President of the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), BIMCO
Sabrina Chao, heiress to Hong Kong shipping empire Wah Kwong, brings the shipping industry to new heights
Following in the footsteps of their grandfather, Wah Kwong Maritime Transport’s founder Chao Tsong-yea, Sabrina and Hing Chao are now leaders in the business that makes Hong Kong one of the most important international ports. In May 2019, Hing took over Sabrina’s position as the executive chairman of Wah Kwong, a third-generation Hong Kong shipping company founded in 1952. In May 2021, Sabrina accepted the presidency of Bimco, one of the largest shipping organisations in the world, representing 60 per cent of the world’s cargo fleet in more than 130 countries.
In 2001, just after Sabrina finished a training programme with accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers, her father, George Chao, invited the siblings to take part in an intensive one-year introduction to the shipping industry. “My father planned for us to do different things in the same year,” Sabrina says. “My brother had a lot of training in commercial brokerage, facing clients, fixing cargo and shipbuilding, which were more of the external side of the business, whereas for me, it was more inward-facing. I looked at auditing, internal control, finance, legal functions. It was intended that we would both come back to help out on different aspects of the company.”
Sabrina ended up settling in Wah Kwong and assumed chairmanship from 2013 until she stepped down in August 2019. Since Sabrina took leadership at Bimco, one of her greatest challenges has been addressing the adversities that sailors are facing due to the pandemic. “A lot of our seafarers are stranded at sea because none of the ports would allow them to come off the ships. I find it absolutely horrible that all these countries and companies can’t wait to get all the cargo off the ships, but they refuse to take the people,” she says.
When they’re not focused on the shipping business, the siblings dedicate time to the arts, culture and education. Sabrina, an alumna of the British private school Charterhouse, secured the licence to open branches in Asia, first in Malaysia last year, with plans for the Greater Bay Area in the pipeline. Hing, who founded the annual Hong Kong Culture Festival to celebrate heritage and martial arts, will launch the Greater Bay Area Maritime Festival next year, where he will salute arts alongside the shipping industry.
“Coming from Asia, I want to raise the profile of Asian shipowners. Traditionally, Asian shipowners seem to be meek and quiet on the international platform. The truth is, over 50 per cent of the world's fleet is now controlled out of Asia. We actually should carry the same [influence] on this international platform.”
Did You Know?
Sabrina Chao’s mother, the former actress Lily Chao, dissuaded her from pursuing a master’s degree in psychology; she instead focused on training in finance, deemed more suitable for a career in the shipping industry.