CAROLINE MAK scored a pioneering 'double' in January last year when she was appointed chief executive of Mannings, a leading health and beauty chain. Ms Mak became the first woman and the first local Chinese to head the Hong Kong company, operated by Dairy Farm International, which is part of the Jardines group. Her customer-friendly management style has brought Mannings success and has been rewarded with seven consecutive retail awards. 'Mannings has always done very well and has good execution and tight management. It's always been the culture, but I have introduced certain processes to tighten it up - to ensure that the stores are being serviced, informed and instructed properly,' said Ms Mak, who also attributes her success to fluency in the Cantonese language. A retailer in mainly health and beauty products, Mannings won awards in the Supermarket and Convenience Store category in the Hong Kong Awards for Service. The Hong Kong Retail Management Association (HKRMA) sends shoppers into nominated stores to buy a selection of products to assess the quality of service provided and staff attitudes towards customers. These awards are given three times a year and are an industry benchmark for customer service. Mannings' success can be largely attributed to the training programme implemented by Ms Mak, who is modest about her achievements, and sees it as the beginning of a good customer service reputation. 'We introduced quarterly incentives for the sales staff who achieve their targets. The endorsement is more important than money, as there is a peer group effect and it creates a healthy competitive environment,' said Ms Mak, who also held the distinction of being the first woman to become country head at Swedish furniture giant Ikea. With the opening of a new branch at Ma Tau Kok last week, Mannings has 168 stores in total. This is a substantial increase from the 145 outlets Mannings had when Ms Mak took the helm and three additional stores will be opened this month. Ms Mak said the Asian financial crisis in 1997 had not slowed Mannings' expansion plans, as the retail chain had added about 80 stores in the past three years. 'It is tough, but we will continue the expansion because we have not reached the saturation point yet,' she said. The company's main competitor in Hong Kong was Watson's, which styled itself as a mini-department store while Mannings was a health and beauty retail chain, Ms Mak said. Ms Mak admits that the company has performed best in baby products and toiletries in terms of sales and other categories are targeted for improvement. 'The market has become more health conscious in the last five years, and weight-loss and supplements products are popular. Even the vitamins market is growing, including bird's nest,' she said. The trend of Han Fong - formulas from the Han dynasty - is also growing in Hong Kong. The popularity of these products initially came from Japan, which had consistently influenced tastes and preferences among Hong Kong consumers, said Ms Mak. Han Fong products are manufactured in Japan, and include a number of Chinese herbs and medicines. In April, Mannings discontinued the sale of cigarettes in its stores to strengthen branding of the company name as a health and beauty retailer. 'It is a global trend,' Ms Mak said. 'At that time we had 19 stores still selling cigarettes. We started scaling down three years ago.' In an international city such as Hong Kong, which has one of the highest proportion of smokers in the world, the move could dent the revenue of any retailer. 'We did have some customer complaints and we were losing sales, and under pressure to improve the bottom line. But we had good support from the staff and we have gained reputation,' Ms Mak said. Due to constraints in store space, Ms Mak said that it was important to streamline the number of products offered on the shelves to cope with a small area. 'The number of health products [on offer] are limited, because it is expensive for retailers to market new products in Hong Kong. It takes about HK$10 million to HK$20 million [in advertising costs] to be successful due to a fragmented market . . . Hence launches [of new products] are [mostly] dependent on the suppliers or manufacturers,' she said. The retail veteran, who had previously managed famous cosmetic brands such as Christian Dior and Lancome, admitted that Mannings had headhunted her from Seibu, the exclusive Japanese retail store. 'In fact, I did agree to join Seibu but in the same week Dairy Farm approached me,' she said. 'One of my aspirations in retail was to run a high-end and mass market department store. But I like a locally-created concept and it [Mannings] is part of Jardines. They did groom me to be a general manager.' Ms Mak said that if Jardines had offered her the same deal as Seibu or a little less, she still would have opted for the Hong Kong position. However, nothing will stop the energetic Ms Mak from moving to another job after five years, as she believes that in that time, executives can become 'brand blind'. 'You tend to be more complacent and believe what you have done is the biggest contribution. Psychologically, the ability to change and adapt to new things is less because you know the business so well,' she said. Uncertain of her next move, Ms Mak feels she will remain in retail because of her passion for the industry.