Women of our time - Clara Chan
Decision to list enabled family-owned company to grow into modern operation.
Clara Chan's career in the metal industry began when she was young and impressionable, as her dad "always" took her to his non-ferrous metal factory. The heat inside the factory was intense, but Chan was keen to learn the family business.
"My grandfather used to say that the metal industry is long-lasting," Chan says. "Metals are used everywhere and people and industry would continue to use them - this business will never die."
Since taking over the reins of her family metal business in 1995, she has expanded it from a small trading company into a listed company and the only Hong Kong-based firm to be a member of the London Metal Exchange (LME). Chan is one of the few women in a male-dominated metal industry. The family-owned company, Lee Kee Group, is one of the largest sourcing and distribution companies in Asia, specialising in non-ferrous metals, electroplating chemicals, precious metals and stainless steel.
Since 1947, Lee Kee has played an important role connecting mining companies, international metals producers and die-casting factories, all of whom rely on Lee Kee for its supply capabilities, sourcing and logistics, and a wide range of value-added services.
Lee Kee began as a scrap-metal trading company in 1947. Sensing a growing demand for industrial metal supplies, Lee Kee established its own alloying facility in the 1960s to produce a proprietary brand of zinc alloys. In the process, the company became the first zinc-alloy supplier in Hong Kong.
By the 1970s, Hong Kong's rapid industrial growth had created strong demand for high-quality metals. In 1975, to serve the needs of the fast-growing die-cast industry, Lee Kee introduced Zinc Die Casting Alloys from Australia's Zinifex.
The company has advanced rapidly since then. When Chan took over, her first task was to learn the intricacies of each department. She recalls that her father did not design any systematic training for her. So she started with the warehouses, where all the products handled by Lee Kee were stored. From there she moved to the department which issued invoices to clients.
This job also involved visiting the offices of clients, usually in the far-flung industrial estates on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories.
It was not an easy task as Chan "sometimes had to wait for hours to receive the payments" and in other instances "clients would tell their staff to tell me they were not in the office". After 19 years of Chan's astute management, the family-owned company has been transformed into a modern, computerised firm with more than 200 employees.
Chan is responsible for the overall management and daily operations of the group, developing and implementing company policies and procedures; negotiating with suppliers and customers on major contracts; and formulating pricing strategies.
Chan says that becoming a member of the LME tops her achievements in the past year.
Lee Kee decided to go public in Hong Kong in 2004 and, in 2006, the company was listed on Hong Kong's stock exchange.
Chan says listing the family-owned company was a major turning point.
"Our company is over 60 years old and I am fourth generation. Traditionally, family businesses are not listed. For us to move further, we needed more resources - money, expertise and exposure."
Chan credits her father for instilling in her the ethics of business and how to deal with clients.
"My father is a very traditional Chinese businessman and, for him, trust is the most important thing in business," she says.
Through her business, Chan says she has met so many people who have influenced her.
She dedicates the Young Industrialist Award she won in 2008 to them, and the professional ethics she learned though the years.
Chan feels that women in Hong Kong have a lot of opportunities and openings to flourish in the career of their choice. "I am happy to be a woman as I am the centre of attraction the moment I walk into a room as a businesswoman," she says proudly, adding that women should help each other and unite in taking care of other women and their causes.
As for the young and upcoming women in business and other professions, her advice is to keep an open mind and not be bogged down by narrow thinking. "We have so much information available around us; we live in the age of information. Our young people should take advantage of the information available and not be narrow-minded.
"They should look at the world with an open mind and talk to each other. Communication is very important and do not limit yourself."
AT A GLANCE
1995 to present: CEO of Lee Kee Group, and responsible for the group's strategic direction, and ensuring the implementation of the strategies and policies, and leading the group in the business development and operations.
2001: Establishes a joint venture on the mainland - Genesis Alloys (Ningbo)
2006: Lee Kee becomes a listed company on the main board of Hong Kong's stock exchange
2008: Receives Young Industrialist Award from Hong Kong Young Industrialists Council
2009: Establishes Promet Metals Testing Laboratory, which is the first laboratory recognised by The Hong Kong Laboratory Accreditation Scheme in metals and metallic alloy category in Hong Kong
2012: Elected vice-president of the Hong Kong Young Industrialists Council
2013: Elected chairman of the Youth Council
2014: Lee Kee becomes the first Hong Kong-based company to be admitted to the London Metal Exchange as an associate trade member