How I Work: Sabrina Chao

It takes a level of confidence to stand up in front of the great and good of the Connecticut Maritime Association and accept the ribbing that comes with being awarded the honour of that year’s Commodore. But to then turn the tables and poke fun back, to great applause from the audience takes a large degree of poise and knowledge. Especially when you consider that Sabrina Chao is only the second female in the CMA’s history to have received the honour.

“This year was my first CMA and while I’d heard a lot about it, I didn’t really know what to expect, especially with all the anticipation, having the whole thing built up and then being invited as the incoming Commodore and being told there would be so much verbal roasting. It all turned out very well. They were very kind to me,” Ms Chao told SMI.

And a worthy Commodore she is too. She began her professional career in finance working for Jardine Fleming and Price Waterhouse Coopers before joining shipping in 2001 after enrolling on the Galbraith’s Shipping course in London, a year before she moved on to the family business. She has also served as a member of the Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board and is Chairman of the Maritime Services Training Board of the Hong Kong Vocational Training Council. She is also a member of WISTA, the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, of which she served as Honorary President.

So, does she believe enough women are being invited into the boardrooms, let alone being actively involved in shipping in general? “Definitely, compared to when I joined the industry back in 2002. I’ve seen a lot more women coming into offices and shipping gatherings. I think it is improving, but while there is a lot of focus on gender equality, shipping is looking at diversity. As an industry we just have to move with the times, because it is a natural progress; but there are a lot of companies that are catching on,” she said.

And, as a past Chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, does she believe that Hong Kong is doing enough to promote itself as an international maritime centre? 

“All the clusters around the world have a very specific role to play. Yes, people will always compare Hong Kong with Singapore, and I must say that Singapore has done tremendously well over the last 15 to 20 years in promoting itself, and in attracting people into Singapore to set up their maritime businesses. But as you say, Hong Kong has not been very vocal in promoting what it has to offer but that has all started to change. 

“About two years ago we set up the Maritime and Port Board under the Hong Kong government, and although we don’t have the same status as our Singapore counterparts, it is a start for us. We have a very vibrant cluster here in Hong Kong, but it is a question of getting the message out and building on what we have. 

“We talked all about the Belt and Road initiative during CMA as well as the link between Hong Kong and Macau. These are all massive projects being undertaken by the Chinese government and if you look at the prospect and opportunities these offer, you simply cannot ignore Hong Kong. It is taking advantage of these two massive projects so it is the place to be,” she added.

The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge is a Bridge–tunnel system, which consists of a series of three cable-stayed bridges and one undersea tunnel, as well as three artificial islands, spanning the Lingdingyang channel, that connects Hong Kong with Macau and Zhuhai, three major cities on the Pearl River Delta in China. The 55-km (34 mi) link is expected to cost 110 billion yuan ($15.9 billion) and is among the longest fixed-links in the world as well as being a major landmark in the area. Originally set to be opened to traffic in October 2016, the structure was completed on 14 November 2017and is planned to open to vehicular traffic on 1st July 2018.

But what about the position of Shanghai in the region and are the policies coming out of China conducive enough to promote Hong Kong’s potential?

Ms Chao again: “Looking at the comparison between Hong Kong and Shanghai, last year the Hong Kong Shipowners Association under the chairmanship of Kenneth Koo, led a delegation to Shanghai, just to have that chat about our role as an international maritime centre and Shanghai’s role as an international maritime centre and to look at how we can both flourish in that sense. 

“We have both agreed that we are not here to compete with each other, but are willing to complement each other. This is important when you bear in mind that today in Hong Kong in terms of infrastructure, in terms of capital commitment and building infrastructure, there is no way we can compare to what can be achieved in China and Shanghai because the process in Hong Kong takes that much longer. But in Hong Kong we have years and years of experience; our company for instance has been in Hong Kong for 65 years, and there are other Hong Kong companies that started over 100 years ago. So we have that cluster we can build on and in Hong Kong, we have to think about where we can position ourselves, to take advantage of that.

“London for example, is not a very big base for ship owners but then you have the insurance market, the arbitration and the legal system, where everyone refers back to London. Hong Kong, going forward, will be a bit like a hybrid, somewhere between a service centre and a ship owner base.

“And we can only achieve this, with areas like arbitration, with help from our friends in London. With over 50% of the world’s tonnage owned and operated in Asia, it doesn’t make sense for the arbitration to be held in London, because of the distance, it is just too far. And there is a base in Hong Kong, where we have the common law system – being a colony of the UK for so many years we have a base we can build on, and it is very logical for Hong Kong to build on that,” she said.

But what about shipping in general and what are the challenges ahead?

“To be honest I don’t really know, I am still figuring my way around. All I know is that there are so many new dynamics coming into the market that the challenge is about positioning the company to take advantage of these. And here I have to bring China back into the equation. It is well known that the whole bulk market is dependent on China; we have all of these leasing houses in China filling in the gaps as European banks exit the sectors, so there are many new things coming on in our part of the world and it is marrying the technical know-how and their money.”