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A life in the day

November 2017

Sky’s the limit

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist meets Institute member Joyce Kee

In 1950, after years of war, the Chinese aviation industry had been destroyed. Airfields and airports had been demolished, and every single airline closed down.

But a couple living in Chaozhou, a coastal city in Guangdong, decided to find a new life for themselves elsewhere – and they were willing to travel overland.

They took huge risks, dealing with human traffickers, but managed to get to Hong Kong before 1960, where they lived in one small room in the Walled City in Kowloon – a lawless area of no-man’s-land, governed by neither Hong Kong nor Mainland China.

The couple were soon blessed with five children, but life remained hard. They were given public housing in Kwai Hing, but their home was tiny, just 300 square feet. The parents worked day shifts and night shifts in factories to earn money to buy rice for the children.

But folk from Chaozhou (also known as Chiu Chow or Teochew) are famous for being highly determined achievers – and this seemed to have been the case with this family.

It was definitely true of the youngest child, Joyce. For her, life changed when she worked really hard at school and managed to get into the University of Hong Kong in 1989.

Joyce Kee had no mentors, so she had to go with her gut instinct – and that told her that accounting and finance would be the key to a professional career for someone who was not scared of hard work.

And so it turned out. After university, she joined Price Waterhouse as an auditor and received excellent training. After three years, she left to join Inchcape, the car distribution company, but stayed only six months before headhunters poached her to play a key role as finance manager of a leading Hong Kong property company. She stayed there for several years, but felt that she was destined for an even bigger challenge.

“Folk from Chaozhou are famous for being highly determined achievers – and this seemed to have been the case with this family.”

But what would it be? Joyce got married in 2001, and at the same time quit her job. She needed to find a new direction.

She contacted many companies, and the most interesting response came from a pair of aviation companies run by Hong Kong’s famous Kadoorie family: Metrojet and Heliservices. She started as the finance and administration manager for the two companies, and was soon promoted to executive director, and then, in 2011, she moved to another firm: Hong Kong Jet.

This was her new direction: aviation. In 2013, she took another huge step – she formed a new company with an existing business partner and an investor, and called it Aegle Aviation.

Today, Aegle Aviation is an industry leader in the boutique airline space, and manages a fleet of nine aircraft. Joyce’s job is exciting and unpredictable. She’s moved a long way from auditing. Now she has to solve technical problems, and be aware of a huge number of issues, from safety to engineering to personnel to international law.

But she finds it hugely satisfying to solve tricky problems, and the company has grown into a solid, sustainable business in the past four years.

Yet she makes sure she never forgets that there’s more to life than work. She has a husband and daughter at home, and also values her health. She built a home exercise room so she has no excuse to skip a workout session.

And the future? Joyce and her colleagues are “working on a plan to launch an innovative technological system to subvert the traditional way of doing business in the industry.” But she is not yet ready to reveal details.

This (literally) high-flying aviation business leader has come a long way – especially considering that her family’s story begins in a country where, in aviation terms, the skies were entirely empty. 

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices.