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A year shy of his 65th birthday, when other men are dreaming of driving golf carts down the fairway, Frederick Ma became chairman of the mtr. Taking on the top spot at Hong Kong’s government-controlled rail operator marked a return to the public eye for the former cabinet minister, who had been forced to step down from his post in 2008 due to ill health. The man who had once been affectionately known as “Fat Ma” now cuts a leaner figure, having sworn off dessert and given himself a new moniker: “Fit Ma”.

Speaking at the mtr’s new training academy in Hung Hom, Ma describes how the city’s highly punctual (and profitable) subway network is winning fans and franchises worldwide. It now operates underground lines in Stockholm and Shenzhen; London has entrusted it with operating trains and stations on the city’s Crossrail project, due to open next year; and it’s on track to launch Sydney Metro North West in 2019. However, international plaudits don’t buy a free ride at home. Ma’s tenure has coincided with the much-delayed opening of the mtr’s biggest project to date: a high-speed rail link with China that has pitted the company against its largest shareholder in protracted negotiations. When his appointment was announced, Ma was championed as the right man to lead these tricky government-level negotiations. Winning people round comes naturally for this amicable optimist, who spent his early finance career in North America before returning to Hong Kong in his thirties and later working for construction firm Kumagai Gumi before entering politics. “Our operation touches the lives of all the citizens of Hong Kong,” he says. “Ultimately I would like to make them proud of the mtr.”

Global employees: About 37,000
Total group revenue: hk$45bn (€5.4bn)
Passenger journeys in Hong Kong: 1.95 billion per year Punctuality: 99.9 per cent of journeys on time in Hong Kong
Other cities with metro lines operated by MTR: Beijing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, Melbourne, Stockholm, London and Sydney (from 2019)

1. Playing golf

“When I was at Kumagai Gumi we had to entertain a lot of Japanese bankers so I took up golf to improve my social skills. You can play until you’re old; I know 80-year-old men better than me.”

2. Self-reflection

“Don’t look at other people, look at yourself. I always look at myself in the mirror and ask: am I doing the right thing? We should all be more self-critical.”

3. Steve Jobs autobiography

“Hong Kong University invited me to give a library reading so I chose Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I admire Jobs’ ability to invent new things to change the world and I also admire him for never giving up.”

4. Family support

“I live with my eldest daughter so that I can keep an eye on my new grandson. My second daughter also had a baby last year so both my grandchildren were born in the year of the monkey. Seeing them smile after a long day makes my world better.”

5. Shedding a tear

“At 24 my boss at Chase Bank in New York made me so miserable that I cried. I didn’t go home. I stayed to conquer him and ultimately got a promotion.”

6. Putting in the hours

“When I worked in Toronto I was always the first in and the last to leave. My eldest daughter was on the way and I was starting out so I had to do well. It paid off.”

7. Good teachers

“I believe education is very important. I was a bad student when I was young but I was very lucky to get into Hong Kong University (hku) thanks to two good history teachers who inspired me in secondary school. I’m forever grateful to them. I’ve now been appointed an honorary professor at hku myself.”

8. Octopus

“When I grew up there was no MTR; now I use it whenever I’m in Hong Kong. I use it to cross the harbour to Kowloon.”

9. Travel

“I used to want to work at Cathay Pacific. Now that I’m a loyal customer I might as well be working for them – I travel a lot.”

10. Remembering where I started

“When I was 21 my family won a lucky draw for public housing and we moved to Ho Man Tin. Before that the five of us lived in a 100 sq ft [9 sq m] cubicle in North Point with a kitchen shared between 20 people; that was actually quite typical in the 1960s. At the time there was no MTR.”

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