It's late Friday afternoon and Milton K. Wong is heading home to Vancouver
from Toronto, via Edmonton, after delivering yet another keynote address to yet
another conference on multiculturalism.
The conference could have been about almost anything -- immigration, business
ethics, trade issues, academic freedom or charitable fund-raising -- and Wong
would have been the ideal candidate to speak from experience, with authority, on
In fact, Wong is in such high demand as a speaker, panelist or moderator that
he admits he hasn't had the time to consider what he will say when he accepts a
lifetime achievement award from the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year
program at a gala banquet tonight.
Wong, who became $100 million richer this year from a fortuitous investment,
will be honoured for his "considerable achievements in business", said
the Toronto-based accounting firm that founded the Entrepreneur of the Year
program in 1994. Those achievements include establishing M.K. Wong &
Associates in 1980 to provide investment counselling services. The firm was
acquired in 1996 by HSBC Bank Canada Ltd. and Wong now serves as non-executive
chairman of a much-expanded version of his old firm, renamed HSBC Asset
Wong was also an angel investor in Vancouver-based A.L.I Technologies, a
company involved in developing digital imaging technologies for medical uses, in
which he became interested after his wife, Fei, was diagnosed with cancer in the
early 1980s. It too was acquired -- this time by an American company.
Every Wong profile, no matter how brief, unfailingly mentions that he was
invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 1997, serves as chancellor of
Simon Fraser University, is deputy-chair of the Millennium Capital Campaign for
the B.C. Cancer Foundation and that he helped establish Science World and the
Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival.
"Milton is a perfect fit for this award," said Fred Withers,
Pacific region director of the EOY program.
Wong is the third recipient of the lifetime achievement award. Past
recipients are Jim Pattison and Joseph Segal, both celebrated as much for their
philanthropy as their incredible wealth.
"I don't deserve it," Wong said "Achievement is in the eyes of
the beholder. There are so many people who achieve their goals and
objectives in life and they are successful -- whether they are social workers,
teachers or businessmen, they all have goals and objectives and they all serve
part of building a civil society."
Wong may be more right than he realizes. Criteria for the lifetime
achievement award stipulate that the recipient "must be the individual
primarily responsible for the long-term growth of at least one parent Canadian
company over the past 20 years or more."
But M.K. Wong & Associates was sold 16 years after its founding for a
reported $15 million. Wong declined to confirm the figure. Similarly, Wong
invested in A.L.I., but was never part of the management team and can hardly be
considered the individual most responsible for its growth. Otherwise, chief
executive officer Greg Peet wouldn't be a finalist this year in the
information-technology category for the Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
Wong grossed more than $100 million when he tendered his 2.33 million shares
of A.L.I under a $43.50-a-share takeover bid by McKesson Corp., a drug
wholesaler based in San Francisco.
The windfall increased Wong's status from fabulously wealthy to filthy rich.
Yet Wong lives a relatively modest lifestyle and has kept the five-bedroom
family home on Cambie Street that his parents built in the 1950s. Wong also owns
Taku Resorts Ltd., a chalet on a two-acre estate on Quadra Island.
Wong was born in Vancouver's Chinatown in 1939, the second-youngest of nine
children of Wong Kung Lai and Chu Man Ming. Wong's father first came to Canada
from his village of Toi Shun, near Canton, in 1912 and opened up a tailor shop
just east of Gastown. He returned to southern China several years later but came
back in 1920 with his bride and resumed business.
Brothers Bill and Jack Wong, both graduate engineers from the University of
B.C., still run the family business, Modernize Tailors. They were unable to
break through the prejudice prevalent in Canada 50 years ago to practise their
Bill Wong, the eldest at 80, says money hasn't changed his brother.
"He's the same old guy," he said in an interview. "He doesn't
get carried away." The only difference wealth has made is that he
pays for his clothes. "We used to make all of his clothes for him for
nothing," Bill Wong said. "Now he pays the regular price."
Wong might have joined the family business -- he made his first pair
oftrousers when he was 13 -- but after his brother Jack introduced the bright
teenager to stocks he was hooked.
After he earned his BA at UBC in 1963, Wong joined National Trustco Inc. in
Toronto and quickly moved up the ranks. Before long, he was back in Vancouver,
managing investments for the company's western branches. In 1980, he struck out
on his own and built up a successful investment firm that had $3.5 billion in
assets by 1987. But the stock market crash of Oct. 19, 1987, caught Wong by
surprise. The assets of M.K. Wong & Associates fell by nearly $2.5 billion
over the following two years as staff and blue-chip investors like Petro-Canada,
UBC, Insurance Corp. of B.C., Placer Dome and Woodward's deserted the firm. He
was heavily invested in gold stocks, which nosedivedand never recovered, and
bought a number of over-promoted and under-performing stocks such as National
Business Systems, a high-tech company that collapsed in controversy. Wong's
reputation as the "maestro of money" -- as B.C. Business Magazine
dubbed him in a 1986 cover story -- was in tatters.
Undaunted, Wong turned bullish on stocks in the aftermath of the market
meltdown long before his colleagues joined the bandwagon. He assured a
conference in 1988 that the Dow Jones Industrial Index would be higher the
following year and, sure enough, it soared from 1,879 in January 1988 to 2,791
in October 1989. At the same conference he recommended the stock of
Toronto-Dominion Bank, which nearly doubled in less than a year, and Canadian
Imperial Bank of Commerce which rose from $9 to $16 in the same time.
In the mid-1990s, Hongkong Bank, the predecessor of HSBC, threw Wong
alifeline, giving him four of its mutual funds to manage. By the mid-1990s, he
had re-built his firm's assets under administration to $1.8 billion and
re-established his reputation.
One stock that did make a lot of money for Wong was Rogers Communications
Inc., the Toronto-based cable, broadcast and wireless empire of Ted Rogers.
Wong's loyalty to the company put him on the losing side in a battle for a
licence to operate a multicultural TV channel in Vancouver. To the surprise of
local backers of a made-in-Vancouver proposal, including James Ho, Doug Holtby
and Joe Segal, Wong threw his support behind the Rogers bid.
pitched the winning local proposal as chairman of
Multivan Broadcast, said there were no hard feelings. "He's a friend of
mine, an old school friend," Lee said. "But we believed we had the
Wong said he supported the Rogers bid because it offered more cash for
education and that the company had experience with operating TV channels in
Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. "This isn't a pissing match between me and
Joe. They won and that's fine."
For years, Wong has devoted as much energy to charitable causes and social
issues as he has to business, which -- as it happens -- is an important
pre-requisite for the lifetime achievement award. He has urged the government to
sign a final Nisga'a Treaty as both a social and economic imperative. He has
also been chairman of the Laurier Institute, a non-profit social policy
think-tank that promotes discussion about the implications of cultural
diversity. And Wong is an advocate of the kind of face-to-face discussion
encouraged at SFU's Morris
Wosk Centre for Dialogue, where issues can be debated openly in an
atmosphere of mutual respect.
Wong was among the first recipients of an Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In
1994, he won in the category of socially responsible entrepreneur.
Profile of Milton K. Wong - Harvey Enchin
1 Oct 2002
Tailor Made is brothers Bill and Jack Wong's
personal journey from start-up to the uncertain future of one of Vancouver's
oldest Chinatown businesses. Dr. Milton K. Wong (philanthropist,
businessman, Chancellor Emeritus of SFU, and younger brother of Bill & Jack).