Chinese woman to transform London's global trade relations

Updated: 2011-10-12 21:21

By Cecily Liu (

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Malaysian Chinese girl who came to London without a job is now to transform the city's trade relations with the world.

London's prestigious livery companies have shaped the city's history for over 800 years but are still subject to pleasant surprises. This week their first ever Chinese master Mei Sim Lai will take over as the new Master of the Worshipful Company of World Traders.

Chinese woman to transform London's global trade relations

Mei Sim Lai [Photo/] 

"The year ahead will be busy but exciting," Lai said. Judging from the current Master Michael Wren's experience, Lai's new role will require her to attend about 150 engagements and reply to 5000 emails, but she is prepared for the challenge.

"I'm used to multitasking," she said confidently. On top of running her own accountancy firm LaiPeters & Co, she also holds a large number of public, private and charitable appointments, including being the Queen's representative in the Borough of Brent in North West London. "I give 110% to whatever I’m working on and I stay organized."

Being ethnically Chinese, Lai has chosen China and the Asia Pacific region including Australia and New Zealand as her countries of focus for her year in office. By organizing talks, visits and discussions, Lai hopes to strengthen the trade relations between the Asia Pacific and Britain especially in financial services, education, tourism and technology.

She will also take the World Traders and London's Lord Mayor to a trade conference in Shanghai next September.

"I recently visited Shanghai and was overwhelmed by how the city has become so modern, vibrant and full of energy," she said, comparing it with her previous visit a decade ago. Her tour guide back then told her that the Chinese are only interested in three things: learning English, learning to drive a car, and learning to deal with computers.

"I realized that Asia is growing fast and that UK businesses will miss many opportunities if they trade within Europe only."

As one of the modern livery companies, the Worshipful Company of World Traders has earned respect through its prestigious Tacitus Lecture with annual attendance of over 700 people. Its approximately 200 members encompass a wide range of professions including accountants, lawyers, insurance brokers, shipbuilders and managers of multinational companies.

Lai came to London in 1970 after finishing A-levels at Convent Bukit Nanas in Kuala Lumpur. "My father bought me a one-way ticket to London, and I supported myself from there on," she said proudly.

Alone and without a job in the big city, Lai's determination to become a chartered accountant earned her an opportunity to train at the leading medium-sized City Chartered Accountants Pridie Brewster a month later.

"I worked very hard, wanting to be the best trainee in my firm," she said. Nine years later Lai became the first female partner at Pridie Brewster, a rare appointment in London's accountancy profession back then, not to mention the fact that she is Chinese.

"I was very lucky because Pridie Brewster believed in giving everybody a chance," she said. Perhaps the opportunities that helped Lai realize her dreams have also made her equally keen to help others.

Lai helped Pridie Brewster to develop its Charities & Not for Profit Department and ran a free helpline to give financial advice to charities and voluntary organizations for seven years until 2006.

She also served on public bodies dealing with race, employment and education issues, including the Ministry of Defence’s Diversity Panel, the Department of Trade and Industry's Minority Business Forum and the Government of London’s Black and Minority Ethnic Faith & Refugee Advisory Group, just to name a few.

"I enjoy solving problems and helping people," Lai said. In 2004 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to Equal Opportunities, an honor bestowed upon her by the Queen.

Lai believes that the concept of equal opportunities is ingrained in her upbringing. As the sixth of ten children, she felt thankful that her father had treated boys and girls equally.

"My father used to say to us that he can't leave us with a lot of money, but he will make sure that we’re all well-educated and have good professions."

Mr Lai's six daughters have all become accomplished ladies. Three of them, including Lai, are chartered accountants and one is a chartered secretary, while the others are a teacher and a music teacher.

"But life is not rosy all the time," said Lai. The acquisition of Pridie Brewster by PKF a few years ago made many of its partners leave. Lai was faced with a hard decision, but successfully founded her own accountancy firm with the support of friends and contacts over the years.

"It was a big change, because suddenly you're starting again. But I think you can only look forward, be positive and thankful."

At her new firm LaiPeters & Co, she leads a small team and no longer enjoys the luxury of a personal assistant, an IT department and several admin staff. "But the useful thing is that my IT skills improved greatly," she said.

Perhaps Lai's positive and can-do attitude has played a key role in her success. She joined the City Women's Network in 1983 after reading about the group in the Financial Times, and became its Chairman in 1988.

One of her memorable achievements at the CWN was successfully inviting ten influential business groups to a party at Kensington Roof Gardens, an unprecedented turnout in the group's history and perhaps not for obvious reasons.

She said that the group used to have a very enthusiastic American lady who came to her one day and said: "I've just gone to see this fabulous place and we should have an event there. But there's a minimum spend of £6,000."

£6,000 was a lot of money twenty years ago, but Lai thought "why not?" and the rest is history.

Lai visits her mother in Malaysia every year, but now considers London home. Asked how she feels being part of an ethnic minority, her usual optimism shines through once again.

"I've always found being in the minority a huge plus, because people remember me, I stand out; so it has helped me in my business life, personal life, and all the other activities I do."