By Sarah Colwell
When UC Davis alumnus and Hong Kong native Sir Chung-Kong “CK” Chow was preparing to be knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to industry in the United Kingdom, the protocol official imparted an important lesson.
“One thing: Do not look down. That’s what people do in the movies, but that’s not correct. You should look up to the sovereign when being knighted,” Chow, M.S. ’74, recalled, adding that his wife’s excitement about the event was primarily because actor Sean Connery was also knighted in 2000.
Chow walked in the room, knelt down and bowed his head. Then, remembering the instructions, he quickly looked up—just as the sword swept over his head.
“Oh, boy! I’ll be the first knight in history to be beheaded by the queen during the vesture ceremony,” said Chow, recounting his internal monologue with a laugh and his usual jovial smile.
Since then, Chow has continued to realize the value of keeping his head held high. As chairman of the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, or HKEx, Chow is responsible for guiding the long-term vision and strategy of the stock exchange. He played a pivotal role in a revolutionary new venture that opened the door for the rest of the world to trade with mainland China.
Chow, who has been named one of the most powerful Chinese men in the Western world by Hong Kong media, has a leadership philosophy centered on cultural appreciation.
“Leadership, actually, has cultural differences. A good leader in America may not be an excellent leader in Japan because [the two countries] require different leadership styles,” he said.
This perspective allowed him to build a career in global management working in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and the United States, achieving tremendous success. It also helped ensure success across industries. After working 20 years for a global industrial gases company, Chow became chief executive officer of a U.K.-based global engineering company, where he led one of the most significant acquisition-based expansions in the company’s history. He then became CEO of a global logistics support services company and, in 2003, the CEO of Hong Kong’s metro and property company, which operates rapid-transit lines in London, Stockholm, Beijing, Shanghai and Melbourne.
Chow took his current role of chairman of HKEx in 2012, when—in addition to acquiring the London Metal Exchange so as to capitalize on China’s consumption of 42 percent of the global metals commodities—he helped launch Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect. The new program allows international investors to buy and sell shares with mainland China and for wealthy Chinese individuals to access international investment opportunities for the first time.
“The share turnover in the Shanghai market has grown beyond everyone’s expectations, making it one of the largest in the world,” Chow said, adding that Hong Kong has experienced similar growth and is now is the sixth largest stock market by capitalization in the world.
An outsider’s perspective
Although he did not have much securities-related experience before becoming the head of the HKEx, Chow said he successfully made the transition from transport to trading because he had global experience and “an outsider’s perspective” — something he refined while at UC Davis.
Chow came to UC Davis in the early 1970s seeking a warmer climate (having obtained his undergraduate degree in Wisconsin) and the opportunity to study chemical kinetics under the late professor Joe Mauk Smith. When he arrived, Chow realized UC Davis had much more to offer.
“The most unique memory I have of UC Davis is that it was very international,” said Chow who obtained his master’s degree in chemical engineering. “In the department, in addition to me, we had people from Italy, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Spain. So I learned a lot about the world at that time.
“Even in the discipline of chemical engineering, there were different approaches from other countries. I think the early exposure at UC Davis to all these international dimensions helped play a part in my success.”