Being straightforward has always been one of Caroline Mak's best qualities and she sees no point in being coy about it. "People are complex entities and it's impossible to please everyone with what you have to say," notes Ms Mak, group specialty retail director, the Dairy Farm Group. "Although sometimes you might want to look at the bigger picture and be tactful."
Economic volatilities have put many executives through the mill but with her no-frills management style, Ms Mak relishes the challenge and often finds herself right at home. "For instance, no-pay leave wasn't a novelty. I've seen it done when I was marketing and communications manager of Motorola's semiconductor headquarters in Asia back in the early 80s," she says. "People are more receptive to this during the recent crisis but there was still resistance when I proposed it last October."
Competent managers are typically good salespeople, she points out. "When a decision has been made, you should go out there, sell your idea, sell your vision and get the buy in," she stresses.
Moving on up
Growing up in reduced circumstances, Ms Mak was well provided for except perhaps for access to higher education. So, in 1972, with only a school certificate, she took a typing job and within three years, fulfilled her aspirations, becoming the company's secretary. "When I was a child I envisioned myself in a teaching role but as adolescence approached, I thought secretary because I just loved dealing with people and taking care of things," she says.
After a secretarial stint with the newly built Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Ms Mak made a bold move across to the Peninsular Hotel Group. "My position entailed responsibilities of a secretary and a marketing coordinator," she recalls. "It was quite an inspirational few years because there was so much to do and a world of new knowledge to absorb. One day I was doing some marketing collaterals, the next invoicing and internal liaison, and the day after we might fly to Singapore and the Philippines for a sales conference or marketing seminar. There was also etiquette training."
The job provided her a quick step up the corporate ladder, but after acting as manager for a whole year and feeling that the chance for the real title was slim, she threw in the towel. "Three reasons: first of all, it wasn't fair; second, I deserved better; third, I started to have expectations. Call it a turning point. So, when I applied to Motorola semiconductor in 1986, I promised myself that I had to become manager of some sort. I did," she explains.
The Motorola tenure lasted five years but the experience set her course. "It was my first management job and I picked up quite a few skills," she says. "Management by objectives was one."
It was then she found new confidence in her growing acumen. "An assignment to the firm's Arizona HQ was an endorsement of my competence, considering I was only in my early 30s," she says, remembering also a Pattaya conference where she spoke in front of an audience of more than 100 for the first time. "I was a bundle of nerves but the key to public speaking is to trust your ability. You must understand that your boss wouldn't put you up for it if you're not ready."
Fuelled by a burning ambition, she set her sights on something higher but the technical aspects of the job held her back. "I decided that consumer goods would be more my kind of playground. I could see myself doing a whole lot more with cosmetics than semiconductors," she says, explaining her next move to L'Orea l.
As L'Orea l Hong Kong's PR manager, Ms Mak oversaw the development of the company's brands including Lancome and Helena Rubinstein. It took her another year to become product manager for Lancome Hong Kong, with responsibilities encompassing product selection, pricing and promotion. "The exposure was great but there was a void in my knowledge chain — I lacked wholesale experience," she says.
The move to Jardine Matheson as Christian Dior's sales and marketing manager completed this. "What I planned could enter stores, consignment counters and ultimately people's homes," she says. It was also then her career took off, leaving the league of middle management to become a director and soon afterwards general manager of the division in 1992.
The following decade saw Ms Mak attain a Harvard qualification, be put in charge of IKEA Hong Kong and Taiwan as managing director, and ultimately become CEO of Mannings Greater China. "Mannings was a huge accomplishment," she notes. "We put a great deal of effort into building up its brand equity and we are now the number one health and beauty brand with 288 outlets."
Challenges are more visible in the retail front and Ms Mak approaches every one of her tasks with great gusto and growing sophistication.
Now also a member of the Dairy Farm management board, Ms Mak again takes charge of IKEA Hong Kong and Taiwan, simultaneously leading a team of 50 in Hong Kong, Malaysia, mainland China and Singapore to develop the group's health and beauty private labels like Mannings, Guardian and First Choice. "My job can be intense but thanks to my previous training I am able to let my hair down and enjoy the process," she says.