MILTON WONG 
PROFILE
   >>   FEI  & MILTON WONG

Tributes to a great contributor to Canadian Society

A tremendous legacy and thanks from the early Chinese in Canada.   His generosity helped pave the way.


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 the subject.

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 Management Canada.

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 profession.

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.

Bob Lee, who 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 better application."

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     Vancouver Sun   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).

 


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