HK businesswoman finds sisterly market for beads

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 October, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong entrepreneur Jenny Lau is a pioneering Asian businesswoman tapping into a market that is proving profitable and sisterly.

Unique prayer beads produced by Ms Lau's company are proving popular in Saudi Arabia, particularly among women. The beads are traditionally carried by the faithful when offering devotions, but are also cherished as gifts and appreciated for their comforting and aesthetic qualities.

The executive director of Chinese Emperors International made her first foray into the kingdom with guidance from the Saudi consulate in Hong Kong. After receiving tips as to what products were sought, she felt inspired enough to establish her own brand, Huamulan.

'I had the chance to ask the consulate about doing business in Saudi Arabia, and I noticed that the women there were very active and doing a lot of business themselves,' Ms Lau said.

'I studied what those businesswomen were doing and discovered that cosmetics and fragrances were very big there. I noticed that they were interested in European cosmetics and garments because of the guarantee of the product - and also interested in the new things from China.'

It was then that she hit on the idea of 'mixing the Chinese design and perfume products from Europe' after noticing how French fragrances were a favourite among Saudi women. She then developed the Huamulan brand to market the beads and perfume products in Riyadh and Jeddah, in addition to scarves and accessories.

The range is due to be launched next month at a Saks Fifth Avenue outlet in the kingdom and an Arab businessman based just outside Shanghai has agreed to come on board as a partner to help produce and market other ranges. These include scarves, handbags perfumes, hand creams and oils - the latter two are more popular than perfumes in parts of the Middle East due to the climate.

'The market is worth US$1.4 billion just for fragrances in Saudi Arabia,' Ms Lau said, adding that the wider Middle East accounted for 16 per cent of the fragrance and cosmetics market. She said the prayer beads were the first perfume range of the product - a new innovation of fragrant stone. 'It's not simply dipped in scents, but handmade and infused with designer perfume. The concept and design integrates the Chinese elements.' She uses two Hong Kong designers and another from New Zealand to create Chinese decorations for the product line, while the manufacturing is carried out in Greece where enamel craftsmanship is still strong.

While advice from the consulate's business centre in Hong Kong proved invaluable, it was only when she travelled to Riyadh and met Saudi women that her plans really began to take off.

'I met a lot of businesswomen there - open-minded with an international outlook in terms of running a business,' she said, adding that she was pleasantly surprised when taken to spa clubs to learn that the women favoured high-end fragrances and other designer products made in Europe.

'I was made very welcome and they offered me a Saudi champagne, apple juice with 7-Up. I was glad to find they were looking for opportunities of doing business with China, and they are now very interested that I have my own brand that's new. This has been opening many doors.'

The next big step for the Huamulan prayer beads, after the launch by the Saudi-owned Saks store in Riyadh, is the opening of a Jeddah showroom in December just before haj.

As with many other nations, business travellers have a more rewarding trip when they heed local customs and culture. Again, with advice from the Saudi consulate, Ms Lau was prepared for what to expect when she landed in Riyadh.

'As a woman, I wondered: can I succeed in that country? But I found it quite easy because the consulate office helped me with making contacts in Saudi. They gave me a lot of advice and connected me to the right businesswomen.

'When I arrived I saw that the buildings were very new and modern, and it made me think I was in the States or Canada,' Ms Lau said. 'When I made contact with the women, the only difference was in the dress. Most speak very good English and are very helpful - and loyal to their religion.'

Her first introduction to the kingdom's dress code was when she booked into her hotel and was politely offered the use of a hijab - a neck-to-ankle like gown - for walking around in public. She said that the garment's patterns and embroidery won her over.

'Having a relationship with the consulate office for three years helped me in accepting their culture, and it's good to know more about them,' said Ms Lau, who added that exchange delegations of businesswomen could help overcome concerns by showing the cosmopolitan outlook of female business executives from Saudi Arabia.

'So I am used to it. The consulate business centre has a lot of information about customs, what you need to wear, what kind of attitude and manners, food and culture.'

The process of obtaining a visa has been sped up, largely thanks to the strengthening relations following the visit of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to Saudi Arabia in January.

Special visa arrangements, however, have to be made for businesswomen travelling alone. Ms Lau made her initial business trip in the company of her husband.

After being able to enter what many Saudis acknowledge can be a society rich in mystery to outsiders, it is down to business and striking a sisterly deal.

'If they think that the product is right it's very quick. But if it's something they are not sure about they will study it and the decision-making process will take longer.'