Dr. Christopher To has worn a number of hats over the past few decades. A former secretary-general of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, he is one of Hong Kong’s pioneers in dispute resolution, playing an important role in elevating the city’s status as a hub. Apart from that he has been an accredited mediator, a chartered arbitrator and a law professor. Additionally, he has chaired or been on the board of a wide range of industry bodies. Currently, he is chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Directors, and in this interview with the Hong Kong Lawyer, he discusses that role, as well as other aspects of his career.
Given the impressive nature of his career, Dr. Christopher To’s background is far from typical. He tells the Hong Kong Lawyer his career path was originally set on a different course. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing systems engineering with electronics in Scotland, To returned to Hong Kong, where he started his career as an avionics engineer with a major airline.
He then moved into various roles across the organization, “including building and facilities services, finance, maintenance, organisational development and purchasing.” But, while To was able to spread his wings at his workplace, he had his eye on the skies. After a year in the organization, he applied to join the company’s cadet programme as a pilot.
“I managed to complete all the assessments but for my eye sight, as I had short slightness at the time and I still do to this day,” says To, noting his career could have looked quite different. “If my eyesight was perfect, I would have been a commercial pilot,” he says.
However, this did not hold him back. Instead, he changed tack, and instead of getting a bird’s eye view from a commercial plane cockpit, he ended up focusing on details. “I worked hard to learn the ropes from designing simple to complex systems including some of the gadgets you now use in flight such as the Personnel Television System installed in each seat,” To says.
While in the role, his biggest achievement was the de-commissioning of the Lockheed Tri-star L1011. To describes retrofitting the aircraft to its original specification for a new owner as “a task that had its challenges as some of the original parts were difficult to obtain in the market place and with the assistance of dedicated personnel from a maintenance organisation we managed to replicate the components so that they could be certified for installation. Not to mention the fact that we had a timeframe of slightly over one month to complete the job.”
But during this time, To would gain lifelong skills that would come in use later on down the line. “I learned to effectively lead a team from the ground up by getting my hands dirty and not simply sitting in an office and forwarding work instructions to my fellow colleagues in the maintenance organisation,” he says.
“In another situation the sensor in the fuel tank in the aircraft wing was not operating and the mechanic reported that it was impossible to replace the sensor, so I quickly wore the necessary safety equipment and entered the wing of the aircraft to replace it,” To adds. “Being 6ft 3 inches tall, it was a demanding task and eventually I managed to replace the sensor. To this day many of my ex-colleagues and those in the maintenance organisation often remember my ‘can-do’ attitude and we often chat about the good old days.”
That early interest in law laid the seeds for another career that was yet to come. “I was always fascinated with the law from watching movies like Perry Mason to LA Law while studying for my degree in Scotland,” To says. “Whenever proposals from an engineering point of view were discussed at the board level, many board members deferred to the lawyers for advice about the contractual arrangements and when the lawyers spoke everyone listened without interrupting and from there on, I made up my mind that I wanted to study the law.”
“Rather than ask my parents to fund the education, I decided to study law on a part-time evening basis while working full-time during the day. Although it was demanding, nevertheless now looking back on things it was well worth it,” To says.
A Distinguished Career in Arbitration and Mediation
Arbitration and mediation are rapidly growing in profile and gaining traction in Hong Kong and Singapore, but when To originally joined the profession, the field was burgeoning. For To, the attraction of the arbitration and mediation space was in part the opportunity to work on cases that have international connections.
“I was attracted to arbitration and mediation because of their international elements. When I started in this area, most people thought that there was not much growth potential. However, 25 years on, arbitration and mediation is now part and parcel of our legal system,” To observes.
Today, he thinks back to some of his most memorable cases during his time. “One of my memorable cases in arbitration was when the chair of the Tribunal was challenged by one of the parties’ about certain non-disclosure requirements. The challenged chair did not resign and thought that the grounds of the challenge did not have merit. Being one of the co-arbitrators I was tasked to handle the matter with my fellow co-arbitrator who was an engineer,” says To. “My fellow co-arbitrator at the time did not have any practical arbitration experience in this area and deferred to me for guidance. We managed to effectively handle the matter and the arbitration continued with a different chair being appointed. This exercise without doubt tested my knowledge of applying the International Bar Association conflict of interest guidelines and equipped me with the finite elements of handling a challenge in an arbitration setting.”
“Only when theory is practiced would you be in a better position to understand the mechanism of the process,” To adds.
In mediation, one of his most memorable cases was one pertaining to family matters “where the parties kept on moving the goal posts without trying to find a compromise to settle,” says To. “Rather than call off the mediation, both parties wanted the mediation to continue and the mediation did continue for six months. During one of the sessions I decided to have a private meeting with one of the parties’ in a more relax setting at a coffee shop at 10AM, where there were only those serving us present in the premises.”
“Rather than hold back, I simply put the question to the party and asked why are you not trying to finding a solution to move on and the answer I got was I do not want to move on and the mediation was a good occasion where both parties can meet and discuss matters. So I spoke to the other party in private and got the same answer,” he adds. ““To this day these two persons are happily together and they often keep in touch with me. This case has taught me to use more direct questioning techniques in the private sessions and to think outside the box, as most cases are not so straight forward in life,” he says.
