The stock ex­change hosted a sem­i­nar ear­lier this year on the ad­vance­ment of women in the work­place. Seven weeks later, Laura Cha be­came its first fe­male chief. She talks to Steven Crane

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

On a per­sonal level, I find it a great hon­our to be the first fe­male chair,” says Laura Cha, chair­woman of Hong Kong Ex­changes and Clear­ing (HKEX), the op­er­a­tor of the city’s stock and fu­tures mar­kets. “The mes­sage has not been lost; a large num­ber of peo­ple have no­ticed.”

In ap­prov­ing Cha’s ap­point­ment on April 26, Car­rie Lam, her­self a trail­blazer as the first fe­male Chief Ex­ec­u­tive of Hong Kong, was putting in place the first woman to chair the bourse since the found­ing of its fore­run­ner, the Stock­bro­kers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Hong Kong, in 1891.

Cha is also the only woman among the chair­men of Hong Kong’s 50 blue-chip firms — a sadly stan­dard fig­ure in a city where the fe­male board rep­re­sen­ta­tion rate is less than 14 per cent, ac­cord­ing to a study by the 30% Club HK, a group of busi­ness lead­ers who are com­mit­ted to bring­ing more women into Hong Kong cor­po­rate boards.

Women are also quite badly un­der­rep­re­sented in the leg­is­la­ture, num­ber­ing just 11 of its 70 mem­bers. “That’s not for the want of try­ing,” says Cha. “I helped the Chief Ex­ec­u­tive with her tran­si­tion team. We reached out to a large num­ber women and men who at that stage were re­luc­tant to join the govern­ment for one rea­son or an­other. It is un­for­tu­nate that we don’t have as many women as we would like, but I am sure she will con­tinue her ef­forts and I will do the same at the ex­change.”

While gen­der di­ver­sity is un­doubtably good for busi­ness—a 2018 study by the Mckin­sey global busi­ness and eco­nom­ics re­search in­sti­tute found a cor­re­la­tion between hav­ing a more di­verse lead­er­ship team and achiev­ing bet­ter fi­nan­cial per­for­mance—cha mod­estly states that her gen­der not­with­stand­ing, “I would hope that my past ex­pe­ri­ence had some­thing to do with the ap­point­ment.”

She is, in­deed, em­i­nently qual­i­fied. Cha has served as a se­nior of­fi­cial on the HKEX’S reg­u­la­tory body, the Se­cu­ri­ties and Fu­tures Com­mis­sion, and on its coun­ter­part in Main­land China, the China Se­cu­ri­ties Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion. As chair­man of Hong Kong’s Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil, she pushed for the in­tro­duc­tion of dual-class shares and led ef­forts to po­si­tion the city as an off­shore cen­tre for trad­ing in yuan. She is also a nonof­fi­cial mem­ber of Hong Kong’s Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil and an in­de­pen­dent non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at HSBC Hold­ings.

Cha, who was elected chair­man of the HKEX un­op­posed, is keen to en­hance the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the ex­change, fend off com­pe­ti­tion from other over­seas ex­changes, such as coun­ter­parts in Shang­hai, Shen­zhen, Sin­ga­pore and the US, and in­sti­tute re­form.

In April, the HKEX an­nounced its big­gest re­form in decades, al­low­ing biotech firms yet to gen­er­ate rev­enue to ap­ply for list­ings, as well as main­land tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies seek­ing sec­ondary list­ings in Hong Kong.

“The threats and chal­lenges to Hong Kong’s sta­tus as an in­ter­na­tional fi­nance cen­tre from other ex­changes, both far and near, are a ma­jor con­cern,” says Cha. “We are in a new econ­omy so some of the rules of the game have changed, and we have just caught up with it with our lat­est re­forms to at­tract these com­pa­nies to list in Hong Kong.

“I think, on the whole, one should never be com­pla­cent,” she adds. “We have done well in the past but the world is evolv­ing and we need to be up there in front. To the ex­tent that we have lost some time, we need to make up for it. We have to be con­stantly on the move and on the look­out for op­por­tu­ni­ties so that we’re in a po­si­tion to take ad­van­tage of them.”

Given that Hong Kong is fac­ing stiff com­pe­ti­tion from Main­land China and else­where, Cha’s ap­point­ment comes at a crit­i­cal time for the HKEX and for Hong Kong it­self. Cha agreed to serve a two-year term, which can be re­newed twice. Will six years be enough time for her to ac­com­plish her goals? “I will fin­ish my first term be­fore I speak fur­ther on that,” she says dis­creetly.

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