Tommy Ho: The Rising Son of Yacht Insurance in Asia
Yacht Style profiles TOMMY HO, Founder and CEO of Voyager Risk Solutions, who manages insurance for many of Hong Kong’s new luxury yachts and is starting to expand across Asia.
Tommy Ho Wai-lok is well known in Hong Kong’s yachting circles, but plenty still know him as the third son of Ho Sai-lo, who retired in June 2018 after 35 years managing the boat yard at Club Marina Cove.
Tommy still frequently attends events at Marina Cove as the Sai Kung venue regularly hosts private events for many of the world’s leading luxury yacht brands, including Ferretti Group, Azimut, Sunseeker, Fairline, Monte Carlo Yachts and Prestige from April through June.
In June, Voyager co-hosted the Family Days weekend at the end of the nine-day Ferretti Group Itinerary Show and Tommy found himself fielding more questions about his father than himself.
“When I go to Marina Cove, lots of friends and familiar faces come up to me, but they all ask about my Dad, like how’s Sai-lo enjoying retirement, how’s his health,” laughs Tommy during an interview with his father and mother, Susie Lei, who’s still involved with the family’s yacht repair business at Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.
“When I go to events, a lot of people know me because of my parents and in fact, we generated business at that event. It’s great I’m also in boating like my parents, because we can always talk about boats, whether one’s good or bad, its design, the quality, so on.”
However, what’s surprising is how often Tommy’s surprised when hearing stories from his parents, who both grew up working on the water, his father initially crewing on sailing boats and his mother a leader of one of the famous ‘side party’ groups of sampan women who cleaned the hulls of military ships.
AROUND THE WORLD
In the early 1960s, Ho senior responded to an advert from an American, Vad Jelton, who was recruiting two crew for a long cruise with his wife on a 55ft sailing yacht.
Sai-lo recalls: “I saw the advert recruiting for crew, so I went for an interview. At that time, my salary was HK$160 per month…”
Tommy’s eyes widen in shock – “Wah, so little” – before his father continues.
“Then the American offered me HK$700 per month, so it was an easy decision. The boat stopped in a lot of places so it took a long time, almost two years. We eventually finished working in San Francisco.”
“He did it for the money,” smirks Susie, who married Sai-lo after he returned to Hong Kong in late 1965.
Sai-lo said the most alarming episode was when the owner’s wife started screaming as she thought the boat was going to sink.
“The wife was steering, but she was hungry, so she asked me to take over at the wheel while she went to get some food. When she got down to the galley, she found the whole place was flooded and started crying out. A hole in the pump was leaking and flooded the whole deck. We stopped the boat, found out where the leak was, then repaired it.”
As Sai-lo continued to work as crew on boats on his return to Hong Kong, Susie continued her sampan-based work, which included managing her side party brigade, cleaning the sides of Royal Navy ships at HMS Tamar, chipping off rust and repainting them.
“They didn’t pay me,” she says. “They’d give us old rope, wires, anything we could either use or sell.”
Tommy knows about his mother’s participation in the 1971 London International Boat Show at Earl’s Court when ‘The boats and water-people of Hong Kong’ was a theme and she was one of two ladies, along with Annie Ho, selected to represent the then-colony.
“They wanted to promote Hong Kong and they sent two sampans to London for the show. I had been working with the Royal Navy ships for a long time, since I was very young, and they chose two of us. Rowing a sampan is quite a skill because there’s only one paddle to power and steer,” Susie says.
“I flew there on December 31, 1970, but arrived on New Year’s Day in 1971. It was the coldest place I’d been. Then, for the opening ceremony, I rowed the sampan for the British Prime Minister, [Edward] Heath.”
Tommy is again in shock, his head flicking back, eyes wide open. “I didn’t know that!”
“A lot of people came up to me for autographs,” Susie continues. “What for? I didn’t understand what they wanted.”
BACK IN HONG KONG
In the early 1970s, Sai-lo became a foreman at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club before setting up his own family-named repair service operation onsite in 1977 with Susie, who has helped manage the operation for over four decades, although she has recently handed most responsibility to Tommy’s second-eldest brother.
In 1983, Sai-lo left the new family business to join the new Club Marina Cove, which Henderson Land had developed from a fishing farm into a marina and residences. In fact, Sai-lo was recruited by Grantham Sharkey, Tommy’s godfather and the former marina manager of Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, who was hired by Marina Cove.
