As co-chief executives of a company specialising in the production of smartcard operating systems, brothers Wong Chi-ho and Wong Chi-kit have two clear objectives. One reflects the usual business imperatives: keeping Advanced Card Systems (ACS) ahead of the pack and keeping investors happy. The other is more personal: respecting the legacy they have inherited and building on it.
The firm was founded in 1995 by their late father Denny Wong, a “serial entrepreneur” who, inspired by a relation selling goldfish, started a first business trading pet birds and reptiles. This later expanded into highly profitable export sales, before he opted to branch out into semiconductor distribution, drawing on previous experience in the electronics field. Moving with the times, he subsequently set up a second semiconductor company which prospered during the late 1980s and, when eventually sold in 1997, was the top distributor for Motorola in the Asia-Pacific region.
“As the manufacturing boom was taking off in South China, our father found a way to serve small, as well as larger, customers and sold a lot of semiconductors,” Chi-ho says. “It is, though, a very capital intensive business so, looking for other opportunities, he started to help customers develop smartcard-related apps, which led to the founding of ACS.”
When Denny Wong founded ACS, the firm initially focused on supplying the hardware for PC-linked smartcards used for access control and identity checks, as well as pre-payment and merchant loyalty schemes. Since then, it has moved up the value chain, now employing around 300 staff and selling its systems to clients in over 120 countries, and developing complex apps and versatile solutions for, among other things, automatic fare collection and micro payments in convenience stores.
One recent project with the largest retailer in the Philippines saw the issue of close to two million cards for a shopper loyalty programme. And plans to develop new banking-related apps should cement the company’s position as one of the world’s top three in its market.
Taking the business forward, the co-CEOs have a united vision, but offer distinct skills and experience. Both studied at the University of Michigan but followed contrasting routes.
Wong Chi-ho, now in his mid-30s and the elder of the two by four years, took a first degree in electrical engineering and went on to Stanford for a master’s in management. Over the next 10 years, he worked in Silicon Valley for Sun Microsystems, Nvidia and Qualcomm, along the way making contacts, gaining expertise and seeing what it took to run successful organisations at the forefront of the tech revolution.
He returned to Hong Kong in 2013 and, to gain a fuller understanding of the financial side of the operation, completed a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) programme. The aim now is to find new synergies for the existing business, go for bigger markets, and introduce more complicated products, which can take things to the next level.
“From the very beginning, my long-term plan was always to come back and help the family business, so everything I did was directed towards that,” he says. “The general consensus is that the second generation usually has it easier. That is partly true, but there are also very high expectations. If you perform well, people say it is because of what is already in place. If not, they are likely to say you have taken the wrong direction.”
Wong Chi-kit opted for a double major in psychology and economics. Although he knew that his future lay with the family firm, he initially worked as a composer after graduating, writing Cantonese pop songs with a certain amount of success.
“I knew it wouldn’t be long term, but it was something I wanted to try,” he says. “I joined officially in 2008 because the business was growing fast and there was increasing need for me to help. Our father was a workaholic, but we knew he would retire at some point, leaving us to take charge. Therefore, we both saw the need to accumulate experience from very early on and to look to the future.”
When it comes to making decisions and dividing responsibilities, Wong Chi-ho takes the lead on financial and technical issues and travels regularly to meet engineers in their main R&D centre in China.
“The core of the business is the technology, so you have to know the products and tech details and, when necessary, be very hands-on,” he says. “And, to lead the company, you have to understand its capabilities, what your people can do, and which opportunities to go after.”
To complement and counterbalance, Wong Chi-kit focuses mainly on sales and marketing, business development and organisational issues. He also sees no reason to let the demands of the job, internal targets, or external expectations become oppressive.
“I work closely with the direct line managers and if I think it is necessary to intervene more, I do,” he says. “Ultimately, a CEO is not expected to know everything, but you do need to know who to trust. We bounce ideas between us, but in the end, you just have to make decisions, stick to them, and be accountable. People only see what results from your decisions, not what goes into them.”
Noting that, in any company, the culture permeates from the top, Chi-ho emphasises the importance of clear strategies and unity of purpose.
“We both take the ‘family business’ thing very seriously, but don’t feel we have to prove anything,” he says. “We are different from each other, but our long-term goals are exactly the same.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Brothers in business.