Susanna Wong strode briskly to the venue of interview inside YATA Department Store (Tai Po), looking refreshingly vibrant in a minimalist outfit. It was hard to imagine that she had just finished inspecting a warehouse in Tai Po and would soon rush off to Kowloon Tong for a meeting. Susanna joined YATA as CEO in 2016, when the retail sector was in the doldrums. That year, the general retail turnover had fallen in excess of 8% but she helped the company expand its business presence, with a 2% rise in sales volume.
The department store is currently expanding its retail footprint and the number of employees under Susanna’s management has increased to about 1,000. She graduated from CUHK’s Faculty of Business Administration, and obtained an MBA in France. Susanna calls on the various YATA stores regularly to chat with her colleagues, to understand frontline conditions and acquaint herself with customer preferences. ‘What I like doing most is to help my cashier colleagues stuff purchased items into the bags of customers. This gives me an idea of what the best-selling products are and which of them have no immediate need for stock replenishment.’
Along with the opening of new YATA stores and the refurbishment of existing ones, she has hired more procurement staff, responsible for sourcing a greater number of new products to entice customers with a sense of novelty and more shopping options. ‘Besides travelling to Japan on procurement trips, they also source new merchandise in Europe. If I come across any new products myself, I would take their photographs and discuss with my colleagues on whether there’s potential market demand. Then we would decide on whether to stock the products for a trial sale. If our team discovers any new products or new modes of selling implemented in the neighboring countries, we would share the information in a bid to meet customer preferences better with our products and services.’
Shortly after joining YATA, Susanna began working closely with her staff. She finds ‘straight talk’ the key to strong collaboration. ‘I would set challenging goals and hope to progress together with my colleagues. Sales strategies that were proven in the past may no longer remain so, and we can’t continue using them all the way. If we don’t keep an eye on consumer preferences, we risk losing our competitive edge. We may not be able to achieve instant success, but we should keep pace with the times.’ She believes transparency and effective communication are important. That is why whenever new initiatives are launched, she would explain the rationale behind them to frontline staff, instead of issuing directives from the top. ‘This helps reduce a lot of misunderstandings.’
Communication is also based on mutual trust. ‘As a leader, I would foster an environment conducive to trying new initiatives. “Trying” means that there will be chances of success and the likelihood of failure,’ she said. ‘If they succeed, everyone would be happy. But if they fail, I would never reproach them but encourage them to keep trying.’ She believes that so long as there is the right atmosphere for employees to speak up freely, the team could generate more good ideas. ‘When they’re on the right track, I’d give them a free hand. If I lack faith in their abilities, they would lose the passion at work.’
Last year, after the YATA team completed its market research project and formulated a store expansion strategy, the company opened the world’s first Hello Kitty-themed supermarket, to enthusiastic market reception. She attributed the success to the continual innovation efforts of her colleagues, who have given their all to the company. This year, while refurbishment of the Tai Po Store was underway, her team suggested setting up a dedicated zone for children, with the five sensory elements incorporated to let them touch displayed products and watch videos to nurture their learning interests. ‘I am glad to see how my colleagues feel increasingly easy to suggest new ideas. This is the drive behind our company’s sustained developments.’
Compared to back-office roles like marketing and promotion, Susanna finds it more challenging to recruit enough talents for frontline sales positions. ‘Many candidates feel that the working hours for frontline sales staff are too long and they will be required to stand for lengthy hours. That’s why we offer our frontline employees a more competitive remuneration. In the past, our cashiers worked for half an hour more every day compared with other regular staff, as their work involves 15 minutes of preparation time at the start of the day and after lunch. YATA scrapped this requirement later and standardized the working hours for all its frontline staff.’ In-store space is often used for business operation, but the company prefers to convert part of it into rest areas, equipped with a microwave oven and furniture, for its employees to eat their meals comfortably in their own seats.
Former YATA CEO Daniel Chong was known for his candid style with the courage to speak his mind on current affairs during his tenure and his affable people-oriented image is also well established. Asked if she was worried that others would compare her with her predecessor, Susanna said resolutely, ‘Worries often stem from an anxiety over what might happen in the future. Since it is certain that people will make such comparisons, I am not worried at all.’ She believes that everyone is different in personality and management style, though comparisons between them are inevitable. ‘I just do my best to expand YATA’s business scale and live by my own style.’
Apart from providing YATA with the leadership to drive its developments, Susanna also sits in CUHK’s Career Development Board to help young alumni with career planning. She returns to campus at times to share job hunting insights and discusses career planning matters with them. She said these efforts were too insignificant to be considered ‘contributions’, but they were made to honour the memories of her alma mater that she cherished. ‘I’ve met a lot of good teachers and friends at CUHK’s Faculty of Business Administration and Chung Chi College. Even now, I still catch up with Prof. Andrew Chan and other classmates from time to time. I even meet my close friends once a month. Such genuine friendship is hard to come by in the commercial world.’
Susanna’s normal work-day routine includes inspecting the stores and attending the company’s meetings, both large and small. Sometimes, she returns to her parent company Sun Hung Kai Properties to train new staff. When she does not go to work, she shops for grocery at YATA supermarkets, while taking the opportunity to observe their pedestrian flows and customer preferences. Does this deprive her of spare time? ‘What gives me motivation is my passion for the retail business and the support of my family. My husband is supportive and would accompany me to the supermarkets whenever he is on leave. Likewise, my sisters love shopping and would notify me of any new products they come across,’ she answered calmly.
Susanna believes the retail business can be likened to a mirror. ‘When the economy is not doing well, you will notice that cereals, oils and other foodstuff such as luncheon meat sell fast. But when the market recovers, you will also discover that many highly priced snacks perform well in sales too.’ Her colleagues have also played a mirror role. ‘As a leader, I require my colleagues to give each other constant reminders to deliver a better performance together.’
Reported By Jenny Lau, ISO
Photos by Eric Sin
This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Apr 2018.