Career Path

Exclusive view on selling luxury goods

by Charles Mak

Charles Yong, general manager, Rimowa Far East Limited
Photo: Johnson Poon

Nowadays, many graduates are looking for opportunities to get into the field of sales and marketing, but to make the breakthrough, they will have to demonstrate talent as well as real dedication. That, at least, is the view of Charles Yong, general manager of Rimowa Far East Limited, whose experience in building brands and boosting sales allows him to speak with the voice of authority.

After studying in the UK in the 1970s, Mr Yong actually began his career in his native Singapore with a job in advertising. After eight years of hard work, he had learned the ropes and was therefore ready for a change when a client offered the chance to develop a business plan in Hong Kong.

"It was 1984, and they wanted me to find a way to tap into the luxury goods market," he recalls. "In those days I was mainly responsible for developing markets for luxury watches and, since then, I have always focused on high-end products."

In the intervening years, Mr Yong has witnessed many changes in the local retail scene. For example, there is now less of a role for distribution agents and, recently, there has been increasing emphasis on developing additional sales channels. These can now include signature shops and in-store boutiques, which help to generate higher levels of sales than agents alone can achieve.

"Luxury goods are things that, in themselves, enjoy a special status and offer their owners a sense of prestige and uniqueness," Mr Yong says. He points out that this definition most often applies to fashion goods, jewellery and accessories, and that a famous brand name does not necessarily make something a luxury item.

Have respect for your profession and be dedicated to giving your very best

New strategies

Rimowa, a German luggage designer and manufacturer, has had a presence in Hong Kong for about 10 years, but business only started to take off three years ago. Coincidentally, it was around then that Mr Yong joined the company. "Our distribution agent hadn't handled the brand too well, so our headquarters in Germany decided to do something about it," he says. "Back then, many people still didn't know our name or what we did."

Initially, he considered opening the first ever Rimowa shop in one of the upmarket shopping malls, but found the numbers didn't add up because of the high rental costs for retail space. Instead, the company agreed a deal with a leading chain of department stores to set up counters, which overcame the need to find a place of their own. The strategy has also helped to boost the proportion of "local" customers in Hong Kong from five per cent to 40 per cent.

"That's an achievement," says Mr Yong, who is now also responsible for the company's business in other markets including Taiwan, South Korea, mainland China and Singapore. Since last year, Hong Kong has functioned as the regional headquarters, making it necessary to spend more time liaising with Germany and supporting overseas agents. "Because of the time difference with Europe, our Asia-Pacific agents generally obtain feedback and advice directly from us," he adds.

Testing time

In 2006, the company started sales operations in Seoul and Beijing, and that certainly put Mr Yong's experience and management skills to the test. "I was there to initiate the business process which started from zero," he says.

These days, he has to travel about once a month and must keep an eye on everything from stock management and recommending products to overseeing promotional campaigns and in-store decoration, to ensure they are in line with corporate guidelines.

In Mr Yong's view, the retail industry in Hong Kong can offer excellent careers. However, he says, young people should have the right mentality, be ready to take on extra work, and always be looking for ways to improve themselves.

"Many people look for shortcuts and quick cash, but are doomed to fail," he says. "Have respect for your profession and be dedicated to giving your very best. That is the right attitude to have and will make it easier to succeed."

China Opportunities

At present, Hong Kong professionals looking for openings in sales and marketing or business development can find numerous opportunities in the booming China market. However, Mr Yong cautions that the situation will change.
"Mainlanders are learning and they are learning fast," he says. "Companies there may spend substantial resources hiring expatriates now, but in 10 to 15 years, they won't need to do that any more. To remain competitive, he advises Hong Kong people to read more and develop all-round skills so that they have something extra to offer any potential employer.

Taken from Career Times 22 December 2006, p. B20
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