How an advertising executive became a technology leader serving clients such as Zara and Uniqlo

Lesley Suen, daughter of SML Group founder Simon Suen, changes career course but is at home in an entirely new field she hopes to expand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 9:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 9:33am

One might assume Lesley Suen, a senior executive at family-run retail powerhouse SML Group, has a story similar to many second-generation business leaders born into wealth and holding a plum position.

But the 25-year-old Boston University public relations graduate, who started out in the advertising industry in New York, said she returned to Hong Kong not because of pressure from her father Simon Suen Siu-man, the group’s founder.

“My father never asked whether I wanted to come back,” she said. “Instead I saw an opportunity where I could use my creative skills and knack for trying out new technology.”

Established in 1985 and based in Hong Kong, SML employs 5,500 people globally with clients such as Inditex, the Spanish multinational behind fashion chain Zara, and Uniqlo, the Japanese casual wear brand. It is the world’s second-largest manufacturer of clothing tags and labels.

The younger Suen, third of four children in her family, heads a 30-strong team based in Shenzhen. They are part of the group’s Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) technology arm, which involves using electromagnetic fields to send data wirelessly.

If there is one mistake I’ve made, it would be that I did not come back earlier
Lesley Suen

The technology is the future of the business: last year the group delivered 1.2 billion RFID tags to retailers, accounting for some five billion transactions recorded.

Compared with traditional bar code scans, retail labels using RFID solutions can drastically improve inventory efficiency and accuracy.

Despite holding her position only since last year, Suen spoke confidently of the technical aspects of her operations and detailed how the company was helping a British chain department.

“Every week we do a live inventory check on their 900 stores. We are now able to process 30 million items within three hours.”

Suen said the client had seen inventory accuracy improve to 98 per cent, from 70 per cent. Her task now is to drive its RFID processing volume up this year to one-third of what SML handles in total, and hit 50 per cent by 2020. Her team aims to tap into the mainland and Asian markets to expand its reach.

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On a personal level, Suen admitted her pedigree and youth could elicit some scepticism over her abilities. But she said her two-year stint earlier at New York ad agency TBWA prepared her well.

“I had to do everything in my junior role back then, from grabbing takeaway to pouring coffee for colleagues and dealing with unreasonable demands from clients,” she recalled.

Suen never thought about who in her family would inherit the multibillion-dollar business, but now that she is in the driver’s seat, she viewed it as a challenge to embrace rather than a burden to bear, adding: “If there is one mistake I’ve made, it would be that I did not come back earlier.”