Catholic Social Services CEO Christopher Leung is retiring after 30 years of dedicated service.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Catholic Social Services CEO Christopher Leung is retiring after 30 years of dedicated service.

May 14, 2012
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

After more than 30 years of dedicated service to Catholic Social Services, CEO Christopher Leung is calling it quits.

The Hong Kong native is expected to retire at the end of May but vows to continue helping the agency in other ways.

For the time being, his retirement plans include going on vacation to British Columbia in the summer and to Hong Kong in the fall.

About 300 people attended his retirement party at Santa Maria Goretti Hall April 12. There is no word on who will replace him as CEO.

Leung, 64, thanks the founder of the organization, Msgr. Bill Irwin, for his remarkable career with CSS, which saw him rise to the pinnacle of the largest multi-function social service agency in Canada.

Over the last three decades Leung has acted as vice-president of administration, senior vice-president, associate chief executive officer and, since April 2002, chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services, Catholic Charities and the Sign of Hope Society.

Irwin knew he wanted Leung to work for him at Catholic Social Services soon after he first met him in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. The priest was in Hong Kong for an international conference of social workers.

At the time, Leung was assistant to the president of Caritas Hong Kong and had been asked to show the visiting Irwin the agency's programs.

At the end of the visit, Irwin asked Leung if he wanted to work for him at Catholic Social Services in Edmonton.

Leung said reluctantly that he would consider it. A month later he received a letter from Irwin saying he had put in an application for Leung to come to Edmonton. A month later he received another letter from Irwin asking him to resign his job with Caritas because he had everything ready for him to begin working at CSS.

It had been relatively easy for the priest to get a work permit for Leung because nobody in Canada could match his qualifications and he needed a versatile executive.

Leung's background is a unique and happy combination of social work and business management. He is a registered social worker in Hong Kong, Canada and England, has degrees in social and public administration as well as a doctorate in management. That combination of skills, talent and education made him uniquely fit to help Irwin lead the agency.

On one hand, Leung was in turmoil because he didn't want to uproot his family and leave a promising career in Hong Kong for something virtually unknown.

On the other hand, he was excited about the possibilities and wanted to give his daughter more educational opportunities in Canada. He said "yes" to Irwin.

His boss at Caritas didn't want Leung to leave and when he failed to persuade him to stay, he asked the bishop of Hong Kong to talk to Leung.

The prelate tried his best. He even offered Leung a year leave to come to Canada and convince himself that things in Edmonton wouldn't be as rosy as presented. Leung turned down the bishop's offer.

In Canada, things turned out better than expected for Leung and his family. He worked hand-in-hand with Irwin for 20 years, often replacing Irwin in his absence. In 2002, Leung became president and CEO.

His wife Shirley worked for the provincial government as a social worker until her retirement. His daughter Rachel completed two different professional degrees and now serves as a registered dietitian at the Misericordia Hospital.

"I have been so blessed," Leung says.

From the beginning, Leung has been responsible for the administrative structure and infrastructure of the agency - making sure things are done in a cost-effective way.

His first job was to build the agency's head office on 99th Street. He has also had a hand in building the agency headquarters in Wetaskiwin and in Red Deer, which should be completed in a few months.

Leung also set up policies and procedures and the appropriate administrative functions for Catholic Social Services so the agency could operate in an efficient way.

At one point Leung convinced Irwin to have an outside agency accrediting Catholic Social Services and looking at its services with a critical eye. For years, CSS has been reviewed every four years by a New York accreditation agency.

Leung is also widely recognized as the driving force behind the Rotary Centre for New Immigrants and for the agency's initiatives to help the homeless.

"He's done a lot of positive, tangible things, but I think Chris' greatest gift is he is very much a servant leader," said CSS official Marc Barylo.

BEHIND THE SCENES

"He set an example for all of us to follow. He was never one for the limelight. He quietly behind the scenes made things happen without caring for credit. He tries to pass the credit on to others, much like Father Bill did."

Barylo said many of Leung's decisions are based on his commitment to God and his Catholic moral principles. "He is very much a person of integrity and he wants to be his brother's keeper."

The last 31 years have not been without challenges. During economic booms, for example, he found it difficult to retain staff. Many employees wanted to make more money and would leave the agency for better paying jobs. During the last economic boom he had to deal with a 25 per cent staff turnover.

Leung says his appointment as CEO 10 years ago was a surprise to many people, including him.

Yet, the biggest challenge came when Irwin died in 2004. Many people wondered if the agency could ever survive without its founder, who was the agency's "tower of strength." Leung proved it could not only survive but also excel.

To allow that to that happen, though, he had to introduce bold changes to the way Catholic Social Services was run.

GOVERNANCE MODEL

Slowly but surely he moved the agency from a corporate model, where the president calls all the shots, to a governance model, where the board of directors sets the direction.

"I believe in the principles of accountability, collaboration and transparency," Leung says proudly. Eventually he even removed the word "president" from his title, becoming just the CEO.

When he took over as CEO, Catholic Social Services had an annual budget of $42 million. Now the agency's budget is $72 million, with well over 100 programs, 1,600 staff and 2,100 volunteers.

"I have worked with Chris since 1987 and he has always being a thoughtful, dedicated and hardworking member of Catholic Social Services," said Kevin Feehan, chair of the board of Edmonton Catholic Charities and Sign of Hope.

"He has always striven to ensure that Catholic Social Services lives up to his mission as a truly Catholic organization that is dedicated to the social justice mission of the Church."

Feehan, a city lawyer, said Leung has always had as his primary focus helping those in need, including people struggling with family violence, immigration issues, mental health, addiction issues and diseases like HIV/AIDS.

"Chris has been tireless in the work of the Lord and has been a credit to the memory of Msgr. Bill Irwin."