The Hong Kong public's dedication to self-improvement and further education means that local bookstores are booming and the business of managing them is becoming ever more sophisticated.
That is something Meryl Chan, assistant manager for Swindon Book Co Ltd, realised very soon after joining the company in 2000. She began as an accounts assistant after graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, and it did not take her long to discover that day-to-day operations were very different from what she had expected. Her responsibilities were not just finance-related, but required extensive dealings with other departments, as well as handling negotiations with external parties and overseas publishers. "I realised that this is not a short-term job," she says, explaining that it took time and hard work to build up a complete understanding of the bookstore business.
In 2003, this paid off when Ms Chan was promoted to supervisor and transferred to the company's Central office to oversee the accounts department of two associate companies, Kelly & Walsh Ltd and Hong Kong Book Centre Ltd. The assignment went well and led, the following year, to a challenging new role in project management. This included upgrading the group's point of sales system and developing a more centralised system of internal controls. In each case, the planning process required close involvement in decisions about hardware and network solutions, while the follow-up entailed arranging for training and systems enhancement to ensure everything went smoothly.
We are involved in a wide variety of work and not just selling books and stationery
Now Ms Chan has taken on another challenge in the area of data analysis and research. She has been asked to explore potential sales channels and online tools and has also turned her attention to generating a new series of reports for the group's overall accounting and management needs. However, her work is not all behind the scenes. She has also put her flair for PR to good use by helping to plan major book signings by Bill Clinton and Chris Patten in the group's stores.
Working closely with Ms Chan is sales associate Maggie Hui, who joined in 1999. Though trained as a secretary, Ms Hui's outstanding work performance and excellent sense of customer service soon marked her out as someone with real potential. After just a month, she was given the chance to transfer from the group's order department to a frontline position with Hong Kong Book Centre and has excelled in the job. "I am an active person and enjoy dealing with people," she says. "I have been in charge of the children's corner, so I see a lot of parents and always try to put myself in their shoes when looking for the most suitable books. By doing that, it has been possible to build up good personal relationships with them."
Ms Hui keeps closely in touch with trends in education and all the latest publications in order to make recommendations and suggestions. One of the biggest challenges is to help customers who are looking for rare books or those not currently in stock. "We will search high and low because we are not simply a retail outlet, but also a customer service unit," she says.
Precisely this attitude has been the key to a successful career. Last year, Ms Hui was nominated as an ambassador representing Hong Kong Book Centre in the Caring Company campaign, and she continues to play a vital role in activities such as book fairs, school visits and PR events. "Anyone interested in this business should really learn it by working first in a bookstore," she advises. "They need to know that we are involved in a wide variety of work and not just selling books and stationery."
Swindon has been through many changes since it opened in 1918, but has been dedicated to serving successive generations of book lovers. The latest phase of development will include putting more resources into its online order service for academic institutions, professional associations and industrial organisations in Hong Kong and overseas.
Ms Hui emphasises that there are many career opportunities and chances for staff to switch between frontline and back-office roles. "Promotion partly depends on your aspirations, since the group is willing to help staff develop in different areas," she says. To maximise her own career options, she is considering taking a librarianship programme.
For Ms Chan, more senior management positions seem likely and she plans to take further management courses to achieve that ambition. "The English book market is expanding and we're a bilingual city," she says. "I'm sure to have an exciting career ahead of me."