The real deal
Catherine So has notched up a number of digital successes in her journey to become MD of Groupon HK.
Less than five years into her career, Catherine So encountered the turning point that steered her down the path to management. In the early 2000s, she was working as an associate of AOL Time Warner in New York in a team that oversaw merger and acquisition deals and strategic partnerships for the vast entertainment and media conglomerate.
So, the newly appointed managing director of Hong Kong at the group-buying company Groupon, recalls working very closely with Warner Brothers in a billion-dollar acquisition. Barry Meyer, who has since retired, was CEO and his successor Kevin Tsujihara was head of business development.
“I remember being extremely impressed by what I had seen in the management team – how well they knew the business and how interesting the business was. I thought to myself: I want to be on the other side of the table. I want to be the person running the business and building something from the ground up.”
Hong Kong-born So moved to the US as a teenager with her mother and brother in the 1990s. They were among the exodus of people who emigrated ahead of the handover.
Knowing she needed operational experience to rise to a management position, So, a Harvard-educated economics degree holder, returned to Hong Kong in 2005, seeing it as an ideal base from which to build a pan-Asian résumé.
“America is a centre of excellence when it comes to the online business. It is where you learn the most professional way of doing things. However, it is a mature market, and looking at Asia-Pacific from the US, I saw a lot of potential in this part of the world. All the opportunities looked very exciting,” she says.
In the decade since her return to the region, So has grown into a dynamic senior executive in the internet, mobile, e-commerce and media sectors. She launched new cable channels, developed digital products for mobile and internet platforms, and opened markets across Asia-Pacific for media and internet companies such as StarTV, Tom Group and iProperty Group.
She looks forward to sharing her experience with her team of 150, bringing them together to achieve a common goal of growing the business and keeping its leadership position in the group-buying field. “A successful online business needs a passionate group of talented people who are enthusiastic about what they do. I have a very collaborative style. I believe different people have different things to offer, especially in the e-commerce space. A leader has to keep an open mind to accept a range of ideas without losing sight of the goals we are trying to reach.”
Groupon Hong Kong is relatively new to the local market, having only launched four years ago. In 2012, it introduced the offline-to-online model in the city with the opening of its first concept store, which moved to a new location in August with 45 per cent more space. It is now working on its MobileFirst strategy, which would allow consumers in Hong Kong to browse for the best deals in travel, goods and local experiences.
With online accounting only between 3 and 5 per cent of the total domestic retail business, Groupon Hong Kong is poised for tremendous growth, So says.
As a manager, So believes that a certain level of workplace conflict can be positive. “If everyone thinks alike, then you know you can only do things one way. Conflicts are not necessarily a bad thing if they are handled properly. Sometime, without conflicts, interesting ideas would not have come out. Conflicts are ideas coming into a melting pot. This is how new business ideas and new business models are being generated.”
She points out ideas are not mutually exclusive. “It is all about incorporating the best ideas in the team and arriving at a solution that is best for the business. Fundamentally, e-commerce is a very data-driven business. We learn from our experience. And a lot of times, there is no one way of doing things. If there are two different ideas, why not go with both? We have the luxury to do both.”
With the rigorous work ethic instilled by her mother, So keeps fairly long hours in the office. But Friday evenings are left open for the weekly date night with her husband. The rest of the weekend is divided between friends and family.
Even off-duty, work has a way of asserting itself into her mind. She says that as a shopping enthusiast who likes to explore the city’s hidden gems, and a sports lover into swimming, badminton and weekly workouts, new ideas or a solution to a business problem often come during her leisure time.
“It is important to know what motivates you,” she adds. “I am fortunate that I discovered this passion for the internet and new media channels early on in my career. As managers, we should look for this motivation in our people, regardless of whether your business is online or not.”
Catherine So shares tips on adapting a global online business model to the HK market
Build a strong local team “You need the best talent in each of your business units. They should have the personality for this kind of business and have the passion for it.”
Leverage the global company “Take advantage of the knowledge and centres of excellence of the parent company, and adapt them to meet the needs of local customers.”
Be on top of your market “We have a city planning team that goes out to the market, looks for the hottest trends or items, and experiences them.”
Tweak the business model “Hong Kong is one of two Groupon markets to have a concept store – because it is what our customers want. Always offer them more choices. In everything we do, we think from the customers’ perspective.”