Hong Kong

In-House Insights with Kenneth Wong of LINK REIT

We recently asked Kenneth Wong, Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary at LINK REIT, to share more about his remarkable professional journey. As a co-winner of the IHC Counsel of the Year in 2023, Kenneth highlights his approach to becoming a successful in-house counsel in this Q&A…

Tell us a bit about your legal journey that has led you to your role as chief legal officer and company secretary at LINK.

I took my law degree in the UK and was trained as a solicitor in Hong Kong. I co-founded a corporate and commercial law firm in Hong Kong when I had only seven years of PQE and acted as its Managing Partner for fifteen years until my retirement from the partnership in 2016. During that period, the firm grew from three fee earners to fifty fee earners and eventually merged with an international law firm. After resting for a while to take a Masters Degree, I joined a Chinese conglomerate (HNA Group) as its International General Counsel to set up a strong team of transactional lawyers at its International Headquarters in Hong Kong to make acquisitions around the world. During the three years at HNA, my team completed more than HK$300 Billion of acquisitions and related financing. Hence, HNA became a Fortune Global Top 100 company. I also set up a Virtual Global Legal Centre to link up all the general counsels of the newly acquired companies around the world. The Virtual Global Legal Centre oversaw more than 300 in-house lawyers in the larger HNA Group. In 2019, I took up my current role at the largest REIT in APAC (Link REIT) as its Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary. During the past four years, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, my team completed more than 25 asset acquisitions with a total value of approximately HK$65 Billion.

Reflecting on your legal career, what key lessons have shaped your leadership and problem-solving approach as an in-house general counsel?

I am an entrepreneur. During my fifteen years of managing my law firm, I learned that people are the most valuable asset of any business. Without good people, the business would never succeed. I care for my team members as if they were my family. Leadership is not about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in your charge. Even though I know we won’t be colleagues forever, I hope we can be good friends forever. I don’t believe in micro-management. I believe leaders don’t take care of results and problems. Leaders empower and take care of people and people generate results and solutions. When you were made a leader, you were given the responsibility to inspire and bring out the best in others. You are only as good as your team. Choose the right team, then trust them to deliver.

Share a success story where your legal team played a vital role in achieving positive outcomes for the company, highlighting collaborative efforts within your department.

The Legal team at Link REIT completed the second largest rights issue ever in Hong Kong (and the largest ever Asian rights issue in the real estate sector) within four weeks and amidst the Chinese New Year holidays in 2023. Not only did the team need to negotiate the underwriting agreement with eight underwriters within the aggressive timetable, but it also needed to work with external counsels on a number of overseas legal opinions to cover offering to overseas unit-holders and ensure compliance with overseas regulations. The Legal team collaborated with the internal Regulatory Compliance team, the Corporate Finance team and the Corporate Affairs team to seek clearance from the SFC, the HKEx and Link REIT’s Trustee and Registrar on the offering timetable and mechanism and the promotional materials. The legal team also worked with the Company Secretariat team on: (a) all disclosure documents including the regulatory announcements, offering circular and application forms to unit-holders; (b) delivery of all condition precedent documents under the underwriting agreement; and (c) filings to overseas regulators. Last but not least, as the Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary, I helped to present the proposed Rights Issue to the Board of Directors and Finance and Investment Committee of the Board to seek their approval. The Rights Issue strengthened Link REIT’s capital base and brought the net gearing ratio to below 20%. Most pertinently, it aligns with Link REIT’s objective of providing unit-holders with stable distributions with the potential for sustainable growth in the present economic environment.

Can you share initiatives or strategies your legal team has undertaken to align legal practices with corporate social responsibility and broader ethical considerations?

Being the Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary, I oversee four corporate functions, namely Legal, Company Secretariat, Risk Governance and Compliance. With the four award-winning teams respectively under my supervision, I am in the unique position to implement a cross-functional Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) strategy for Link REIT. Encompassed in GRC, Governance defines the responsibilities of key stakeholders in decision making (such as the board of directors and senior management), Risk Governance identifies principal risks, evaluates them in the context of Link’s strategic objectives and manages them within Link’s established risk appetite, and Compliance ensures that business activities comply with the respective regulations. Most organisations have practised these functions separately in the past. But at Link, GRC combines these functions in one integrated model to achieve strategic objectives and ensure sustainability of the business while managing risks, meeting all laws and regulations and translating into bottom-line financial benefits. By implementing a GRC strategy, Link can make better decisions in a risk-aware environment. The entire company comes together in its policies, decisions and actions. GRC is also a commitment to fostering a culture of integrity and ethical conduct and ensuring responsible governance that goes beyond mere legal compliance, which helps to enhance investor confidence and Link’s reputation. Last but not least, GRC identifies the participants and key controls which interact to ensure that the board of directors and senior management run the business of Link in the long-term interests of our unit-holders whilst also meeting the expectations of our other stakeholders.

As a legal leader, what advice do you have for aspiring inhouse counsels aiming to make a significant impact in their organisations and advance in their careers?

In-house counsels must integrate into the whole organisation instead of being in a silo. You are there to provide solutions, not just raising problems or saying “no”. There is no point in just identifying a risk without analysing that risk and providing mitigation solutions. In order to do that, a good in-house counsel must fully understand how the other integral parts of the business operate, maintain good inter-personal relationships and develop a good commercial sense. You are the bridge to different functions within the organisation. Your role is to balance the view amongst different stakeholders and provide an aligned and risk-calculated solution. You need to understand how your internal clients think. If you do not possess the necessary professional knowledge in order to understand the needs or concern of other departments, find time to take courses to fill in the gaps. When you give legal advice, be concise and conclusive. Don’t be long-winded or write long pages of reports. Lastly, it is not enough just to prepare watertight legal documentation or provide practical legal advice, which should be treated as the minimum expectation. You need to be innovative and constantly thinking of ways to provide value-added contribution to the business. There has long been a general perception that in-house counsels are over-conservative (and not entrepreneurial) and that the in-house legal function is just a dispensable cost-centre and hence secondary to the finance, investment and business functions. I sincerely hope the younger generation of in-house counsels will help to rectify that perception.

WONG, Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary, LINK

Mr. Kenneth WONG is the Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary of Link REIT and oversees the Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) functions. He is a qualified solicitor in Hong Kong with more than 30 years of legal and management experience focusing on corporate finance, M&A and corporate development.

Tags: HNA Group, Hong Kong, International General Counsel
Latest Updates
Related Articles
Related Articles by Jurisdiction
Putting teeth into compliance programmes
Stan Lui, General Counsel APAC of Nobel Biocare, tells ASIAN-MENA COUNSEL about his unique teaching methods, as well as alerting us to the kind of problems the future may hold and offering his own ...
Asia in-house legal and compliance hiring trends and salaries, 2017
Asian-mena Counsel is delighted to partner again with Taylor Root on their 2017 market update and salary survey report for in-house legal and compliance in Hong Kong, China and Singapore ...
Latest Articles