The successful make-up of Mary Kay APAC president KK Chua |
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The successful make-up of Mary Kay APAC president KK Chua

Published on Saturday, 08 Nov 2014

All executives move around, but few can claim the range of experience KK Chua has accumulated since he first decided life in an insurance office was not for him and struck out instead as a trainee salesman to sell packaging in Singapore.

Since then, he has made his mark in printing and publishing, been headhunted by Hollywood, opened new markets in China, and has never been afraid to take on a new challenge.

One way or another, all that laid the foundations for his success as the Hong Kong-based Asia-Pacific president for US cosmetics firm Mary Kay. In his current role, Chua has overseen a period of massive expansion, thanks to an astute approach to marketing, the efforts of an independent sales force of "mobile retailers" that now numbers more than 1.5 million, and a keen appreciation of what Asia wants in terms of looks and beauty.

"In our business, you have to understand women and what they need and want," says Chua, who joined the firm in 1995, tasked with building a network in China. "Asian women are quite different in the way they think. The region as a whole is still very much influenced by Confucian thinking and we find that women don't just look at the packaging or the appearance of a model. They also want to know about the science behind a product, so we have to communicate that and, for new products, make sure there is always a story about the science that can set us apart."

Similarly important is to anticipate the next wave. Mary Kay has prospered through its policy of using trained beauty consultants to sell directly to clients, thereby avoiding the cost and administration of managing retail premises. In place of TV ads, the company's "Dream Beautiful" contest for aspiring models and make-up artists has also proved a PR and marketing coup, attracting close to 290,000 entries from around Asia this year alone. However, the rapid rise of online sales and intense competition in the sector requires constant planning and vigilance.

"You almost need to be paranoid about what is happening out there," Chua says. "Fortunately, we were ahead of the curve in converting 100 per cent of our ordering to an online platform, and other changes have been managed into the sales model. But, even so, there is never a chance to sit back and rest on your laurels."

That is a lesson Chua learnt when doing business studies at Singapore's Ngee Ann Polytechnic, a course he chose after having second thoughts about his initial career choice of studying to become an evangelical Christian priest. What most shaped his outlook was the two and a half years he spent as a non-commissioned artillery officer in the Singapore army.

"That is where you really learn about management - mixing with people from all walks of life and getting them to do what you want," says Chua, whose father managed a 3,300-acre rubber estate in Johor where the rest of the family spent their holidays. "The army taught me about hierarchy, questioning and then obeying orders, and making the most of opportunities. It helped me formulate the qualities needed for leadership and to learn the skills to survive in any organisation."

Service and studies completed, Chua endured a "very boring" six weeks with an insurer before deciding there was more to life and heading off to sell packaging. His talents were spotted by a client, who hired him as a marketing executive to sell clocks to US department stores like K-Mart. That led to an offer in 1984 to get into printing. His first role involved winning orders from the US to print bibles for American evangelists, but it later evolved into setting up a printing plant in China, staying on when the company was taken over by publisher Robert Maxwell, and moving to Hong Kong to work on potential acquisitions.

From that period, a couple of joint ventures stand out. One saw the wider publication of world literature and international scientific findings in China. The other broke new ground by publishing Disney children's books on the mainland. "Within six months, without a single cent spent on advertising, we sold 1.6 million copies," Chua says.

Talent-spotted again as someone on the fringes of the media industry with useful China experience, Hollywood came calling. Chua was hired to arrange mainland distribution of blockbusters such as Ghost, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and The Lion King for a company set up by Paramount, Universal and MGM - and succeeded in no uncertain fashion.

"I am very proud of bringing the top 10 movies from Hollywood into China," he says. "We started negotiating in 1993, and it was a meeting of the right minds at the right time. The Chinese side wanted to do it and so did we. It was not the traditional sort of deal, but we worked out something where all the [parties benefited]."

What attracted him to Mary Kay was the company's culture and values - a marked contrast to that of the movie business - and the conviction that this was a chance to improve lives. "I can also say there is an element of fate," he says. "What I started out to do, and didn't complete, was to change the world as an evangelist. But in this job and company, I can still help to change many women's lives."


KK Chua shares four tips on leading a fast-growing organisation

Sell the idea  "You have to communicate 360 degrees by keeping the people below you well informed and selling ideas to those above, so they all feel part of the process and that it is what they want."

Emphasise the positive  "People need to be treated right, which is why we use the 'praise sandwich'. Basically, if there is something to criticise or correct, a manager will start and end the conversation by highlighting positives."

Plot your course  "Process planning is very important. It needs to be logical, with a clear analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and should be seen as the mechanism that runs the business."

Culture is key  "In getting people to march to the same beat, remember the culture, not the product, drives the company. It ensures the sales team is cohesive and the organisation is a force to be reckoned with."

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