Ada Wong Ka Ki is a woman squarely in a man’s world. At 37, she’s the only female CEO of a major Hong Kong-listed real estate company who doesn’t have any family ties with the owner or management.
As the chief executive officer of Champion REIT, she manages property worth $10 billion and a portfolio that spans grade A office towers from Mongkok to Central.
A University of Michigan graduate, Wong started in investment banking in New York before relocating to Hong Kong, where she worked on Champion REIT’s 2006 IPO while at Citigroup Inc. She made a lasting impression on the trust’s management when she executed a $1.6 billion financing deal for the firm during the 2008 financial crisis when credit was extremely tight.
Wong joined Champion in 2014, becoming CEO in 2016.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned during your career?
Wong: Before Champion, I was at a natural resources group focusing on the utility and pipeline industry — white and male dominated. As a typical Chinese woman, I wasn’t outspoken. I would take any work and never say no to anyone. But as a female leader, if you are the traditional softer type, that’s not going to work in a very male dominated industry. I learned that I need to be loud, I need to speak up and I really need to fight for myself.
In 2014, then CEO Adrian Lee Ching Ming asked you to become his successor. And two years later, you took the top job, at 36. What concessions do you feel you’ve made as a woman? You say there’s a natural brotherhood among landlords and the senior management at property agencies, who are often men.
Wong: Being a female, I’ve put in a lot of work to get to where I am. When I was in the U.S., I’d watch American football in order to make conversation with others. Now, I’ve started to care more about diets and workouts, which has helped me bond with people in property.
How can female leadership benefit a company?
Wong: It’s very different how males and females look at things, so I think it’s always good to have a balanced leadership. I think diversity is very important by giving you different viewpoints on how to see things.
What policies does/has Champion put in place to support females in the workforce?
Wong: In our company we try to be flexible when staff need to leave early for family needs. Indeed, being a mother of two sons, I’ve experienced that technology enables us working mothers to juggle between work and family. I believe that an empowered and motivated workforce is important. We all reap the benefit from more engaged employees.
Does there need to be a proactive approach do you believe to getting females into the upper levels of leadership, or can you rely on merit alone and the system working?
Wong: It’s encouraging to see that some countries have been on their way to mandate gender diversity in companies at a board level. I believe a fundamental change of mindset is also very important; it’s crucial for female leaders to build up their level of credibility and truly earn respect within a company. We could find more female executives breaking into the C-suite in recent years, as more enterprises realize it’s beneficial to embrace diversity as a positive and important business strategy. The changes will occur when culture shifts.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Wong: Lean in and be vocal! Young professionals need to speak up at work. From my experience, if we don’t speak out, no one will notice our abilities. Another key to success is to be passionate about what we are doing. Find our grit and stay positive in times of challenge. This will position us for the next opportunity.