Face to Face with Margaret Fong, Executive Director, Hong Kong Trade Development Council

With an international career and an international mindset, Margaret Fong, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) is keen on firmly reinforcing Hong Kong’s position as a global investment and business hub, one that not only  connects international businesses from both emerging and traditional sectors, but also fulfills its role in local and national strategies.

LEARNING THE TRADE

Fong has been working with the Hong Kong government since the start of her career. A graduate of the University of Hong Kong with a major in English Literature, she joined the government as an Administrative Officer and worked in different policy areas over the years. Her international career began when she spent six years in the United States of America, over the course of two stints. “I worked first as Deputy Director-General and later as Director-General of the Washington Office of the Economic and Trade Office, and then spent two years as Commissioner for Economic and Trade Affairs, USA - the Hong Kong government’s most senior representative in the United States,” she shares.

Upon return to the city, she took up a variety of roles in transport and tourism with the Hong Kong government before joining the HKTDC in 2010 as Deputy Executive Director. “My time in the US and as Commissioner of Tourism highlighted the importance of Hong Kong’s international network to the city’s continued success as a business hub; it also showed me that communication is key to reinforcing our value proposition to global partners and that an agile approach to capturing new opportunities is crucial to Hong Kong staying relevant in an evolving economic and geopolitical landscape,” she shares. “All this prepared me well for my current role at the HKTDC, a Hong Kong statutory organisation whose mission is to create and facilitate opportunities in global trade for Hong Kong companies,” she adds.

A HOLISTIC HONG KONG

When Fong came to the role, she held the firm belief that the HKTDC must develop strategies that considered the Hong Kong brand as a whole and not just from the point of view of any one sector. She believed it should be demonstrated that Hong Kong is a global city that welcomes international talent to reside, work and play. “One of the first projects I was in charge of was a new mega promotion presenting a holistic picture of what Hong Kong can offer in terms of talent, opportunities and networks but also as a dynamic, exciting cosmopolitan city to live and work in. To achieve this, we brought the ‘Hong Kong family’ together and launched the “Think Asia, Think Hong Kong” campaign in London in 2011 – the biggest-ever promotion of Hong Kong in the UK,” she shares. “More than 2,600 people participated in the programme, which was supported by 18 government and industry organisations from Hong Kong and over 30 UK organisations. The highlight of the week-long programme was a one-day symposium that featured breakouts covering our pillar sectors as well as emerging ones. We also held a special dinner, a presentation of Hong Kong films and a street fair offering a taste of Hong Kong,” she adds.

The promotion was a success and the HKTDC received more than 10,000 business enquiries per month in the six months following it. For Fong herself, what stood out about this event is that it was the first time the HKTDC broke away from its previous approach of sectoral promotions that only showcased Hong Kong’s strengths as a business hub. Instead, it highlighted the city’s overall appeal as an international, culturally enriched, fun, and unique place. “My career up to that point had put me on the frontlines of representing and differentiating Hong Kong to overseas audiences and I was keen to communicate that this is not just another business centre; this is a living, breathing and remarkable city that will engage you on many levels; one of the world’s great cities,” she shares.

KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY

Another key area of focus for Fong has been the integration of technology into all of the HKTDC’s activities. “Whether it is e-commerce, fintech, biotech and healthtech, marketingtech, entertainment tech or manufacturing tech, smart city and AI, or R&D and technology commercialisation, in recent years our sectoral trade fairs and conferences in Hong Kong have been gathering relevant players from around the world to make business happen. In addition to bringing the world to Hong Kong, during this time we have also been bringing Hong Kong’s tech and innovation players abroad, for example, to join top global shows such as CES in the US, Mobile World Congress in Spain, as well as our own large-scale business promotions in emerging and mature markets,” she shares.

Not underestimating the role start-ups play in the wave of technological innovation, Fong has made them a new focus of the HKTDC since 2015. “We have transformed our Entrepreneur Day into a flagship event for start-ups and developed a year-round development programme, Start-up Express, through which start-ups can gain exposure and find new networks, as well as meet potential investors and mentors,” she shares. “We have also set up Startup Zones, bringing start-ups into our sector events, which are fertile ground for them to gain exposure and seek market validation. To support this community, we have been working with other public organisations such as the Science Park, Cyberport, Invest Hong Kong and commercial incubators and accelerators, to provide comprehensive support for international and local start-ups, no matter what stage their business life cycle is at,” she adds. “We have also increasingly been working with young entrepreneurs and start-ups, showcasing or adopting their solutions at our events. I think the entrepreneurial spirit is part of the Hong Kong DNA and I find it exciting to see a vibrant community of start-ups evolve in the city – a community of entrepreneurs from near and far who have chosen Hong Kong as the place to pursue their dreams,” she shares.

Working in the area of technology and innovation has not only enabled the HKTDC to be at the forefront of Hong Kong’s current economic evolution, but it has also been personally extremely rewarding for Fong, who has been able to collaborate with a range of pioneering individuals, from students in local labs to world-renowned tech visionaries.

HONG KONG'S ROLE IN CHINA'S NATIONAL STRATEGIES

Hong Kong has a well-established and pivotal role in China’s development by linking its economy to the global economy at every stage of the country’s opening. As China’s economy has continued to evolve, Hong Kong’s role has also changed and increased in importance. Another key focus area for the HKTDC has been ensuring it effectively communicates relevant new opportunities both locally and overseas and provides useful tools and platforms to help companies access them. “For example, Hong Kong is the ideal international platform to facilitate commercial and professional service elements of infrastructure, digital or other projects for the Belt and Road Initiative. Since 2015, we have been putting significant efforts into reinforcing Hong Kong’s role as the two-way investment and business hub of Asia by positioning the city as an international commercial hub for the Belt and Road,” shares Fong. “Our work focused on creating a global networking and business facilitation platform in Hong Kong through the flagship Belt and Road Summit, setting up a Belt and Road Global Forum of organisations worldwide interested in business opportunities, organising investment, manufacturing partnership missions to Belt and Road countries, and launching a Belt and Road portal – an online digital resource,” she adds.