When Tommy was young, the family spent time living on a junk in the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter by Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and he has fond memories of this period of his life (featured in COLUMN, Issue 46), although there were hardships, such as showering with no hot water.
As a schoolboy, Tommy joined his father at Marina Cove each Sunday, helping yacht owners with their belongings, cleaning yachts and doing other odd jobs.
“I needed to make some pocket money,” says Tommy, who has a younger sister as well as two elder brothers. “I remember owners in those days were very generous. A Coca-Cola was HK$2 and the owners would give me HK$20 tips.”
After finishing his studies, Tommy worked for the local dealer of Musto sailing apparel and also distributed other sailing gear and even jetskis, selling over 100 in a year. However, when the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis took effect, he had to close his shop and found himself in debt.
Tommy started working at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, where he met Colin Dawson, who thought the youngster’s extensive experience in boating would prove an asset in insurance, so asked him to join him at Heath Lambert.
Tommy’s first day in insurance was September 10, 2001, a day ahead of the infamous 9/11 attacks. Despite the inauspicious start, he worked at Heath Lambert until 2006 and then spent 12 years at Aon until founding Voyager last year.
THE VOYAGE CONTINUES
With strong financial backing and Tommy’s now 18 years in the industry, Voyager has made strong inroads into the local yacht insurance market in a short time. “I’d say 80 per cent of the boat dealers in Hong Kong are using our services,” he says.
Recent high-profile contracts include those for the first-ever Pershing 140, which could arrive in Hong Kong in September, and Ferretti Group models from Riva, Custom Line and Ferretti Yachts. Others include an Azimut Grande 32 Metri and Sunseekers like the 74 Predator set to arrive in July and 76 Yacht that arrived earlier this year.
Voyager has also signed an MOU with the Hong Kong Cruise and Yacht Industry Association (HKCYIA) to provide risk-management and insurance consultation services for the upcoming Superyacht Management Services Centre, which is a redevelopment of the Yiu Lian and Euroasia Dockyards in Tsing Yi, and set to open in 2020.
Along with his team’s insurance expertise, Tommy is confident of Voyager’s well-rounded offerings due to his and his family’s vast experience of working on yachts and with the many key suppliers, yacht clubs and marinas in the city.
“This is where we show our expertise. I know whether any repair claim is reasonable or if a supplier is overcharging. I can also call shipyards to prioritise urgent repairs. I’ve even helped prevent yachts from sinking by making phone calls to the right people,” he says.
“I’m also a boat owner, so I know what owners need to look out for and how they think. There’s no other insurance broker with my connections in Hong Kong, plus I also have a good network in China, Taiwan, Philippines and so on.”
In fact, one of Tommy’s next ambitions is to expand Voyager across Asia and the move has already begun with a representative office in Singapore. He’s looking for opportunities to expand in the likes of Taiwan, Philippines and Thailand.
Yachting makes up the vast majority of Voyager’s business, so his other ambition is to expand business in non-yachting sectors, which already includes automobiles, art, wine, jewellery, financial, even kidnapping and ransom, and now professional indemnity insurance.
“We know everyone in yachting in Hong Kong, so we can improve here, but not by a great amount. However, we definitely can increase a lot in the other sectors in the coming years.”
Tommy remains upbeat about his city’s own yachting market, which has slowed due to a lack of berths. He believes there’s potential money and interest in growing infrastructure in the city, but that government approval remains an obstacle.
“For one, Discovery Bay is being redeveloped, while I’ve been speaking to some tycoons and they’re interested in investing in and building marinas. They’re even asking where they can buy land for this, but building a marina needs approval from many different government departments.”
Tommy Ho may be among the most connected people in Hong Kong boating circles, but he’s well aware of who gave him the start in the industry and provided him with the network and support to be one of the region’s rising stars in yacht insurance.
“Tycoons won’t do business with you unless they know you, who you are, like some family history or connections.” And for that, he knows who to thank.
The original article appears in Yacht Style Issue 48. Email [email protected] for print subscription enquiries or subscribe to the Magzter version at: www.magzter.com/SG/Lux-Inc-Media/Yacht-Style/Fashion/