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Life and work come full circle

Published on Friday, 29 Oct 2010
Winnie Lai
Vice-president, Waggener Edstrom
Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Two things about Winnie Lai soon become clear: she knows her mind and is not afraid of a challenge. Where other people might justifiably have opted to sit tight in Hong Kong in a senior, yet familiar, role with public relations firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, she realised that was perhaps a little too easy. So, instead, when the chance came in 2006 to relocate and run the Beijing office, Lai was quick to raise her hand, unsure what lay ahead, but ready to face whatever the future held.

The decision meant taking her then two-year-old daughter and Indonesian helper with her, while rearranging family life around regular weekend visits from her husband, whose IT development job kept him in Hong Kong.

However, Lai and her family took the changes in their stride, focusing on the advantages and opportunities rather than the separation and inconveniences.

"It was a big decision, but not a terribly difficult one," says Lai, now back in Hong Kong after three years, and vice-president of the firm's Greater China region.

"If you plan too much, you will never make a move. It was an adventure, it excited me and, as it turned out, the Beijing experience was fabulous. It is a huge market, very dynamic, and the people are very smart. Working there, you get to know what `impossible is nothing' really means."

This ability to change tack and make the most of circumstances has been a recurrent feature of Lai's career. An aptitude for languages originally led her to study translation at Baptist University, graduating in 1994, but she came to realise the discipline just didn't suit her temperament.

"I am more outgoing. I like to meet people, be creative and do new things," she says.

Therefore, she switched to public relations, learning the ins and outs of media relations, publicity campaigns and corporate image-making before deciding it made sense to see how things worked on the other side of the fence. That entailed a three-year stint in journalism, writing about technology trends and IT business news for Computer World until a call from an ex-colleague lured her back to the world of public relations to join a firm subsequently taken over by her present employer.

Having overseen exponential growth of sales, client numbers and staff headcount on the mainland, Lai has returned to Hong Kong with fresh ideas and a renewed sense of purpose.

"I learned a lot in terms of business development and want to use that here to leverage resources, organise our teams and deliver better service for clients - the possibilities are endless," she says.

Such initiatives, though, are her second priority. Work remains important, but family, which now also includes a one-year-old son, will always come first.

"That is the biggest challenge," Lai says. "I got really lucky having a husband who is very supportive and in working for a company that understands the need for work-life balance. Things worked out fine in Beijing, but I am happy to be back."

New horizons


  • Lai is taking sailing lessons to share with her family
  • Completed an MBA at Chinese University in 2001
  • Will support her children in whatever they choose to do

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