Language of luxury
The linguistic leanings of Tiffany’s Rebecca Ip set up her sparkling career in high-end retail
Things could have been very different for Rebecca Ip if she’d taken up her placement as an immigration officer at Heathrow Airport after graduating, instead of deferring it for six months and coming back to Hong Kong.
The life-changing decision, however, was what set Ip on her way to becoming vice-president of Hong Kong and Macau at world-famous jewellers Tiffany & Co, following a route that has made use of her considerable language skills and ability to deal with people from all over the world.
“From an early age I realised I liked talking and chatting,” Ip says. Her ability to hold these conversations in one of five different languages springs both from her family’s decisions to relocate when she was a child and her own educational choices.
“When I was four or five, we moved to Taiwan and that’s where I learned my Putonghua,” she says. “We lived there about four years and then returned to Hong Kong briefly before the family moved to England.”
Ip lived in England up until the time she took her undergraduate degree – in French and German – which saw her live and study in both countries. “It was a very practical degree – it wasn’t just about literature and language, but also about French and German in relation to business,” she says. “Within the degree, I majored in marketing and politics, focusing on luxury marketing. I was in Limoges in France and Bonn in Germany and my dissertation was on the porcelain from Limoges. I think this influenced the way I look at the finer things in life.”
After graduating in 1990, she joined the UK’s civil service as an immigration officer and was due to start work at Heathrow Airport before deciding she wanted to take a little time out between studies and working life. She deferred her placement for six months and went to visit Hong Kong.
“I was with my friends from Hong Kong who were coming back to work – their families were here whereas mine was in London,” she says. “We were going around the search firms, filling out forms. When one firm found out I spoke French and German, they said they had a position going at L’Oreal for two months, please take it. They needed somebody who spoke French, as Lancome were launching a fragrance and [actress] Isabella Rossellini was arriving in town to promote it.”
It wasn’t just the fact that she met her future husband at L’Oreal that led to Ip staying on. “I think that rediscovering Hong Kong and, shortly after, China, was what kept me going,” she says.
Nine years with the L’Oreal Group was followed by seven years as general manager with Chanel in Hong Kong before Ip was recruited by Tiffany to be its managing director for Hong Kong and Macau. A year later, she was promoted and took on China as well.
“My role in China was basically to set up the team, as well as expand the company’s footprint,” she says. “In the following five years I travelled very often – and not only to tier-two cities, but to tier-three cities, as well – and brought back expansion plans for our senior management in New York.” During Ip’s her time working on the mainland, Tiffany expanded its presence there from four to 23 stores.
Ip says that meeting new people and working with her various teams are the aspects of her job that give her the greatest pleasure. “In Chinese, we have the phrase guan jiao, which means both to manage and to teach. It’s almost like I’m teaching and sharing what I’ve learned and what other people have taught me. Hopefully, the younger people of the next generation are also teaching me.”
But dealing with the human factor also presents her with the greatest challenges. “It’s in people’s nature to want different things at different stages of their life, so somebody wanting to move on doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked out,” she says. “But while you are happy for them, you can’t help thinking that you took one step forward but now you’re three steps back again.”
Tiffany now has 11 stores in Hong Kong and Macau, with the newest opening last month in Times Square. Because of Hong Kong’s luxury-retail sector boom, however, finding and retaining the right people to keep up with the industry’s growth is never easy. “At the moment we’re recruiting for sales managers and other positions,” Ip says.
In her many years of working in the region’s luxury-retail sector, Ip has seen many changes. “Whereas in the past people might dress top-to-toe in certain brands, today there’s less pressure and they tend to mix and match,” she says. “That is true for fashion and for jewellery as well. People are much more knowledgeable and carefully choose what they want.”
Given the pressures of her job, there is usually little room after work for anything other than one overriding interest. “Time outside work is family time,” she says.
REBECCA’S RECREATIONAL REFRESHERS
While Ip says maintaining a good work-life balance can be a challenge, there are still a few activities for which she makes time to enjoy
PAN-WIELDING Spending time cooking with her children
ELDERLY-CALLING Visiting her grandmother at the weekend
JET-SETTING Travelling with her girlfriends
HORIZON-HURDLING Taking opportunities to gain new experiences in life
SHOP-HOPPING Indulging in a spot of retail therapy