Lau Chi-kit belongs to a rare breed of local bankers who rose to the top of a British institution at the time when colonial power was at its peak.
But after working for more than 35 years at HSBC and reaching the post of deputy general manager, Lau retired in 2000.
Nevertheless, his passion for work was still strong and the 69-year-old became an independent non-executive director of two listed companies - Chinlink (0997) and Royale Furniture (1198).
"Leveraging on my 35 years of banking and finance experience, I find it more challenging to transform some of the smaller companies," said Lau, who turned down an offer to work at a state- owned bank in the mainland.
Last month, Lau, who was promoted executive director of Chinlink, quipped that he would have to come out of retirement and face the corporate minefield once again.
Previously, Chinlink traded furniture and fixtures and did interior decoration work. But margins of these two businesses were rather modest due to the rising cost of resources.
So, the company decided to move into the integrated finance and logistics services business.
Chinlink set up two logistics parks in Shaanxi, formerly one of China's poorest province.
But recently, Shaanxi has undergone rapid changes with many business opportunities flowering and many financial firms taking root.
So it came as no surprise to find Lau, with his background in high finance, accepting the new appointment.
Indeed, Lau's banking acumen is very u
seful when it comes to dealing with regulatory bodies in the mainland, especially in areas such as finance and lending.
"While companies find it difficult to borrow from banks under [the prevailing] tight liquidity [condition in the mainland], Chinlink can provide financial support to its clients at its two logistics parks in Xi'an and Hanzhong," Lau said.
The logistics parks house tenants, which are mainly small and medium- sized enterprises. They sometimes find it difficult to sell their goods and are always running short of cash. They are Chinlink's core customers, Lau explained.
Since Chinlink acts as a guarantor for these tenants, it makes it easy for banks to approve the loans sought by the SMEs.
For collateral, Chinlink uses the tenants' inventories in the two parks, Lau said.
Currently, the Xi'an logistics park has around 8,000 clients, he said.
The license to guarantee finance for SMEs in the park was approved in August and the facility became operational in September.
By late September, Chinlink's guarantee portfolio reached US$1.5 million (HK$11.70 million).
The logistics park in Hanzhong is spread over 1,538 hectares and is not yet fully operational. When completely open, up to 10,000 clients can be served. "Our total client base could reach 17,000," Lau said.
Chinlink aims to have its newly launched financing business reaching a turnover of HK$10 billion after five years, Lau said, adding, many foreign fund houses are interested in the project.
Despite Lau's long years of experience as a top banker in Hong Kong, skeptics wonder whether he has what it takes to weather the mainland's tough and volatile financial business environment.
Lau is unfazed by such comments. "Irrespective of where you are when it comes to lending or financing, it is the same everywhere. Since money is still the same thing. When others borrow money, you have to make sure they will pay you back with interest."
Lau believes the current business model of Chinlink is very safe since it operates on the principle of secured financing.
"The inventories act as the collateral and there is value in them as long as they are not fake," Lau added.
Remembering the time when he worked for HSBC, Lau said he was well known for his adroit sense of risk control in the retail lending business.
"I did not have a single non- performing loan in my career," he said proudly.
"The trick is to make sure that you are not being cheated. If Chinlink follows my guidelines when processing lending requests, it should hardly have any bad debts."
Lau comes across as being very confident when trumpeting his particular brand of expertise. And rightly so, since his career has always been in the fast lane.
Although Lau was merely a high school graduate, his promotions were faster than many colleagues who have university degrees.
"I never shirked the tasks I was given nor did I reject those who took away my jobs that delivered profit," he said.
Lau is quick to point out that he would happily take over the already assigned tasks from his colleagues if they had a problem.
The well-being of staff and treating them well is also on the top of Lau's list. For him, committed workers are essential for a company's success.
"We had targets to meet before the year ended. But when we had achieved those targets in August, I would just let staff take a month's vacation," he said.
"Man is not a machine and they need rest and holidays," Lau added.
Lau said he has come across some department heads who would force their employees to also meet the following year's targets.
"Not only your staff but you yourself won't be able to stand it," he said.
Lau has a propensity to simplify complicated business matters. A case in point was HSBC's bad debt problem which resulted from fake credit cards.
It was a nightmare for the bank in the early 1990s, Lau said, adding it resulted in a loss of around HK$60 million - HK$70 million due to such cards being issued.
Lau claimed it was an easy problem to deal with and he cited his track record of maintaining only a small amount of bad debt in his time.
"Why bother using a complicated IT system? We just used the most basic method to improve the situation," Lau said.
He explained his modus operandi to tackle the problem.
"For the first transaction, let it go; for the second transaction, phone the cardholder. If he is there, the transaction will proceed; if not, the card is canceled."
He added, "My clients said it was a good arrangement, and using the telephone was more convenient and less costly. The problem of fake credit cards all but disappeared, following my efforts."
When asked to elaborate on his management strategy, Lau said: "I delegated power to the branch manager. I asked them not to report any cases that were below HK$2,000. Just issue a refund to the clients when the disputed amount is below such a level. Its wiser to save time and skip all the fuss."
Several of Lau's stellar qualities helped him enjoy a smooth and rapid rise up the corporate ladder.
In 1986, he was promoted senior manager and three years later he became deputy general manager.
But Lau said it is meaningless to get promoted if you are unable to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
"You see, some senior managers do not keep good health as they have a heavy workload."
Lau's long innings of 35 years with HSBC has stood him in good stead.
The knowledge of finance and risk analysis helps him read through the tea leaves of various business enterprises and industries.
"It's just like a game to me," Lau says nonchalantly.