After holding a series of senior roles with various property companies, Chew Fook Aun decided on a mid-career change of direction a couple of years ago. By accepting the post of executive director and group chief financial officer for Esprit Holdings, he has been able to make full use of his existing skills, while also being able to broaden his horizons and bring new perspectives to a different industry.
A chartered accountant by training, Chew previously worked for The Link Management. Immediately prior to that, he was with the private office of a prominent local family, overseeing their property portfolio, having been with Kerry Properties for the eight years up to 2004. Kerry Properties is controlled by the Kuok Group, the controlling shareholder of SCMP Group, which publishes the South China Morning Post.
Chew is currently a vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, one of his several finance-related advisory roles. He talks to John Cremer.
What prompted you to make the move to Esprit? Having spent around 15 years in the property sector, I was obviously less familiar with the retail and apparel side, but I felt it was time for a change.
I looked through the annual report, learned about the company’s history, and decided it would be good to work for an index-constituent stock in a business with more of a worldwide reach. Fortunately, I was able to assimilate the nature of the business quite quickly because it is possible to transfer certain management and financial skills, and I was familiar with what’s needed in a listed company.
What determined your early career choices? I always wanted to be an accountant, since I was very young. Growing up in Malaysia, my parents both encouraged me in this regard and, after finishing my degree at the LSE, I qualified in London with the firm that was then Ernst & Whiney. Other than that, I had a natural interest in the property sector, and enjoyed learning about the investments and the development side, where you have to build up a land bank and a pipeline of projects. I’m sure that had something to do with my mother impressing on me from a young age the need to have a roof over your head.
How would you describe your approach as a leader? I prefer to work with the best. Some managers worry that people will outshine them, but I want to see talent brought out and used to the full. I believe that helps me to do a better job and I find it easier to sleep at night knowing there are good people working for me who are able to rise to the challenge.
Which parts of the job would you change if possible? I would rather not fly so much. But given the nature of the business, which is listed in Hong Kong and has its corporate headquarters in Germany, that is something I just have to accept.
What are the key challenges you are facing right now? There are two main challenges for the business which are very different. In Europe, with the austerity measures after the financial crisis, there is more focus on consolidating our platform, while driving traffic to get people into stores. In China, it is question of how best to piggyback on the aggressive growth there and dealing with landlords to get more stores open. It is always easier sailing with tailwinds, but when you are in management, you don’t have a choice. You have to deal with the good and bad as they come.
Which has been the toughest period of your career to date? It was probably the downturn after the Asian financial crisis. I was in the property business and values were going down, so we had to restructure the debt and take belt-tightening measures to avoid breaching our covenants with the banks. We had to anticipate what could go wrong with the loans, be very proactive, and show good commercial judgment. At the same time, my son was born very prematurely, at under 27 weeks, and was in the paediatric unit at Queen Mary Hospital for nearly two years before we could bring him home. He is fine now, but that was definitely a period of major personal and professional challenges.
How do you keep pace with changes in the business? I read a lot and try to be very alert to what is happening in the retail and fashion space. I also make a point of networking with individuals and professionals to have a feel for the grass roots and the general vibes in the sector. Attending seminars is another aspect, but with the other commitments on my time, that is not so easy.
In general, what helped you to get ahead? I have been fortunate in several phases of my career to have mentors who gave me the opportunity to shine. A lot of people have ability, but at the end of the day, if you are not given a chance, you won’t be able to excel. In all the organisations I’ve worked for, there have always been individuals who stepped up and were ready to help. That’s what I try to do now for the people who work for me.
Is still an active player in the local squash league but foresees the day when he will have to take up something less punishing, like golf
Willingly takes on public service appointments with the ICAC, SFC and so on because he feels Hong Kong has been very good to him for the last 20 years