Arrow’s Asia-Pacific president Simon Yu reached the top in record time
In the mid-1980s on the upper deck of a bus moving north along Nathan Road, Simon Yu saw where his life might be leading – and it was a vision he didn’t particularly care for.
On the pavement below, easily distinguished by their cheap suits, battered briefcases and plumes of cigarette smoke, were any number of typical mid-career salesmen either heading to an appointment or idling away an hour or two before their late afternoon return to the office.
At the time, Yu was in sales – and doing well. But that day the realisation struck that it was time to chart a new course, set his sights higher, and really make something of himself and his career.
“I had gone into sales because I was young, poor and wanted to find a summer job while waiting for HSBC to confirm my starting date in the autumn,” says Yu, who is now Asia-Pacific president of Arrow, one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic components. “I never thought of myself as a ‘sales guy’, but I was offered a job selling some of the early LCD digital watches for the timepiece division of a local company and, within a few months, was the top salesman on the team.”
When the bank finally called to give joining instructions, Yu told them he was otherwise engaged. For a while, though, he didn’t dare tell his mother what had transpired. “She kept telling the neighbours I was working for the bank,” he says. “She thought anything to do with sales was for people who hadn’t bothered to study.”
Soon on a fast track, Yu was thrilled to be sent on an all-expenses-paid business trip to Taiwan, reasoning that no trainee banker had such opportunities. And, at a time when Hong Kong was the world’s largest exporter of watches, shipping more than 20 million pieces per month, he was able to expand his role into selling liquid crystal displays and integrated circuits (ICs) – then the latest technology - to manufacturers in and around Kwun Tong.
“It turned out to be something of a miracle, but that is how I got into the electronics industry,” says Yu who, within two years, was heading a team, but also starting to struggle with weightier issues about what the future held.
“I clearly remember the day I saw those other salesmen standing around or window shopping at 2 or 3pm and asking myself how long I wanted to be carrying my bag of catalogues and samples around town. I’m a hardworking guy and I realised that, even if you are very successful in sales, there is no real security and, often, no clear career path. Today may be good, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow will be. I couldn’t see myself still begging for orders from customers when I was 40. I had to go from being the boxer in the ring to being the coach outside it.”
As a first step, he signed up for distance learning courses with the University of Macau to study management theory and practice. Then, in 1987, filling in for his boss at a meeting to discuss industry trends, he met and obviously made a good impression on the head of a rival company. An offer to join CAL (Components Asia Ltd) as sales manager soon followed which, in due course, paved the way to Arrow when a corporate takeover played out.
“I was promoted every year and, by 1993, had made it to vice-president in record time,” says Yu, who initially studied business administration at Baptist College. “The market for electronic components was accelerating fast and I suppose the bosses saw I had untapped potential. If they gave me more responsibility, I still got things done.”
His role came to involve oversight of the sourcing, sale and distribution of an increasingly sophisticated range of ICs, semiconductors and other high-tech items essential for the manufacture of PCs, Atari games, ATMs, cash registers and industrial printers. But that changed in 1994 when he accepted a new assignment to run Arrow’s mainland operations, which were then very small.
“I knew nothing about China and couldn’t speak Mandarin, but the CEO said why not explore the market,” Yu says. “At first, it wasn’t easy, but looking back I learned a lot about legal issues, building relationships, dealing with the tax bureau, and opening offices in different cities.”
The experience also honed his approach to management, making him more process-oriented, a supporter of clearly defined key performance indicators, and disinclined to take ad hoc decisions. In addition, it showed the importance of continuing to learn both by observation and by listening to subordinates and professionals in different fields.
“I am disciplined, consistent, and like hearing the ideas and opinions of younger colleagues,” Yu says. “Besides that, I tell people you can fool me once, but not all the time.”
The sense of self-discipline he mentions also emerges in non-work activities. For example, in recent years, he has become a regular marathon runner, something begun as a personal challenge, but also to demonstrate to his daughters that you can achieve anything if you really set your mind to it.
“My next goal is to do a triathlon,” says Yu, who was a beach lifeguard in his student days. “First, though, I will have to improve on the bike.”