One-woman training board
Virginia Choi has come a long way since her United Christian Hospital (UCH) roots, where she provided social services, community mental-health education and, eventually, staff training, the profession where she is now an industry leader.
Choi’s career track shows she is quick to go the extra mile and loves a challenge. She started out when Hong Kong’s training industry was in its infancy. Choi, then 18 years old, went to the Social Welfare Department to enrol in its then professional standard for social workers, a two-year certificate in social work. Turned down at first for being a year too young, she returned the following year armed with experience in volunteering at youth counselling service Breakthrough – and got in.
The course’s community-casework unit took her to UCH, which expanded soon after her project there ended. Choi successfully applied for a social-work position there but realised she was under-qualified, as all the other members of her team had university qualifications. So she topped up her qualifications at evening school.
Following a one-year certificate in personnel management at the then Hong Kong Polytechnic (now PolyU), she was the only student in the class of 40 with a social-work background. The rest, all industry insiders, were familiar with the issues and jargon of personnel management. “I had to work much harder, but I got the qualification,” she says.
Choi changed career track by at first volunteering in the UCH training department. When a departmental vacancy arose, Choi was invited to apply, and got it. Soon she was not only organising orientation and training programmes for the hospital’s 1,500 staff, but also preparing materials for patient education and training opportunities for external social workers.
After seven years at UCH, Choi resigned to return to school to improve her long-term career prospects. “Hong Kong is conservative. If you don’t have a degree, you are stuck,” she says.
She also joined the Hong Kong Institute of Personnel Management (now the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resources Management, or HKIHRM).
Choi set her sights on a degree in social work at Hong Kong Polytechnic. It was a risky decision – to cut short a seven-year career and give up income and achievements. Nevertheless she enrolled, majoring in psychiatry with a thesis on hyperactive and autistic children. But when she graduated in 1985, there were few opportunities for employment.
“It was too new a subject for Hong Kong then,” Choi says.
She returned to training, taking up the position of family life educator at the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups (HKFYG), conducting courses on mental health in Tai Po.
Two-and-a-half years later, she made a bold move into banking, assuming the position of training manager, team leader of the management development department of the Bank of China Group, which at the time had 14,000 staff in Hong Kong.
There has been no turning back. As a traditional mainland bank, the group was not a coveted employer at the time. Its training arm was very new. Three months after Choi joined, the mainland cracked down on the demonstration in Tiananmen Square. People advised Choi to leave her job.
“I decided to stay on. I felt I had to do something, after being there for three months,” she says. Choi created management-training programmes not only for the group’s management in Hong Kong and Beijing, but for the banks under its umbrella. “I was doing a lot of internal consultancy, partnering with sister banks in preparing training programmes. I had to provide training programmes based on actual case studies. Everything had to be done in Putonghua. It was a tough task.”
She organised training for the group’s top-tier executives, bringing in highly qualified experts proficient in Putonghua. Her own mastery of the language was adequate at the time, she says, although mainlanders who had not been to Hong Kong would sometimes fault her accent.
Eventually, headhunters lured Choi to retailer G2000. “I was happy at the bank, but I asked myself about my career prospects. G2000 was a good, small company, and its founder, Michael Tien, was a tough boss, outspoken, a Harvard graduate,” she says. When the headhunter told her that Tien was keen to hire her but feared she would leave the organisation prematurely, she replied that because he was the owner of G2000, she too feared that if he did not like her performance, he would fire her. “We are both at risk!” Choi said. She assumed the position of retail staff development manager responsible for employee relations and staff training.
Eighteen months later she made an even bigger move, to the role of vice-president in the regional training and development department of Chase Manhattan Bank.
In 1992, Choi was appointed chairwoman of the IHRM Training and Development Committee. “As chairwoman, I was a relatively small potato,” she says. But her star rose. From 1998 to 2000, she served as Hong Kong IHRM vice-president, and in 2001, was voted the institute’s first female president. The following year, she was re-elected to a second term.
These were turbulent years, following the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and during this time professional standards were set for the HR industry.
Choi says she never planned her career. “I am aggressive but not ambitious. I have never planned my career, but when the opportunity arose, I took it. I always go the extra mile and I like to help others. I do it naturally, without thinking of the returns,” she says.
By then, the idea of crossing over to consultancy had already taken root. At the bank, Choi was dealing with numerous training consultancies and becoming familiar with various training products. When Boston-based trainer Forum Asia announced they were looking for a Hong Kong representative, she promptly offered her services. “Training can be a business. I felt that it was not too much of a risk,” she says. “I knew the product, the business, the competition, and I had contacts.”
Choi was hired by Forum Asia. After six years she was headhunted by UK-based Cubiks, an assessment and development consultancy, as country manager and managing consultant. Unlike Forum Asia, Cubiks was a generalised HR consultancy. “It was a good progression from training products to human resources products such as psychometric testing,” Choi says.
Nine years ago, Cubiks changed their business model. Choi left to set up Tamty McGill, a management consultancy that is active today in Hong Kong, the mainland and the Asia region.
Choi is a training brand in her own right, with a formidable track record that has crossed paths with almost every major organisation in every industry in Hong Kong, and now in the mainland.
Choi says Hong Kong’s training industry is very sophisticated, with all major training consultancies present in the market. “The industry underwent a big change after the economy crashed in 1997. Large companies began to outsource the training function. After the 1997 crash, top-earning training professionals left their organisations. Companies also began to hire more junior training personnel, paying them a percentage of the salaries earned by top earners. Special training projects are almost always outsourced. Companies look for return on investment and now prefer short programmes such as lunchtime or half-day programmes.”
Apart from a formidable list of professional commitments, Choi is a volunteer on dozens of public bodies and plays an active role in supervising and mentoring youngsters in various universities. More recently, she added a new feather to her cap, as a Justice of the Peace.
How does she balance her commitments? “I don’t do business on Sundays, and rarely on Saturdays. I never mix volunteer work with business. On time off, it’s dinner and a movie with the family ... my partner often picks the menu and venue ... that’s the way to work hard, play hard and balance life with time management,” she says.