Luxury in China

First Asian female director appointed by French luxury brand shows power of region’s consumers

Wendy Siu, founder of French luxury lifestyle shop Heather & March in Hong Kong, appointed to the board of champagne house Laurent-Perrier

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 11:14pm

Well-known Hong Kong entrepreneur Wendy Siu has become the first Asian woman to join the board of a French luxury brand – in another clear signal that global companies are gearing up their efforts to capture the growing business opportunities offered in the region.

The founder and president of French luxury lifestyle shop Heather & March in Hong Kong has been appointed by champagne house Laurent-Perrier, on a six-year term.

Her elevation is the second piece of strong evidence within a week that having more Asian board representation is becoming increasingly important to multinational companies, as more expand their ambitions in Asia.

Swiss financial giant UBS chairman Axel Weber said last week he was specifically looking to recruit an Asian to join its board, as he detailed the Swiss lender’s expansion plans in the region, which include doubling its headcount in China.

Former Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief executive Joseph Yam Chi-kwong served as a director for UBS from 2011, but resigned earlier this year when he joined the cabinet of Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. The bank’s 11-member board has four women and has had no Asian representative since Yam left.

Talking about her appointment by Laurent-Perrier, in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post at her shop in the Landmark Prince’s building in Central, Siu said: “There is huge potential growth in Asia for the business, particularly in China.”

Chinese consumers have become the world’s biggest group of luxury spenders in recent years.

According to a report from the management consultants Bain & Company, the country had 50 million luxury brand shoppers in 2015, representing 14 per cent of the total 350 million worldwide. Japan had 35 million, while across the rest of Asia there were 25 million.

Chinese customers bought 30 per cent of all luxury goods globally, with Americans second with 24 per cent and Europeans with an 18 per cent share.

UBS looks to appoint an Asian to board of directors as it eyes expansion in the region

Siu said her appointment reflected the French businesses vision to embrace diversity in gender as well as cultural and business skills and experience at the board level.

“During her appointment until 2022, Ms Siu will bring international insight and experience to the luxury brand retail sector,” Laurent-Perrier said in its appointment statement.

Born and bred in Hong Kong, Siu studied in the US and has worked for several multinational firms both there and in the UK, including British Telecom and General Electric.

She set up her own business in 1998, with a clear focus on selling luxury French branded tableware and other lifestyle products.

She has since become highly active among the local Hong Kong and French businesses, and is well-known too in France.

“In my previous corporate career, having worked in multinationals in the US, Britain, and Asia for over 10 years, I have gained experience in international business ethics and dynamic thinking,” she said of her own key skills.

“I have run my own lifestyle business for over 19 years, focused on French products and services. My experience and background matches what Laurent Perrier is looking for.”

Her appointment is also related to a national law change in 2011 that requires French companies to have at least 40 per cent female representation at board level, bringing the country in line with Norway which introduced the quota as far back as 2003, becoming the recognised world leader in breaking the gender glass ceiling. Spain introduced a similar law in 2007.

Back in 2011, France’s female board representation stood at just 15 per cent, prompting the government of Nicolas Sarkozy to act radically to speed up the country’s gender diversity at the very top of the country’s companies.

Women can earn their right first [to a place on any board] by ‘building, but not by demanding’ – that’s my life’s motto, and also ‘be prepared to work very hard, because nothing comes easy’

Siu said she believes strongly in the benefits of having more women on boards, but is opposed to the idea that Hong Kong should introduce a similar quota.

“I do not believe merely issuing a quota is the answer. It is only sensible to apply quotas when we are confident there is indeed enough qualified women available out there to bring on board and whether our society is ready to support this. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose,” she said.

Eleven per cent of board directors in Hong Kong are women, lagging well behind the 19 per cent in the US, 22 per cent in Germany, and 27 per cent in Britain.

But when it comes to the luxury good industry, Siu said as women make up almost 85 per cent of the customer base, “it is therefore beneficial to promote women to board positions, who can share their insight first hand and help shape more effective decisions”.

According to a study by Credit Suisse covering 2005-2015, listed companies globally with at least one woman on their board saw an average return on equity of 14.1 per cent versus all-male boards, which achieved 11.2 per cent returns.

As an entrepreneur in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years, she believes the key to becoming a successful business person can be best summed up as “willing to build, work hard, and accumulate knowledge”.

“Women can earn their right first [to a place on any board] by ‘building, but not by demanding’ – that’s my life’s motto, and also ‘be prepared to work very hard, because nothing comes easy’.

“Question yourself first, and not others, why things don’t work. This is our ancient Asian values which I treasure and have been applying throughout my own life and entrepreneurial venture.”