A proven track record: Henry Cheung, CEO of Thales Transport and Security (HK), is living the engineer’s dream
Henry Cheung never had any doubt about his future. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to be an engineer and, as chief executive of Thales Transport and Security (HK), he is in many ways living the dream.
The Paris-headquartered industrial group has a presence in various sectors, from transportation and signalling systems to cybersecurity and electronics for rocket launches. With major contracts for the MTR Corporation and numerous other partners, there is a pipeline of interesting – and remunerative – projects ahead for the 300-strong team in Hong Kong.
Amid all the challenges of shaping strategy, building relationships, and leading a fast-expanding organisation, the real thrill for Cheung lies in devising answers to practical, real-world problems and implementing purpose-made solutions.
“My remit now includes looking at areas like smart cities and airports, and seeing how the group’s expertise in other countries can be brought into Hong Kong,” says Cheung, who assumed his current post last year. “For example, we are very strong in in-flight entertainment systems. That is something new to me, but it means I have to keep reading, learning and observing all the time.”
Cheung was born in Hong Kong, though his family moved soon after to Toronto, where he showed an early aptitude for hands-on experimentation. “I would open up everything – the radio, the TV – to see what was inside,” he says. “That was always my interest and passion, so taking an engineering degree later on was a very obvious choice.”
Graduating from the University of Toronto in 1985 with a final-year thesis on analogue to digital conversion, he dallied briefly with the idea of joining an investment bank. The possibility arose after two summers spent as an intern with Rothschild, who had installed a new computer system for the trading division and, initially, needed someone with relevant know-how to help out.
On reflection, though, Cheung declined the offer, and opted to join telecoms company Navtel, which did high-level diagnostics and testing for other firms in the sector. “We built equipment to monitor networks and new digital technology,” he says. “It was a very young team, interesting work, and I enjoyed it a lot.”
However, when a subsequent corporate takeover raised the prospect of wholesale transfer of operations to the United States, he was less enthusiastic. Instead, he moved to the Canadian arm of German firm SEL, which, showing the nature of the industry, was itself acquired in 1990 by Alcatel.
“I went there to do signalling for a small extension to Scarborough of the main east-west rail line,” Cheung says. “The job came at exactly the right time. It involved hardware, software and new technology. We did all the onboard computers, and I started specialising in train equipment and related systems.”
Over the next three years, that expertise led to work on the SkyTrain project in Vancouver, the Docklands Light Railway in London, and the monorail at Disney World in Orlando. “I knew some computing from university, but learned how to apply it mainly through on-the-job training,” he says. “The Germans were good at communicating ‘like engineers’ – sometimes with models or diagrams – so we got to understand what was needed.”
Committed and keen to stay on, Cheung nevertheless agreed to return to Hong Kong in 1992, when talent-spotted by the MTR Corp. The role there – to replace the existing signalling system and be one of the first in the world to use the newest type – was too good to turn down.
“It all added up,” he says. “I was on the design team and then involved in preparing the specifications, going out to tender, and supervising the contractors. I was there from when they formed the project team up until completion of work on the Tsuen Wan line.”
In 1997, with the mission basically accomplished, virtually the whole team was persuaded to join the KCR to work on the West Rail project, which was then getting off the ground. It was a chance to face new challenges, notably in planning a line which would be “extendable”, allowing for the addition of extra track and stations, as and when future demand dictated.
That done, Cheung switched to maintenance, where he oversaw signalling, control of electronics, and systems upgrades. It proved interesting enough, but once the MTR-KCR merger was completed in 2007, and all his team had jobs, the time seemed right to branch out.
Deciding to start a consultancy business, Cheung soon found his breadth and depth of experience much sought-after around the region. With a small team, and bringing in other experts when necessary, he supported projects in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Australia, advising on the choice of contractors and seeing different systems – and cultures – in operation.
“You have to innovate and network to address the different problems, issues and challenges,” he says. “And that experience has certainly helped me since joining Thales.”
At present, the company is engaged on the latest signalling upgrade for seven of the ten MTR lines. In parallel, there is also a big push to expand cybersecurity and data protection services. And, behind the scenes, there are ongoing efforts to make staff in consulting roles more adept at anticipating client needs. “Wherever we can contribute, we will go for it.”
Regarding his personal attributes, Cheung is equally forthright.
“I’m an engineer; I’m not so good at finance. But I think of the company’s money as if it were my own and assess any expenditure that way too.”
GIVING THE SIGNAL
Cheung’s tips on building a company
Trust your team “Empowerment is very important for getting the best out of your team. It means letting people find their preferred way of doing a job, so they can ‘own’ the task and feel proud of what they do.”
Be flexible “Every company needs rules and procedures, but remember, too, that there are 50,000 ways of skinning a cat, not just one or two.”
Adapt at will “Flexibility, though, has to work both ways. Engineers may have official hours but, on big projects for a major international company, they can also be on call round the clock.”
Pave career paths “You have to create an environment where staff are able to learn and grow and don’t sit in the same position for five years. Employees must see they have a future and the help needed to advance.”
Teach and train “We give everyone in the company the chance to attend our in-house ‘Thales University’ in Paris, Singapore or, in future, Beijing. The courses cover aspects of management, engineering and new technology.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as A proven track record.