Women in shipping - Sabrina Chao, chairman, Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings

Sabrina Chao. Credit: Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings

In shipping, you need to put in the time and the effort to learn the tricks of the trade. Once you acquire these hard-earned skills, you are not easily replaceable.

Sabrina Chao, chairman of Wah Kwong Maritime Transportation Holdings, which owns a fleet of 15 bulk carriers and six tankers, makes no bones about the advantages of a maritime career.

Once you acquire the shipping skill set, you become highly sought after – a quality that we need to make young people aware of, Chao stressed. “People often think that they can go into finance and make a quick buck but skills in that sector are easily replaceable. This is not the case in shipping.

“It’s a real challenge attracting people into the industry given the downcycles that shipping endures so people will rather look at industries with higher growth,” said Chao. “While it is difficult to attract talent to the industry, the macroeconomic aspect and the global nature of the business is why people become addicted to shipping.

“It might not be the most profitable business but people stay generation after generation because of the attractiveness of the business,” she said.

The daughter of George Chao, and the third generation at the helm of the Hong Kong-headquartered company, Chao was invited to join the family business along with her younger brother in 2001. Speaking to Fairplay earlier this year, Chao revealed that she initially had reservations about working so closely with her father even though “shipping has always been in her DNA”.

“I was a bit reluctant initially about the idea of working with my father as I hadn’t spent much time with him having been in England for schooling and studies since the age of 15. I was a sceptical about how this would work out but my mother suggested that as a woman I could bring a different perspective. I graduated with a mathematics degree and my background is in finance [so I] could bring something different that would complement my father’s skillset.

“I was always assured that I could leave the business at any time so I thought why not, give it a go, and 17 years on I am still here, “ she added.

Chao admitted that there was a level of tension when she first joined the company, with people wondering about how they should treat her given that she was the boss’s daughter and there were concerns about what she would do or whether she knew anything.

“With shipping being a very male-oriented business – people often find it difficult to deal with a woman – I took my time getting to understand the business.  You have to learn as you go,” she said, adding that she looked to Ludwig Criel, Wah Kwong’s managing director, who became her mentor as she could ask him the “silly or elementary business questions” that she would have been reticent to ask her father.

Chao learned about the culture in the company from my father and by attending meetings with him but people always knew who she was or why she was there did lead to “some hilarious occasions such as when I would be sent out of a meeting to get the tea”.

Like many shipowners with dry bulk carriers in their fleet, Wah Kwong had to endure a tumultuous 2016 when the sector was at rock bottom. An immense leadership for any principal, Chao managed the risks by straddling both the tanker and bulker sectors, “because the one performs well when the other doesn’t. I am used to the cycle now and everyone is saying that bulk will come up while tankers will come down.”

Despite the demands of the family business, Chao has also succeeded in being an advocate for shipping in Asia. A former chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, she was recently named the 2018 Connecticut Maritime Association Commodore. For her, taking time to invest in the industry, as well as her people at Wah Kwong, is of the utmost importance.

“I don’t measure our company’s success by our balance sheet per se or by how many ships we have got, but it is always satisfying to see people that have worked with Wah Kwong taking top positions. When that happens, I always feel immense pride.”