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The coronavirus has forced Hong Kong Stock Exchange Chair Laura Cha to rethink business travel—forever

May 8, 2020, 12:45 PM UTC
Day Three Of The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020
Laura Cha, chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd., poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 21 - 24. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Simon Dawson—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Laura Cha has witnessed other economic crises: the 1987 crash, the Asian financial crisis, the Great Recession. What’s different about the one prompted by the coronavirus is that it didn’t originate in the financial sector, where the chair of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange has worked for decades. “It’s unlike any other crisis,” she says, which makes it especially hard to navigate. 

At the same time, Cha’s home base of Hong Kong has emerged as a standout in its public health response to the outbreak, adopting face masks early and en masse, implementing robust quarantine measures, and now, testing every arrival at its airport. It reopened gyms and cinemas on Friday and eased some social distancing restrictions; you can now gather in groups as large as eight

That means Cha, who previously worked at the China Securities Regulatory Commission and the Securities and Futures Commission and sits on the HSBC Holdings and Unilever boards, finds herself ahead of some global peers in considering how the exchange can ‘reopen’ as a workplace, after a spell of remote work. What’s more, shortly after Fortune’s interview, the exchange announced CEO Charlies Li would step down next year, adding another kind of transition to Cha’s plate. 

With few historical guideposts, Cha says her management strategy amid the pandemic is to focus on maintaining the exchange’s “core values;” by “[doing] our job keeping very vigilant about market stability and operation resilience.” 

Her interview is the latest in a Fortune series that asks female business leaders—including those who appear on Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women in Business lists—to talk about leading through the public health and economic crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: What’s your No. 1 concern related to the coronavirus and your business? 

First and foremost, our concern has always been our people, the health and safety of our staff. Hong Kong has done a very good job of managing through this pandemic and with the signs of the virus slowing globally, we are now carefully executing our staged return to the office. We will be using a strict split-team arrangement to pave the way for everyone to return. That said, we will continue to encourage digital communications and meetings where possible to minimize personal contact at this still-critical time. Office hygiene is also a top priority—robust cleaning and face masks have become the new normal. 

How do you expect the crisis to impact your business in the long term?

Our first quarter earnings announced this week showed the robustness and resilience of our business, with core business revenues up by almost 20% year-on-year. Our IPO pipeline also remains strong, and in the first quarter we were again the No. 1 for number of IPOs globally. As the global economy gradually moves into recovery, our focus will be on maintaining our competitiveness and capitalizing on the opportunities presented to us. Hong Kong and HKEX remain uniquely placed to further connect Asia and the world to support the global recovery. [Editor’s note: HKEX reported a 13% drop in first-quarter net profit.]

What management lessons or principles are you drawing on as you face this unprecedented crisis? What, if any, roadmap are you following?

My position today is different from when I was a regulator during previous crises. In previous crises, we were concerned about systemic risk; for example, the small brokers who might not be able to survive, and I think there will be some that face a similar situation now with a reduced business, etc. But that is a concern of the regulators. For us as a market regulator, we are less concerned about the health of our market participants than the health of our market because the small broker is only a small percentage of our market participants, so [compared to my] previous experience that’s a distinction. 

Is your company taking any direct measures to aid in the coronavirus response?

Quite early on, during a February board meeting, we committed to donating HK$10 million ($1.3 million) to coronavirus relief. [Editor’s note: The exchange says it’s put some of that money into action through local partner charities in markets where it operates, such as ChickenSoup and Senior Citizen Home Safety Association. It will continue to work with other organizations to extend support to people and communities in need.]

What—if any—good do you think will come from this crisis?

Sustainability…definitely the reduction of the carbon footprint. This crisis shows that the travel we did as an industry in financial services was huge, and now we are able to do that with a lot less travel. I think that has to be an impact on the industry, with knock-on effects.

What’s the biggest way your professional life has changed amid this crisis?

A lot less travel. Because I’m on the HSBC Holdings board in London and the Unilever board has six board meetings—three in London and three in Rotterdam…and the miscellaneous roadshows for the exchange, for example, so that adds up. Now it’s been reduced and I can see going forward I don’t need to travel that much and I welcome that.

How have your virtual board meetings been?

The first virtual meeting was Unilever; it was interesting. We could do video in additional to audio, only two of us opted for video and halfway through we said, ‘Only two of us…’ so we turned off the video. People were not used to it; this was early March. I think people are getting used to it, so now we have the grids of different people in different places. 

What’s the biggest way your personal life has changed in all of this?

It gave me forced downtime…which was very welcome. I got to clean up a lot of things in my study, all the emails and all the reading, and I’ve never watched so much Netflix.

More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:

—Chrissy Taylor on keeping Enterprise’s rental fleet moving, and her family’s business afloat
—A Harvard Business School professor reimagines capitalism
—Sheryl Sandberg: The pandemic is creating a “double double shift” for women
—Inside Lyft’s coronavirus response team
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: The double burdens that hold women back

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