18 July 2018
Peter Woo is passing on the reins to the businesses his family controls but will remain involved as chief adviser. Photo: HKEJ
Peter Woo is passing on the reins to the businesses his family controls but will remain involved as chief adviser. Photo: HKEJ

Peter Woo, son-in-law made good, bows out

After three decades running the empire of the late tycoon Pau Yue-kong, Peter Woo Kwong-ching will call it a day.

That makes him the longest-serving, and probably most successful, son-in-law at the helm of a family-controlled firm in Hong Kong.

Like fellow tycoons Li Ka-shing and Cheng Yu-tung, Woo married a wealthier wife. But unlike those entrepreneurs, who started their own very successful companies, he inherited the family business of his in-laws.

Woo joined Pao’s World-Wide Shipping Group in 1975 and was promoted to chairman of Wheelock and Co. Ltd. and its subsidiary The Wharf (Holdings) Ltd. in 1986.

He left for a decade of public service, stepping down as Wharf chairman in 1994 and Wheelock chairman in 1996, and returned to both boards as chairman in 2002.

On his return, Woo oversaw Wheelock’s period of greatest growth, its share price soaring fivefold thanks to surging property prices and the non-stop influx of mainland tourists to its two most popular shopping centres — Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui and Times Square in Causeway Bay.

Woo will pass the chairmanship of Wharf to his longtime lieutenant, Stephen Ng Tin-hoi, in May.

Last year he handed the chairmanship of Wheelock to his son, Douglas Woo Chun-kuen, who he said he wanted to take the reins of the empire before he turned 40.

Joining a family business is not easy. Woo married Bessie Pao, Pao’s second daughter, and was invited into the family business, along with another son-in-law, Helmut Sohmen, who took care of the World-Wide Shipping business.

Pao divided his wealth equally among his four daughters, and Woo was tasked to preserve rather than build up the family wealth, which explains why he did not seem to be aggressive in making acquisitions in the 1990s.

Wheelock is among the top Hong Kong conglomerates that does not own a utility or a mobile license.

However, Woo is not the only son-in-law who took a family business to a new level.

Michael Chan Yue-kwong, grew the market cap at the Lo family’s Café de Coral fast-food chain 25-fold during his executive chairmanship from 1997 to 2012.

When he turned 60, the urban planning-trained Chan passed the leadership of the family business to Sunny Lo Hoi-kwong, who became chief executive. 

Chan, who remains non-executive chairman, set up a consultancy that helps family businesses to identify professional managers for their succession plans.

Not all sons-in-law have contributed value to the family business.

Now chairman of MTR Corp., Raymond Ch’ien Kuo-fung, who was managing director of Lam Soon (Hong Kong) Ltd. from 1984 to 1997, could not reverse the fortunes of the cooking oil firm and had to take Malaysia’s Hong Leong Group on board as a major shareholder.

In this light, Woo will be remembered for the value he created for the Wheelock group during his tenure.

He also spent more than a decade in public service, as chairman of the Hospital Authority (1995-2000) and the Trade Development Council (2000-2007).

At 69, Woo still has more to contribute. But he has ruled out another run for chief executive, which is a huge loss given his decent track record.

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EJ Insight writer

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