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