When Singaporean Balbina Wong first entered the workforce, the mini skirt had not been invented, the Beatles were yet to have their first hit, and the Asian economic boom was still some decades away.
Wong, who began as a humble beauty assistant helping customers choose lipstick and eye shadow, is still working half a century later, now presiding over a thriving company, ImagineX, with revenues of more than $700 million last year.
The indefatigable 69-year-old does not plan to retire any time soon. The vice-chairman and CEO of the Hong Kong-headquartered group has steered the company through a phase of explosive growth, particularly on the Chinese mainland.
ImagineX set up shop some two decades ago with a single store in Shanghai.
The current tally of outlets is 283, with new openings almost every week, both in major eastern seaboard cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and lesser known inland cities where spending power is rising.
“It has been an incredible market, especially in the past decade, when we were growing and growing,” says Wong. “When we first went there, people were still dressed in the grays and the greens, there were hardly any street lights and the buses were all old.
“The amazing thing with China is it has taken 10 years to grow; that kind of evolution would take 30 years anywhere else. It is not just in Beijing and Shanghai but in the second-tier cities too. When I first came to China, I would not have thought it would be this gigantic so quickly.
“Every city we are in has up to five million people. It is amazing. I was with some Italians recently and they said even the smaller cities have double the population of Milan.”
Wong is a regular visitor to the Italian fashion capital, counting the Ferragamo family as personal friends as well as business associates. The liaison has benefited both enormously. Salvatore Ferragamo was one of the first major brands to enter the Middle Kingdom market, in partnership with ImagineX, a long-term commitment that has paid off.
ImagineX boasts a bunch of other major luxury brand names in its portfolio, including Marc Jacobs, DKNY, Juicy Couture, Paul & Shark, Diesel and Tumi. Recently, the group added Paul Smith to the fold, a deal which led to the ImagineX boss meeting the brand boss, now Sir Paul Smith, a fellow 60-something.
Says Wong: “He told me that the philosophy of the company is to think globally and act locally, which I think is very sound advice. You never stop learning and picking up tips. My personal slogan is to work hard but work smart.
“The fashion industry is my passion: To achieve better results, to be a pioneer, to start a business from scratch. The most important thing is to motivate people. I motivate people because I am very result-oriented but also fair, and I reward people for hard work. It is also because of my years of experience.”
Wong thinks she has a knack of picking the right people: “I look for someone with a good honest face, people who are willing to work and achieve. I cannot stand laziness; unless you work hard you will not get anywhere.”
The veteran knows from personal experience that hard work can be an effective way of escaping from a hardscrabble existence. One of seven children in a family where money was scarce, Wong had to join the workforce instead of completing studies at her Singapore convent school.
The teenaged Wong’s first job was at the old Robinsons department store in Singapore. It was the beginning of a steady rise through the industry ranks to vice-chairman and CEO of ImagineX, a wholesale and retail company that employs 2,500 people and expects revenues to rise to $800 million this year.
The gregarious and flamboyant-dressing Wong is particularly proud of China’s growth. She hails from a Hakka background and still speaks the language with siblings when they meet up in Singapore. Other languages in her repertoire are English, Cantonese, Putonghua and German.
She says: “The Hakkas work hard, they were nomads, gypsies and warriors hundreds of years ago. In the civil wars, people hired them to fight. I think there is some of that warrior determination in me!
“I had a tough life when I was young, I come from a huge family, we were poor. I had to go and work and help the family, so I never finished high school. There was a hunger in me to be better and better and better. The sky is the limit.”
Today, Wong can afford to buy whatever designer clothes, or baubles, take her fancy. A typical outfit would be Max Mara jacket and trousers, watch by Cartier, jewelry by Bulgari and a no-name bracelet from India. Shoes are almost always by Ferragamo, partly out of loyalty to the brand but mostly because she finds the broad size fittings particularly comfortable.
Two decades of visiting China has given the executive clear insights into what is likely to work with local fashion consumers. One lesson is that it never does any harm to play up a brand’s rich heritage and subtly hint at the huge amounts of status and face that can be conferred by wearing a certain outfit, or carrying a particular bag.
Says Wong: “Now, in China, it is what you wear. If they own a luxury name, it means they are successful. For women to show they have made it they would have to have a handbag that is very dominant, a Ferragamo, or Prada or Louis Vuitton.
“You do get some extravagant spending. A lot of people come and buy gifts for the Chinese New Year. With our Tumi luggage, a company will sometimes come and buy sets for all their executives for their travels. I wish we had more customers like them!”
Although the supersonic fashion industry growth of the immediate past is unlikely to be matched this coming year, China continues to enjoy figures that eclipse the largely unchanging Western consumer world. Management consultant McKinsey predicts that the luxury business would be worth $27 billion in three years’ time, putting China ahead of Japan.
ImagineX has representation in some 50 cities. The corporate goal is to be in 100 cities within five years. Even second- and third-tier cities are being targeted, places where citizens are becoming increasingly affluent and more brand-conscious.
There is every indication that the current boss will be around to implement that master plan. Wong maintains a schedule that would exhaust a person half her age, regularly jetting between Asia and Europe, yet retaining a freshness and enthusiasm that is infectious.
“My life is busy,” she says. “I have no idea when I will retire, it is a guessing game. I think age is immaterial, it is how you think and how you act. Sometimes I get tired, but when a new project comes in, I get all excited and full of spirit and pride. It is not like I don’t want to let go. But there is still a lot to be done, a lot of people to be coached and trained.”