As a former department store clerk, Thomas Woo started his career the hard way – from the bottom. A fresh graduate at the time, he would never have guessed that his then-boss and mentor, Masashi Ishikawa, would go on to create one of the leading supermarket and lifestyle chains in Hong Kong, and that its stewardship would one day pass on to him.
Tell us about your rise to company president. I was part of the city'super founding team in 1996. Originally, I came on board as the marketing manager. But because it was such a small team, it was very much a case of everyone doing everything. Over the years, I've taken care of wholesale, food, IT [information technology], and even HR [human resources].
In 2002, my mentor and city'super founder, Masashi Ishikawa, developed terminal cancer and passed away just five weeks after his diagnosis. Before he died, he asked me to run the company. I've been serving in this role since.
What kind of staffing structure do you have to support you? We basically have one head per business line. These lines include the supermarket, city'super; LOG-ON, which concerns our gadget and lifestyle products; food and beverage, which covers many of the outlets you'll see in our food courts; and wholesale. Then, we have the corporate support services: HR, finance, quality assurance, supply chain, store development, marketing – each with its own head. We also have geographical heads for each of our markets – Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei.
What led to your being named one of Ernst & Young's “Entrepreneurs of the Year” for 2011? I think it was in recognition of city'super as a brand, and for my role in helping steer it.
We've tried to make city'super much more than a supermarket. What we're really trying to offer is a means to a better lifestyle. As such, you'll always find something different at city'super. It's fun. It's like a journey. And that shopping experience is what sets us apart.
How much did having a mentor contribute to your success? Very much. But people should remember that a mentor doesn't necessarily have to be your boss – it could be your parent, it could be a friend of yours.
What aspects of Ishikawa's management style were most beneficial to you? The most important thing was that he let me do things and run projects on my own. He was very hands off. As far as he was concerned, it wasn't about teaching someone something by giving them steps to follow. It was about giving them the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.
How would you characterise your own management style? I very much emphasise teamwork. To grow a company, you need much more than one person's capabilities.
How do you plan on dealing with the current level of global economic uncertainty we’re seeing?
We’re lucky enough to be operating in one of the brightest spots in the world. But that doesn’t mean we are immune to economic uncertainty – we will probably be affected one way or another. Having said that, we‘ve only been in mainland China for a year-and-a-half, the market for our products is growing, and it's still very new.
Because the market is only starting to grow, and because there continues to be a lot of unfulfilled demand, the chances are that – short of a great depression – our overall business growth will likely be maintained. So even in this uncertainty, it seems like we might continue to do well.
Does that mean we’re going to see more agressive expansion from the company and perhaps some extra hiring to help fuel that expansion?
While we do plan to expand in the coming five years, we still need to be a little mindful of the current uncertainty. At present, we’re being very careful about where how much we invest.