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Racing chief gallops to success

Published on Friday, 19 Mar 2010
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges
Chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Jockey Club

Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges has had a lifelong passion for horse racing and breeding thoroughbreds. Since 2007, he has been chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and he is also vice-chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities – the world’s leading racing organisation. He joined the Jockey Club in 1998 as director of racing and was made executive director for racing in 2000. He has played a significant role in raising the quality and profile of racing in Hong Kong to world-class standards. Before joining the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Engelbrecht-Bresges was chief executive of the German horse racing and breeding governing body. He played soccer professionally in Germany before graduating from university. He talks to Nora Tong.

What is it about horse racing and breeding that you find so fascinating?

What sparked my interest was my father's passion for horses. Personally, I especially like the breeding side. It's interesting to study pedigrees and do the theoretical planning, and to see the foals on the ground, growing up and going into training and then the race.

Why did you choose racing?

When I graduated, I had an option to go into finance. But I made a conscious decision to do what I was most passionate about. The decision was accelerated with the unexpected passing of my first wife's father, who left behind a stud farm.

You shouldn't do something just for money or because you think you will have a quick career. Your work takes up as much as 70 per cent of your daily life. If you do something you are not passionate about, you will find it very difficult to progress. In the medium term, you will be disappointed.

What challenges do you face as CEO of the Jockey Club?

Increased competition is one. We have to stay relevant amid the many options available in leisure, entertainment and gaming. We have to responsibly offer entertainment and gambling services that generate a positive income and enable us to pay taxes, create employment and contribute to charity and the community.

A major challenge lies in developing a vision and strategy to revitalise ourselves and ensure that the organisation is able to deliver. You have to convince the public of what the Jockey Club stands for and why it is good for the community. For a CEO, the management of external stakeholders is a significant task while, internally, you also have to convince your staff that this is the right vision and that we will have to go through changes.

Would you say coming to Hong Kong was the turning point of your career?

Yes. I committed myself to horse racing by spending my life in a completely different cultural environment. Globalisation means you have to expand your horizon without losing your national values and identity. You need to expose yourself to a different culture and management style.

I love Hong Kong. It's hectic, demanding and competitive. This is what horse racing is about too. Not everybody likes this environment. But I thrive on challenges.

What do you think is the most important leadership attribute?

I would say passion, otherwise you can never change an organisation, which entails its leader leading the process. You also need to have a clear vision and be a good decision-maker. As a manager, you have to diligently develop your options. But in the end you have to make decisions.

What advice do you have for younger managers?

It is much more necessary nowadays than 20 years ago to be able to build teams. It's like playing soccer. You need to learn how to motivate your teammates and resolve conflicts. You have to be willing to discuss issues and let your views be challenged. You won't always get it right. You always have to self-reflect on what you have done.

You have to learn how to lead by balancing the strengths and weaknesses of persons in a group and then putting them in the right position. For example, you shouldn't put someone with a low EQ [emotional quotient] in a leadership position, no matter how good their technical skills are. It is hard to tell people they are good but may not go to the next level. What is important, too, is if someone doesn't endorse the values of the organisation, you will have to make the decision and say maybe they have to work in another organisation.

Wide awake  

  • Sleeps only 4½ to 5 hours a day
  • May get a seven-hour sleep once a month
  • Runs in the morning
  • Goes to the gym and is especially fond of weightlifting
  • Enjoys listening to music and going to movies
  • Loves watching top-quality soccer

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