Jewellery queen shines in crisis

Annie Yau was thrust into leadership of the TSL empire in difficult times but she and the company thrived, expanding outlets and crafting new tie-ups, writes Celine Sun

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 2:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 5:23am

Annie Yau took over the helm of her family’s jewellery empire in testing circumstances five years ago after her husband and father-in-law were both jailed for paying illegal kickbacks to travel agents to take tourists to their showrooms.

“I knew it would be a tough task. But my love for my family gave me courage. I also believed I was the best person to carry on the ‘DNA’ of the family business and make it prosper,” Yau said.

I knew it would be a tough task. But my love for my family gave me courage. I also believed I was the best person to carry on the ‘DNA’ of the family business and make it prosper

A graduate in computer engineering from Boston University in the United States, Yau worked as a project manager at Motorola Semiconductor and IBM’s offices in the United States and Hong Kong before joining Tse Sui Luen Jewellery in 2002.

Four years later she was appointed as executive director assisting her husband Tommy Tse Tat-fung, who was TSL’s chairman between 2000 and 2008. Soon thereafter she was propelled into the post of chairwoman and chief executive of the family business after founder Tse Sui-luen was jailed for three years and Tommy Tse for five.

By the time of the sentencing, trading in the company’s stock had been suspended for more than two years and many people believed the once popular, decades-old brand was about to collapse. It was at this critical moment that Yau, a mother of three children, decided to take charge of the family business to restore confidence in the brand.

In November 2008, TSL released a half-year result showing that net profit for the six months to August jumped 141 per cent, despite the global financial crisis.

In June of the following year its stock resumed trading after Yau had hired independent consultants to review its systems, and the stock price responded to the occasion by shooting up from 81 HK cents to HK$2.98 on the day.
Over the next two years, under Yau’s leadership, TSL steadily expanded, and by the end of August last year, it was operating more than 200 shops in Hong Kong, on the mainland, and overseas. For engineering this dramatic turnaround, Yau received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award last year.

The company’s profit growth began slowing last year due to a sluggish economic environment and rising labour and rent costs. Despite the weakening market conditions, Yau believes now is a good time to raise the awareness of the brand.

TSL has rolled-out a large-scale marketing plan to target mass-market customers and worked with renowned fashion designer Vivienne Tam to launch new collections of necklaces, earrings, and rings to match Tam’s fashion designs.


What is TSL’s current marketing strategy?

We were a relatively quiet player in the market for years. Now it is time for us to promote our brand. 
When the market is good, everyone advertises and we are just one of many. But when the market is weak, our voice will be louder and the marketing effort will have a better effect.


How have you adapted the traditional family business to the challenging market of today?

We have 50 years of jewellery-making experience. In terms of design, we are eager to deliver a message to our customers that TSL is also a trendy brand.
For instance, we are working on a crossover project with international fashion designer Vivienne Tam to launch fashion and jewellery collections together.


Have you seen any improvement in the local jewellery industry this year? What would you do to boost the business?

The market actually started to pick up from last November. But the economic conditions and the political atmosphere in China (a reference to the central government’s stepped up anti-corruption campaign) are taking a toll on sales of mid- to high-priced jewellery. We will have more products with entry prices in the thousands of dollars.


It’s now 11 years since you joined TSL. What was the most difficult time for you?

It was a really tough time for me when I introduced a new information technology system into the company in 2003. I needed not only to teach the staff the new system, but also to make them open to using it.

Sometimes some colleagues cannot understand the need for change.

In the end, we have to force them to accept it. It’s the carrot-and-stick approach.


How does you management style differ from that of your father-in-law and husband?

I am more stable. They were more audacious. Usually I think things over for some time before taking action. Maybe this is the difference between males and females.

However, we all share the same view of the direction we are heading. We might use different ways to do something, but the results will not be much different.


What do you think are the most important things you did to restore the confidence of employees and customers after becoming chairman?

The first thing I did was to have a very sincere talk with the employees, aimed at giving them confidence in the new management.

Second, we looked at ourselves, enhancing our internal inspection systems and closing loopholes in corporate governance.

We also communicated with the stock exchange, investors, and the public on what we were doing.


Your father-in-law has returned to TSL as a consultant. In what areas is he contributing to the family business?

Mr Tse has very rich networking experience in Hong Kong’s jewellery industry. Since coming back to TSL he has done a lot of networking work for us and explored corporate opportunities with others.

He is also an expert in craftsmanship. He goes to our factory to watch over production quality and styles and share his views.


As a businesswoman, how do you balance your work and family? Will your children take over at TSL one day?

I try my best to spend time with my children on the weekend and during the holidays.

In the future I hope I don’t need to be so hands-on when our management team matures.

I would love my children to inherit the business, but I won’t force it on them. 

My youngest son seems to be interested in business management and my second daughter loves design.