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 i