I used to daydream, says fashion queen Mimi Tang
After leaving secondary school, she excelled in her first job and eventually went on to lead a fashion and luxury empire, writes Jacqueline Tsang
Mimi Tang used to be a dreamer. "When I was young, I didn't have any solid career plans - I just daydreamed every day," says the woman who is now among the busiest female professionals in Hong Kong.
Tang is president of Kering (formerly PPR) Asia-Pacific, which encompasses some of the biggest luxury brands in the world within its portfolio, such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Sergio Rossi and Boucheron.
The executive, who just moments earlier threw on a chic Saint Laurent cashmere cape for a photo shoot, admits that she once had little idea about what she wanted to do with her life, much less that she would be the head of a fashion and luxury empire.
"I entered this industry purely by accident," she says. "I didn't like studying, and I didn't perform very well academically. When I finished school, I knew I wouldn't be able to further my education, so I decided to take whatever job came my way."
Fresh out of secondary school, Tang went for an interview at Kai Tak Airport's Duty Free Shop (DFS) and, to her surprise, she was offered the job - and asked to start work the very same day.
With no experience, Tang felt out of her depth in the workplace, but, as she says: "I knew I had to pay the bills; I needed the money to take care of my family."
It was this thought that pushed her to excel in her first job, for which she picked up retail and merchandising skills that would be essential for her work later on, and an increased fluency in English and proficiency in Japanese.
"In the airport's transit lounge, you come into contact with a lot of passengers and, at the time, there was predominantly one type of passenger: the Japanese," she says. "In order for me to be able to communicate with them, I had to learn the language, which enabled me to complete sales transactions. I always believe that language is one of the most important skills to pick up, especially in retail."
These skills helped propel Tang up the career ladder. In two years, she was promoted to sales supervisor, a role she initially felt uneasy about.
"One of my concerns was how I would supervise people more mature than I was, with more experience than I had," she says. "But I was hard working, I could commit myself, I was diligent. I definitely enjoyed working more than I enjoyed studying. I enjoyed being around people."
This made her transition to merchandising three years later so difficult. "I was a blank piece of paper," she says, and it wasn't easy moving from a supervisory role to a clerical one, from interacting with people daily to being in an office.
Nevertheless, she managed to meet one special woman towards the end of her 15-year stint at DFS - one of the biggest names in fashion in Hong Kong: Joyce Ma.
Ma was looking for someone with a strong merchandising background, and Tang soon started a decade-long stretch at Joyce Boutique. Here, she found a work environment that perfectly matched her views on work, family and balance.
"Going from an international company like DFS to Joyce was very different. It was a very happy work environment as it was a small team, a family business," she says of her days leading the company's sales and merchandising teams. "I was managing people at such a young age. You have to make sure you get the job done, and to do that, you need trust and respect. You have to demonstrate by example."
Tang says the people management skills she picked up proved invaluable. She learned the importance of keeping interpersonal relationships strong within the workplace, with her staff and colleagues, whom she calls internal customers. "I always share this idea with them: we have to take care of internal customers. If you can't take care of your internal customer, how do you expect them to take care of other customers?" she says. "This was the management philosophy that I believed in a long time ago."
It's a philosophy that is crucial in getting businesses through hard times, according to Tang. She remembers crises over the years, such as economic downturns and Sars, which occurred while she was working for Gucci Group.
"We had no customers in the stores for months, so I said, 'let's polish ourselves again. Let's use this easy time in the workplace to exchange more experiences and new service techniques'," she says.
She arranged for a retreat, complete with a workshop at the Clearwater Bay Golf Club, and she says the experience brought employees closer together.
"We had a stronger bond between us, we instilled the belief that the company would take care of them and, personally, I had to take care of myself in order to take care of my staff," she says.
This was always something that Tang struggled with. "Women in Hong Kong are very lucky compared to other countries - I always feel like there are more females in executive and management positions compared to other Asian countries. It's not just about work for them, they also have to take care of their husband, children, in-laws and so on," she says.
"As a female executive with a family, you have to balance work with your family, which is not easy. Sometimes you might forget about yourself. I've observed that in my personal life. I care so much about the job and the family, that sometimes I don't care enough about myself."
Tang has taken on a lot over the years. In addition to her everyday work responsibilities, she is one of the committee members for the Kering Foundation, a charity organisation set up in 2009.
"In many countries, women still aren't treated equally, or are affected by violence," she says. "We formed this foundation to offer them a better life. Every effort goes towards raising attention to protect a woman's dignity, to strengthen educational opportunities so they can be more independent, which means they can take better care of their families."
Tang is still seeking that balance between work, family and self. One of her dreams is to go to university, something she never had the chance to do since she set foot in DFS aged 17. "I'm still a workaholic," she admits. "But now that I don't have to do as much travelling, I can use my time to host more workshops and do more charity work. I hope I will continue to teach and share. When you work, you can't just work for the sake of working - you have to have a vision."