There is not much Caroline Mak doesn't know about the retail business. As regional director, north Asia, and CEO, China for the Dairy Farm Group, she oversees about 2,600 stores - the number keeps growing - serving and supplying millions of consumers a month. Her portfolio includes Ikea, Mannings, 7-Eleven convenience stores and supermarket chains Wellcome, ThreeSixty and Jasons, making her a leading figure in the retail sector and an influential voice on related public policy issues. Mak first joined parent company Jardines in 1988 as sales and marketing manager for its then Christian Dior cosmetics agency and subsequently built brands, introduced new retail concepts and quickly climbed the corporate ladder.
What were the new challenges in your present position?
In this role, I'm not really running a business but more influencing other executives in what they do. Therefore, I caution myself not to be too hands-on, trying instead to empower line managers and directors, and asking myself what they need to drive improvement.
What has spurred you to keep aiming higher in your career?
I'm not very career-minded, but I do have the fighting spirit typical of the generation born and bred in Hong Kong in the 1950s. I am the fourth of six children and my parents were factory workers, so I had to fight for a place in school and, because the family couldn't afford further education, I started work as a typist with a real estate firm in the early '70s. Later, with the Peninsula Group, I was told I couldn't move to management grade without a degree. That struck my sense of fairness. I wanted to show my parents and other people I could achieve something and, one day, get the title of chief executive.
For you, what is the key to being a successful leader?
The most important thing is to know where you want to take the business. If not, as a leader, it can be very dangerous. I define a clear target - at Mannings it was to be number one in health and beauty in Hong Kong - and write down the why, what, how and if to form a framework. Of course, you need good people around you, which is a matter of skill and luck. And I spend a lot of time with staff in the stores and warehouse because they, not the CEO, really run the business.
In any new role, what did you impress on the team?
My management style is to sell a vision and mission, getting people to buy in and share the same values. I’m a born seller of what I believe in and think is right, but I’m also open to ideas. You can challenge me – I have no ego problem in that way – and if you show you’re right or can do something in a better way, I’m very happy. A winning team is built on a culture of “we” not “I”, shared recognition, and executives developing their successors.
How do motivate employees during the year?
When visiting stores, my objective is to show I’m there to help, not to scold or to chase sales. Being respectful is essential and, as my mother always told me, it is best to encourage people and give them opportunities to do well. Overall, I’m probably harsher on senior staff. They are paid more and should therefore show more brains.
Which responsibilities are a struggle?
The most challenging thing is getting trade viewpoints through the legislative process and government bureaucracy. It can be like talking to the wall. Sometimes they give answers you could never even dream up. For example, with nutritional labelling, why does Hong Kong need its own system instead of adopting standards from the US, European Union or Japan that are recognised worldwide? Hong Kong imports 95 per cent of its goods, so we are wasting money on something unnecessary.
What excites you day to day about your job?
If I can find a “ding” solution - a flash of inspiration - that is instant gratification. It is why I still love to walk the stores, making notes and asking myself why the aisle is like this or how a display could be better. If I can't find at least 10 things to improve, I'm surprised. Retail isn't like accountancy. You can't learn it from a textbook. There are never-ending opportunities, but you must see things like the customer.
How do you deal with stress?
My husband, who is now retired, keeps me calm; he is my tranquiliser. We have a simple family life, like to travel and talk, and don't go out much to big social events. I play tennis and love the spa, making sure to have a manicure, massage and facial every couple of weeks. I've got my priorities right. You can always find the time.
What do you highlight to young people starting their careers?
First jobs can be trial and error, but after a year or two, you have to nail down what suits you and your character and have a clear career plan. These days, the younger generation have so much more access to information, and the freedom and energy to do almost anything. But they should also understand that attitude is important; that is what makes you different.
Kung fu kudos
As chairman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association, Mak has been part of policy discussions on the minimum wage, competition law and the plastic bag levy
She feels an obligation to support numerous trade committees and associations
Likes to re-read the kung fu novels of Jin Yong for their imagination, philosophy and beautiful Chinese
Having spent over 35 years focused on trying to improve the customers' experience in specialty, big box and entertainment stores in the US, I was hoping to learn something about the Chinese and Hong Kong customer from this article. SCMP teased us with the headline: "High Flier - Retail chairman thinks like a customer." I didn't find anything to increase my knowledge about the local shoppers' decision-making process. Like in so many retail settings, the promises made in marketing were not fulfilled at the point of sale.