­tail and in­sur­ance con­glom­er­ate Whee­lock Mar­den, whose im­pres­sive sta­ble of as­sets in­cluded the Lane Craw­ford depart­ment store. Pao re­tired in 1986 and en­trusted the Whee­lock/ Wharf in­ter­ests to Woo.

“You could not find a bet­ter men­tor,” Woo says of Pao. “He was very gen­er­ous with his time and he taught me via os­mo­sis. Just be­ing there to ob­serve and learn from him was a tremen­dous ex­pe­ri­ence.” Since then, Woo has driven the ex­pan­sion of Whee­lock’s in­ter­ests lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, across Sin­ga­pore, China and the UK. He has over­seen the devel­op­ment and rise of re­tail hubs such as Har­bour City, Times Square and The Lane Craw­ford Joyce Group (which is run by his daugh­ter Jen­nifer), as well as Marco Polo Ho­tels, nu­mer­ous res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ments, and ven­tures in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, me­dia and

“No one wants to know about band-three schools. There’s a stigma as­so­ci­ated with them. But th­ese are not dumb kids; they just haven’t had a good start in life”

en­ter­tain­ment. “We’ve come a long way. It’s a dif­fer­ent com­pany than it was 30 years ago,” he says. This month, af­ter more than three decades at the helm of the con­glom­er­ate, Woo re­tires from the Whee­lock/ Wharf board of di­rec­tors, leav­ing the reins in the hands of his son, Dou­glas.

Over the past few years, Woo has turned his at­ten­tion to a very dif­fer­ent type of busi­ness—that of bring­ing op­por­tu­nity to the city’s most dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren. Three years ago he hap­pened upon a jar­ring statis­tic: only 20 per cent of Hong Kong’s high school grad­u­ates end up go­ing to uni­ver­sity. He won­dered what hap­pened to the re­main­ing 80 per cent—in par­tic­u­lar, the bot­tom 40 per cent? Were th­ese chil­dren pre­pared, when they turned 18, to go forth into the com­mu­nity and be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens?

The ma­jor­ity of chil­dren in the bot­tom 40 per cent at­tend band-three schools. Many come from bro­ken homes in neigh­bour­hoods low on the so­cio-eco­nomic scale. “No one wants to know about band-three schools. There’s a stigma as­so­ci­ated with them,” says Woo. “But th­ese are not dumb kids; they just haven’t had a good start in life. They don’t feel se­cure, so there’s a lot of stress and it’s very easy for them to drift. We want to bring th­ese kids ba­sic in­tegrity, to make sure they are

en­tirely com­pe­tent in ba­sic skills, build their con­fi­dence and char­ac­ter, and ex­pose them to ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Char­ity, of course, be­gins at home. Whee­lock/ Wharf started by adopt­ing 10 band-three schools and com­mit­ted HK$2.5 mil­lion to each school ev­ery year for six years—a to­tal of HK$150 mil­lion. Woo’s goal was for each sub­sidiary to adopt one school and be wholly re­spon­si­ble for it. Since then, the con­glom­er­ate has part­nered with 44 of the 150 band-three schools in Hong Kong and has put in place some out­stand­ing ini­tia­tives to en­hance stu­dents’ cre­ativ­ity, com­mon sense and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.

Lane Craw­ford or­gan­ised a fash­ion show in its adopted school, ask­ing stu­dents to de­sign and cre­ate their own gar­ments. In an at­tempt to en­cour­age kids to learn and prac­tise English, an­other sub­sidiary built a free on-cam­pus cafe in which stu­dents can dine only if they speak in English. Stu­dents from Wecan schools also have the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in busi­ness bazaars. Here, stu­dents are given six months to de­velop a busi­ness plan, carry out mar­ket anal­y­sis, pre­pare bud­gets and de­velop a prod­uct. This cul­mi­nates in a four-day com­pet­i­tive event where stu­dents present their busi­ness plans and their wares to Wecan spon­sors, who pro­vide con­struc­tive feed­back. When it comes to bol­ster­ing schools’ re­sources in terms of aca­demic pro­grammes, mul­ti­me­dia lab­o­ra­to­ries and teach­ing staff, Project Wecan has en­gaged the Chi­nese Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong to of­fer ad­vice and guid­ance to schools and spon­sors. Crit­i­cal to Wecan’s suc­cess are vol­un­teers. With­out the hand­son help of em­ploy­ees from spon­sor­ing com­pa­nies, it wouldn’t be able to func­tion.

Help­ing th­ese chil­dren ad­vance is the pre­rog­a­tive of busi­nesses rather than the gov­ern­ment, says Woo. “The gov­ern­ment has to be fair. They can’t give more money to band-three schools than they give to band-one or band-two schools. They have very strong reg­u­la­tions and have to jus­tify ev­ery cent. We don’t. We are driven by pur­pose, while they are driven by process. We have a dis­cre­tionary ap­proach. It’s trial and er­ror. We don’t ex­pect that ev­ery pro­gramme will be a to­tal suc­cess, and we can af­ford to make mis­takes. What we can­not af­ford to do is not to try.”

Woo has al­ways felt Hong Kong is spe­cial. “You can never ex­pect to bet against Hong Kong and win,” he says. “We’ve gone from a very small base to a world base. I think it’s a tremen­dous story. That’s why I think giv­ing back is very im­por­tant. Just be­cause th­ese kids won’t go to uni­ver­sity doesn’t mean they won’t start a busi­ness. We want to get them in­no­vat­ing and we tell them, yes, you might fail, but don’t be afraid. In Chi­nese tra­di­tion, fail­ure is a bad thing. But this men­tal­ity means you never try, and if you never try, you never in­no­vate. We can’t tell them how to in­no­vate, but we can cer­tainly give them the courage to try.”

“You can never ex­pect to bet against Hong Kong and win. We’ve gone from a very small base to a world base. I think it’s a tremen­dous story”

slam dunk Sweater by Pringles of Scot­land; shirt and trousers Woo’s own; shoes by Max Verre

Tale of Woo’s city Above: Coat and trousers by Gior­gio Armani; shirt and belt Woo’s own. Right: Sweater by Ports 1961; shirt Woo’s own

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