Finding Purpose in Public Service
To also has a history of serving on a number of public bodies – indeed, his experiences in these positions are something he reflects on fondly.
“I like helping others,” he says. “I believe we have to be considerate and when you have the abilities to assist other you should. My passion is that time does not stand still and every minute you waste is something you will regret in your life.”
As Secretary-General of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC), from 1998 to 2008, To shaped both the role and the institution significantly. While in the position, he was responsible for administering and appointing arbitrators under the Arbitration Ordinance (Cap. 609) of the laws of Hong Kong [previously Cap.341] and its sub-legislation, as well as handling worldwide enquires in relation to the arbitration law and procedures of Hong Kong.
At the same time, To worked to promote Hong Kong arbitration and alternative dispute resolution services locally and internationally and drafted procedures and rules as well as suggest amendments to the arbitration law.
He left behind an enviable legacy — when To was appointed to the HKIAC, it was in deficit, and by the time he left, the team had managed to achieve a surplus that would stand it in good stride going forward. The team also grew in headcount, and drastically increased the number of arbitration and mediation cases.
As of today, the HKIAC is ranked as the top three bodies around the world in the provision of ADR services — in contrast to its reputation in the 90s, where it was seldom referenced, and even viewed with some level of hesitation.
To has been associated with The Hong Kong Institute of Directors (HKIoD), for some 17 years. As Hong Kong’s premier body representing directors to promote corporate governance and director professionalism, the institute is highly respected. The HKIoD Directors Of The Year Awards, which have run for some 20 years and recognise outstanding boards and directors, while promoting good corporate governance, are highly sought after.
“In culture building, it plays a pivotal role to develop directors and educate the public,” says To. “As I have been engaged as executive director, I strongly believe in the role of the board of directors and identify with the ideals of HKIoD. That is why I joined HKIoD to participate actively in its mission.”
“I have been involved in HKIoD’s many training and educational programmes, among which notably Directors Of The Year Awards. They have created great impact among directors and stakeholders. I am pleased to have been involved in organising these projects and working with many project partners in the community,” he adds.
He notes that in spite of COVID-19, the Directors Of The Year Awards project is going ahead this year. “There are a number of good candidates this year and we look forward to seeing deserving winners being awarded and to sharing with the public their experiences in this challenging time. Results of the Awards will be announced in November,” he adds.
In his position as chairman of HKIoD, To is responsible for a range of different areas. “I have the responsibility and honour of leading the Council to direct and control the affairs of HKIoD. My colleagues on the Council and I work as a team to develop directions, policies and strategies and to monitor their implementation,” To says.
Being chairman of HKIoD also comes with challenges, says To, noting that there are areas he is looking to help adapt in order to tackle these. “HKIoD is a non-profit-distributing organisation that has full autonomy and is not controlled by any party. Because of that, we have our independent views and are in a good position to represent directors in collective voice. That is why the government and regulators recognise our status and often consult us on policies,” he says.
“The autonomous status, however, leaves us alone to conduct our business financially. As there is no mandatory stipulation for directors to join HKIoD, unlike the professionals who must be a member of a professional body, we have to make special efforts to promote our image and activities, recruit members and seek sponsorships,” he adds, noting: “It is not easy but gratifying for us that after establishing our track records for the last two decades, we have secured trust and support from many stakeholders in the community.”
Another aspect of HKIoD is its Board Appointment Service, explains To. “Our Board Appointment Service is a free service to facilitate the search of candidates for appointment as board members, particularly independent non-executive directors, by companies, usually listed companies,” he explains.
“We have a register of learned and seasoned directors among our membership who are willing to offer themselves for such service. Based on requirements stipulated by the searching company, we source candidates for presentation to the company. In recent years, the service has been acquired also by private companies and even the government looking for appointments to public boards and committees,” he says.
To also notes there are a number of exciting recent and upcoming developments for the institution, which businesses will be keenly aware of and watching carefully.
“In June, we announced the HKIoD Corporate Governance Scorecard 2020. This is the sixth round of our series that assesses corporate governance performance of major listed companies in Hong Kong. This exercise is conducted once every three to four years,” says To. “The 2020 Scorecard indicates some significant improvement of CG performance among major listed companies in Hong Kong. It is a good benchmark for investors, both individual and institutional and both local and international.”
Looking Ahead to the Future
When asked to consider the current regulatory framework for corporate governance and directors' duties in Hong Kong in general, and in relation to family businesses, To is philosophical, noting this continues to be developed over time.
“The regulatory framework for corporate governance and directors’ duties in Hong Kong is evolving in a gradual and healthy process,” he tells Hong Kong Lawyer.
“The regulators lead in proposing reforms that keep up with international pace and respond to local calls. Proposals for reforms are presented to the public for consultation before finally concluded. So, there is a democratic process for introducing reforms,” he explains.
But lawyers can also play an important role in supporting the mission of the HKIoD, says To, who notes that they ensure compliance and help support better business practices.
He tells lawyers: “By actively engaging in the institution’s goals and objectives as corporate governance is of paramount importance towards a company’s overriding objectives and healthy state of the economy.”
“As advisers to corporate entities, lawyers play a crucial role in ensuring compliance with the various regulatory regimes that an entity must operate under and adhere to for the betterment of our society,” says To.