Source of success

by Christina Tai

Timothy Lam, chairman, Institute of Purchasing and Supply of Hong Kong
Photo: Johnson Poon

Hong Kong talents ideally placed to begin careers in mainland trade

In the past, purchasing covered both merchandising and sourcing. Now, with such a huge volume of international trade passing through Hong Kong, things are different.

Purchasing involves the acquisition of raw materials or services for production or retail purposes, and may also include logistical arrangements to deliver either raw materials or finished products. Sourcing selects suitable suppliers capable of fulfilling order requirements, minimising waste or unnecessary expense, and monitors production quality or service standards. Meanwhile, the scope of merchandising has been much broadened these days so that it covers the responsibilities involved in purchasing and sourcing plus the selection of reliable customers, the key element for profit-making.

"The necessity of promoting the merchandising sector stems mainly from human resources considerations so that the public may discern the unique roles and responsibilities in the profession," says Timothy Lam, chairman, the Institute of Purchasing and Supply of Hong Kong (IPSHK). Local strengths in merchandising and international trade and the CEPA arrangements can help consolidate Hong Kong as a world merchandising and trading centre for overseas customers.

A recent IPSHK survey indicates that up to 82 per cent of local merchandisers work in the mainland nowadays, with the garment industry predominant and therefore having the biggest demand for talents. Then follow, in order, toys, electronics and timepieces. However, some customers have set up their own sourcing operations by establishing factories not in Southern China but farther north in the mainland, or in a Third World country like Vietnam or even on the island of Saipan.

In addition, recruiting for mainland graduates is not as simple as before. Now, thanks to wider international exposure via the Internet, it has become a challenge to sign up the smartest and highest qualified of them. Nevertheless, local graduates still hold a competitive advantage because their greater proficiency in English enables them to effectively communicate with overseas customers. They have yet another ace up their sleeve — their passports.

"The HKSAR passport is an asset unique to Hong Kong's merchandisers and their local staff since it gives the holder freedom of travel. This is a big plus in achieving efficiency," says Mr Lam.

Essential skills

Entry requirements for merchandising have generally risen beyond Form Five levels, and relevant vocational training or training at associate degree level is expected. Merchandising is a highly demanding job, but market demand for real talents is also high. Career prospects are favourable, from junior merchandiser with a starting monthly salary of about HK$7,000 to divisional manager earning HK$60,000 and beyond.

"Job seekers must demonstrate the skill sets that best match with the potential employers' specifications, such as outgoing attitudes, open-mindedness, perseverance and learning enthusiasm, which help them quickly integrate into the corporate culture. Additionally, working experience in the mainland enriches the relative newcomer's skills," says Mr Lam.

Basic skills in IT applications are required for daily communications with customers, suppliers, or related parties in the supply chain, and knowledge of Mandarin enhances relations with mainland manufacturers. A good knowledge of rules and regulations, in particular the mainland's legal and quota systems, is important, with care and consideration given to certain procedural and cultural issues in tackling problems such as power brownouts in Dongguan, in order to optimise performance. Familiarity with products and market trends is obligatory.

Negotiation and problem-solving skills help minimise production costs, thereby increasing profit margins and winning customer loyalty. Customer contact is a vital part of the job. It is essential to understand their needs, expectations of product quality, standards, budget, delivery time, and so on. On the other hand, the best and most reliable suppliers must be selected. All these processes are complex since they involve minimising wastage and avoiding mismatched purchases, so that good interpersonal and communication skills are a big help.

Professional training

Continuous professional upgrades enhance the status of local merchandisers. However, since so many locals work in the mainland and stay there on weekdays, it was impossible for classes to be held on weekday evenings. In response, block-mode lectures are given on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, resulting in soaring enrolment figures. Part-time programmes are offered by the IPSHK, the Hong Kong Productivity Council, and many local universities and vocational training institutes.

With three years' work experience and the relevant professional qualifications, merchandising professionals are eligible to apply for an IPSHK membership. "IPSHK membership enjoys recognition among multinationals and government departments, specially in promotional criteria. We also works closely with the mainland's China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing to enhance the status of local merchandising professionals working in the mainland," says Mr Lam.

Making it in merchandising

  • Be outgoing and show initiative
  • Hard-working and eager to learn new things to keep pace with developments
  • Excellent communication, negotiation, interpersonal and problem-solving skills
  • Curiosity to seek out new resources and new solutions
  • Market sensitivity and analytical skills
  • Proactively approach customers, users and suppliers
  • Demonstrate innovativeness, creativity, adaptability and flexibility
Career Times Merchandiser Forum
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  • Taken from Career Times 26 January 2007
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