Leong Cheung, executive director of charities and community at HKJC, is helping give the community a better chance at success
With his intimate understanding of a helping hand’s transformative effect, Leong Cheung is well-suited to his role as executive director of charities and community at The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC).
“I was born in China and my family moved to Hong Kong when I was seven,” Cheung explains. “We began here in very humble circumstances, living in illegal squatter huts in Wong Tai Sin. One night, when I was 10 or 11, we had to escape from a fire. I remember looking back and seeing the whole village burning. We then moved into a refugee camp, and from there into public housing.”
When Cheung first came to Hong Kong, he didn’t speak Cantonese or English. “I remember volunteers coming to our home and helping my sister and I with our homework. That was my first experience of voluntary work and we really appreciated it – life would have been difficult without this help.”
Cheung’s own process of giving back began in high school, with involvement in a Community Youth Club. Since August 2014, however, he has been in a position to have a much greater positive impact on society. Last year, the HKJC donated HK$3.87 billion – and the year before HK$3.6 billion – to help tackle some of the social problems besetting Hong Kong, with the funds coming from the club’s horseracing and betting activities.
“These figures would put us in the top ten, if not the top five, of non-government foundations globally,” he says. “My team and I are responsible for working with our trustees and taking the strategic directions they give each year. We then work with NGOs, government and academia to find good uses for our donations.”
With his background in the private sector, Cheung brings a keen sense of the need for a professional, efficient approach to the good intentions in his work.
Having graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a BBA, he later completed an MBA programme at Harvard Business School. He began his career in management consulting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) before leaving to start up his own internet business in 1999. The bursting of the dotcom bubble, however, meant he had to sell up to protect his investors.
He rejoined BCG, but found his experience with his own company and changed his outlook. “After running your own business, consulting feels very different. I found I was much more into making decisions.”
His next move was to Esquel Group, a large local garment manufacturer which employs around 50,000 people globally and is one of the largest shirt suppliers in the world. Cheung explains that it is a vertically integrated company which grows cotton in Xinjiang, spins it into yarn and produces fabric in Guangdong, before manufacturing garments in nine countries. “Many people in the textile industry think only about squeezing costs. But Marjorie [Yang, the group’s chairman] thinks about productivity and technology, labour welfare and about the community she interacts with. I learned a lot from her.”
Alongside his other work, Cheung helped the company set up an education foundation in Xinjiang in 2002, building schools and libraries in rural areas.
Cheung stayed at Esquel for six years, managing the global sourcing and supply chain. He left to join Bain Capital, a private equity firm, in 2008, where he ran the China portfolio team.
“When I left Bain Capital in April 2014, it was, initially, to start up my own social enterprise, RunOurCity. It is now two years old, and I remain its chairman. It aims to use running to help teenagers build confidence and stamina.”
Given both his professional experience and his interests, Cheung’s current role at the HKJC seems like a natural fit, especially at a time when the club is adapting to a changing environment.
“In the past we’ve covered ten areas, ranging from family issues and youth to medical and health, and sports and recreation. Last year the board, under the leadership of Dr Simon Ip, decided on a new strategy. While we will continue to cover those ten areas, there are three we want to be more proactive in: youth, elderly and sports.”
He explains that, in the past, the club’s donations went to things like clinics and swimming pools, because such facilities were lacking at the time in Hong Kong. It also made donations to build Ocean Park in the 1970s, and supported the establishment of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Now, with all this important infrastructure in place, the focus has shifted.
“We will continue to donate to some big projects, such as the revitalisation of the historic Central Police Station complex,” Cheung says. “But we also increase our donations to programmes such as those concerning autism and dementia.”
In addition, the club is playing an active role in facilitating and encouraging collaboration among different sectors. For example, in the End-of-Life care project to be launched in early 2016, the club brought together two universities, five NGOs, the Hospital Authority, and the government to try to solve the complex challenge of hospice care in Hong Kong.
“We will try to go even further in facilitating regional experience sharing and collaboration through the upcoming International Philanthropy Forum, to be held in September 2016,” Cheung says. “Anchored on the theme of ‘philanthropy for better cities’, this event is the only philanthropy forum of its kind in the region focusing on tackling metropolitan social issues.”
Cheung says there is no “best” way into a career in the charity and philanthropy sector. “There’s no one path. It doesn’t matter where you start. The most important thing is what you’ve learned along the way – about yourself and about the world.”
He also believes that the most important quality in any leader is conviction. “Only if you have a strong conviction can you influence the people around you.”
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Leong Cheung’s list of five qualities needed in the charity sector
Passion “Have a strong conviction, and be prepared to swim across rivers and climb mountains. Do what you love and love what you do.”
Compassion “Appreciate the journeys of others, and understand that charity is meant to empower people rather than strip away their dignity.”
Professionalism “Deliver social impact with discipline, in the most effective and efficient way.”
Curiosity “Stay open-minded to new ideas and technologies, and respect different points of view. There is always room to learn more.”
Humour “Some laughter always helps.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Upping the odds.