Another opportunity the organisation has been helping companies leverage on is the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development plan, a group of 11 cities in Southern China that offer a hotbed of innovation, plethora of services, rich manufacturing capacity, and advanced infrastructure in finance, logistics and trading. “To help international, regional and Hong Kong businesses realise the potential of this emerging powerhouse, we have been fostering business opportunities by showcasing key elements of this region at our Hong Kong-based fairs and conferences, conducting seminars and organising outbound missions to help Hong Kong companies target promising areas in individual cities and most recently developing a one-stop GoGBA platform of digital resources, advisory services and workshops,” shares Fong. “Additionally, in the last year, we began drawing on our traditional strength as a two-way investment and business platform to capitalise on the mainland’s relatively quick economic recovery from the pandemic and the country’s “dual circulation” strategy,” she adds.

LOOKING FORWARD

The pandemic brought about several challenges for the HKTDC including a complete halt on physical tradeshows and exhibitions. With it, however, also came several significant lessons. These include the need to be as technologically adept and ready as possible as well as the importance of community partnerships. “We had been pursuing our own digital roadmap before the pandemic and supporting the digital transformation of businesses through support programmes and by providing expert insights and intelligence. COVID-19 brought an urgency to these activities and we believe this will last for years to come. We are learning to become comfortable with frequent, if not constant, transformation,” shares Fong. “When the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sudden halt to physical events and international travel in 2020, we immediately sought solutions to digitalise our events and services and started launching a series of new offerings to keep business going despite lockdowns. Learning as we proceeded, we continuously refined our digital platforms to improve the user experience and to deliver effective business matching results. We have also started laying the foundation for our post-pandemic fairs, conferences and promotions, which will combine the best of physical event management with sophisticated technologies to capture wider audiences and provide participants with a more flexible and customised experience, whether they are in the venue or engaging remotely,” she adds.

Further, the HKTDC’s strong relationships internationally became essential to maintaining business continuity and helped their stakeholders find opportunities despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. “We were able to meet their expectations with the help of our colleagues and partners, including our international network of 50 offices, business associations worldwide, international chambers, the consular community in Hong Kong and others. These were partnership networks we built and maintained long before the current crisis,” shares Fong.

Fong believes that despite technological advancements and its widespread adoption across industries, face-to-face interaction is still crucial in businesses and in building meaningful relationships. “This is the feedback we get, and it is unsurprising – we are social creatures after all,” she explains. “At the same time, we have also had first-hand experience of capturing new business opportunities, reaching new audiences and markets, and enriching event content with virtual technologies. We will continue to apply these learnings even when travel and physical gatherings return to normal, augmenting physical business events with virtual elements and on-demand content,” she adds.

Besides these key take-aways, Fong is optimistic about certain sectors that have emerged stronger in the city during the pandemic, such as health-tech, bio-tech, edu-tech and smart city technology. “We are keen to capture new opportunities at the point where healthcare, technology and innovation converge by leveraging the city’s traditional strengths as a leading international financial and commercial hub, its robust research and development capabilities and its strategic position in the Greater Bay Area,” she shares.

On an international front, Fong says the HKTDC is keen on developing Hong Kong’s trading relationships and business ties with countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as the whole Asia-Pacific region as covered by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). “ASEAN is a growth market, and one that I believe Hong Kong is well placed to capitalise on. With Hong Kong’s unique position under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle, the growing business connections between the Mainland and ASEAN and the separate free trade agreement between Hong Kong and ASEAN economies, I foresee a lot of opportunity in this region in the coming years. Hong Kong’s role as an international financial centre in the Greater Bay Area further increases the potential for more economic engagement with ASEAN countries looking to tap into the potential of this emerging economic powerhouse,” she explains, adding that the HKTDC remains committed to supporting Hong Kong companies in traditional markets such as the United States, Europe and Japan.

LAWYERS AND THE HKTDC

Fong believes that Hong Kong’s legal system is a cornerstone of the city’s success as a two-way platform for international business and investment. She regards Hong Kong’s robust legal regime, commitment to the rule of law, cluster of international talents in legal and other professional services and extensive global networks in legal and other sectors, as key components to the success of the city. “With Mainland China, in particular the Greater Bay Area, and ASEAN being major engines of growth, we expect international and cross-border investment will only grow and that’s where Hong Kong’s expertise in IP protection, dispute resolution, risk management and international law comes in. Hence, we want the legal sector to be an active player in our worldwide promotion of the strength of the Hong Kong platform and establish Hong Kong as the critical link between the Greater Bay Area and ASEAN with the rest of the world,” she shares. “This will be in addition to sectoral promotion of the legal and dispute resolution services targeting specific markets, especially with our affirmed new role as an arbitration and dispute resolution centre under the 14th Five-year Plan,” she adds.

According to Fong, promoting Hong Kong services has been an important part of the HKTDC’s work and endorsing Hong Kong as Asia’s legal and dispute resolution hub will be a focus for their service promotions and anchor events in Hong Kong, Mainland China and overseas this year. “The Law Society of Hong Kong has been our long-standing partner for many of these events and I hope we can work even more closely in the years to come,” says Fong. 

 

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