VP of Mead Johnson Ruthia Wong knows there’s no shortcut to ambitious targets in business
Every top executive makes a few mistakes along the way, and Ruthia Wong is not afraid to admit that her own career got off to a false start.
Fresh out of university and ready to change the world, she was taken on by a local lighting company. After just a month, bored and believing her talents were unappreciated, she said her piece, resigned, and set off for greener pastures.
That, at least, was the plan. What actually followed was a protracted job hunt, which included much soul-searching and two years with an NGO, before she finally secured an entry-level position to “start again” with an FMCG firm.
This time, she decided to knuckle down, learn the ropes, and take the rough with the smooth. “Looking back now, I feel ashamed of my own arrogance and ignorance,” says the vice president and general manager of Mead Johnson Nutrition (HK), which specialises in infant milk formula. “Getting into college doesn’t guarantee doing well in the work environment. You must go step by step and equip yourself to be a good employee.”
Not too surprisingly, that early experience shaped her outlook on business and on life. It made her more appreciative of what she had – often thanks to the selflessness of others – and, in due course, made her more committed to “paying it forward” wherever possible.
As one of six siblings growing up in cramped quarters in Kennedy Town, Wong had seen her father working shifts at China Motor Bus and her eldest sisters obliged to give up thoughts of further education to help make ends meet.
With the family’s support, she got into an elite secondary school in North Point and surprised her teachers and everyone else by stating an interest in business. She first expressed the idea quite spontaneously when answering a question in an oral English test, but it took root and, in due course, led to place at CUHK studying business, marketing and psychology.
“I was lucky,” Wong says. “Being one of the younger children, I got more education and knew that was the way to move into the professional class.”
In due course, there were high-profile marketing jobs with Herbalife and then Bausch & Lomb, for whom she took up a regional role in 2001, based in Sydney and covering Asia. The time in Australia was, in many ways, life-changing. It taught her, for instance, that not everything has to revolve around work, and that Hong Kong’s characteristic focus on money and efficiency is not the only way to get by.
“I could leave the office by 5.30pm, get home when it was still light, and sit on the balcony with a glass of wine,” Wong says. “Ever since, I have tried to find the good things in life in different ways and not just fall back into the old Hong Kong-style [habits].”
However, open to a new career challenge, she negotiated a switch to Mead Johnson and, for six years from 2007, was stationed at the company’s Chinese headquarters in Guangzhou. In a senior marketing role, she travelled extensively, visiting more than 50 mainland Chinese cities, and was instrumental in doubling market share generating a five-fold increase in sales.
“When approached about the job, I saw it as a golden opportunity as I wanted to gain more in-depth experience in China,” Wong says. “I also wanted to create an impact and was able to do that by working with a talented team and passing on my know-how to the younger generation.”
The transfer to her present post in mid-2013 was another logical step. It offered career advancement, new leadership challenges, and a return to the family circle in Hong Kong. And while sales of infant formula are relatively stable, it was still essential to keep pace with changes in the broader retail environment inspired by the use of apps and newer methods of brand building and promotion.
“However, in good or bad times, I keep reminding myself that the first challenge is to manage people well. If you do that, then the rest of the business operations will come right.”
The most recent move was also a chance for greater involvement in the company’s CSR initiatives, particularly its “Feeding Hope” programme for underprivileged families, and its efforts to promote awareness about metabolic diseases in newborns. This involves doing blood tests in the first seven days and making any necessary adjustments to diet to allow healthy growth and development.
“If a baby is not able to digest certain things, there can be problems by the age of two. Therefore, if we share information in the right way and can help mothers to a better understanding, it can avoid a lot of sad stories later on. With the help of social media, we are hoping to do even more in this area.”
When off duty, Wong likes to keep physically active. A champion sprinter in her youth, she is now in the gym by 7am every day and, whenever possible, hikes with her husband at weekends. As a contrast, she also loves cooking, enjoying the chance to create different dishes for her family and seeing certain parallels with business in the way it is important to plan, synchronise and bring the various elements to the table together.
“If you want to be an effective leader, you can’t be working 24/7,” she says. “For me, every day is about finding a balance and taking the opportunity to create something new. There should be self-fulfilment and enjoyment otherwise you are not getting the most out of life.”
LEARNING TO LEAD
Ruthia Wong shares her management strategies
Be an example “Aim to influence others as a person, not by virtue of your title or position. Also, practise empowerment as a way of getting people on board, otherwise your IQ and whatever you try to do may not count for too much.”
Stand at the fore “Show ownership of projects and problems and be ready to lead from the front. You can’t just delegate or dump things you don’t want to do on to other people.”
Own up “Dare to admit you can make mistakes and be prepared to say sorry.”
Adapt and improve “Embrace change and actively make yourself a change agent. Aim to live up to the highest principles every day and make sure you keep learning and looking to improve.”
Share your strengths “While trying to make yourself the best you can be, also help others to be the best they can be. You want your future memories to be about the people you worked with, not the difficulties of the job.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Formula for success.