Hong-Kong based Clara Chan has over 20 years of experience in the non-ferrous metals industry. She is among the small minority of women in the metals sector in China. She grew up spending holidays in her father’s small alloying plant. The family run firm has grown and evolved, listing in 2006 under her guidance. She also sits on various London Metal Exchange (LME) committees. Clara is fascinated by the supply chain and how metal is ultimately used. She wishes she’d studied engineering and wants to dispel the myth that the metals industry is old fashioned and traditional. She would like to share her message with young people. “When you are in this industry you learn about the economy, politics, the environment and commerce.” By Camila Reed
How did you choose metals and mining as a career?
I’m the 4th generation running this company. I grew up in this area. I still remember when I was small I spent a lot of time in my father’s workshop during the holidays. This is the way I was brought up. So after I finished school it was quite natural that I would enter the family business. It’s traditional Chinese thinking, they like their children to continue their business into the next generation and I’m the eldest in the family. So that’s how I started in 1995.
What is it about metals you particularly like?
In Hong Kong we had a small alloying facility and we melted zinc and aluminium in a small workshop. I found it interesting to see the molten metals and then them passing through the mould and selling them to the alloying industry. After I graduated I had the opportunity to visit many smelters whether it was zinc, nickel or other metals. I was very interested in seeing the production.
On the customer side, we have clients covering over 20 different industries from automotive to toys to fashion accessories and by going to visit our customers, I get to understand how these products are made. So that’s how I developed my love of the industry from the smelting side through to the consumer.
Is there another generation waiting in the wings or have things changed since Lee Kee Group listed?
The company has changed a lot since I joined in 1995. My father was third generation and since we listed in 2006 it has turned the company from a very traditional Chinese company into a more international platform and we have lots of external professionals. We have around 200 staff. We want to develop the company internationally.
The next generation is very tiny at this stage and I’m not sure about their career path but I think that the family thinking is that we don’t necessarily think it has to be family members to manage the company. We want to have talented people and people who have moved up the ladder in the company.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the metals sector?
The industry is predominantly male but things are improving. I remember when I started there were no women in the metals industry and when I went to visit the customers all the bosses and the technical staff were male. And when a young lady came to the companies they found it strange – and I found it strange too!
Now the situation has improved a bit because some of the second generation going into those businesses are female. In terms of the metals industry in China, female participation is still pretty low.
Why is female participation low in the sector in China?
It requires a lot of travelling to remote places where the conditions are hard, with high temperatures at the plants and uncomfortable conditions.
On the other hand family may be another factor. Traditionally one of the things that Chinese women want to do is look after their families.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination?
I have experienced discrimination and I have to use a lot of effort to persuade the counter party that I’m capable and that I’m able to make the decisions. My case is different because they will treat me as a second generation. My perception is that the second generation may follow the steps of their fathers.
But for me, being a female and a second generation are two factors to overcome and I want to prove that I’m able and be accepted in my own right.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
Firstly my father.
I don’t think I would have done it without mentors advising me at each stage of my career. I have a mentor who’s Chinese and he nominated me for the Young Industrialist of the year award in 2008, which I won. He not only nominated me but he also gave me an incredible platform to connect with other industrialists and he taught me that whenever I have the opportunity I should also help young people so that they can show and use their skills.
My other mentor is also one of my advisors, William Wise. He’s Australian and I’ve known him a long time. He’s an expert in the zinc and aluminium industries and he taught me how these work.
All my mentors have really helped guide me during my career.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
One of the challenges I had was to build a factory in Ningbo in the eastern part of China. I’m not from the East, I was born in Hong Kong and my home town is from the South of China. So it was around 1999 we decided to set up a factory there. It was a three party joint venture with an Australian company and a local partner.
There were cultural differences between the three parties even though Hong Kong is considered an international city. Back then bringing a group of Westerners to Ningbo, which at that time was quite a remote city and then trying to work out with the Chinese partner how to build the plant and how to bring on production was quite challenging.
I was there for around two years to set up the production and liaise with the two parties and until the first production came about and we had to sell the product. There were language problems because they spoke a local dialect and I didn’t speak that dialect but over the two years I learnt it. We had a lot of problems because it was a greenfield site, but we overcame the challenge.
At the time I was thinking ‘why did I choose to do this?’ I was far away from home and no one was there. But then I overcame it because my thinking is that once you decide to do something you have to give it your very best.
The other challenge I had was when we needed to expand the business through the listing which was in 2006. At that time I remember when I was doing my road show many people were asking why was I listing and why should I trust a family business because the corporate governance may not be sophisticated. So I had to spend a lot of time explaining and showing them that we have the corporate governance.
There are many other stories…
What are you passionate about in your work?
I love challenges and innovation. I get bored doing the same thing for too long so that is why I am so keen on Lee Kee’s development. We started off as a trader then moved into production in China and then we expanded into technical consultancy and then into commodities broking.
I want to develop new things every year so that we have new ideas and new things coming on. And also I believe that in the metals industry there are many things we can explore. I have a very good platform so that I have good opportunities to meet with customers and explore their requirements and to connect with the producers and the customers.
What would you love to do next?
I want to develop the company into a worldwide business.
I think I would also like to share my experience of the industry with young people. I’m not sure about in the West but at least in Hong Kong and in China they consider the metals industry as quite old fashioned and traditional. I would like to tell them that it is very interesting.
When you are in this industry you learn about the economy, politics the environment and commerce. Like us we know how things are made and the sectors that use them. I would like to encourage more young people to join this industry. I’m not aware of any women in mining or metals associations existing in China who can do this right now.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
I wish that I had done a double degree. I’m glad I did my business degree but I would like an engineering degree because all my work requires a lot of engineering thinking. I think an engineer with good communication skills is a great combination. I wish I’d had some engineering training before I started out.
You sit on a board. What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I don’t think it’s necessary to be as strict as to have quotas but I do encourage the board to have a good mix of people from different backgrounds and genders.