Career Advice Working Women

Bonnie means business

Icicle Group CEO Bonnie Chan says success means making some sacrifices in her family life

Bonnie Chan, the CEO of marketing supply chain specialist the Icicle Group, got her first taste of entrepreneurship when she returned to Hong Kong after graduating from Oxford University in the UK.

“I started a little [fashion] shop that was funded by my parents,” she says. “My father thought it was like paying for my MBA.”

The experience, however, didn’t go quite as planned. Chan didn’t enjoy it and instead decided to join the banking industry, where she sold index products at investment support company MSCI for two years.

Her passion for running her own business, however, was never truly extinguished. “I realised I had to do my own thing. I had to be an entrepreneur. I had to be my own boss, because I always like to express my views. That’s not always the best thing to do in a large corporate,” she says.

Her realisation led her to joining her father’s printing consultancy in 2002. She went on to transform the enterprise from a family-run printing business into a regional marketing specialist with outside shareholders. “My company manages the supply chain of international brands,” she says. “We work exclusively on delivering execution.”

Chan’s exuberance shows whenever she talks about her business plans. The inspiration for her business model was conceived from multiple sources, including international trends in separating creativity and execution in marketing services. “Ideas are important and effective only if they’re executed well.” she says. “I think there’s a big gap in the market for that.”

Chan says her business model is all about implementation – turning brand strategies into reality in the most cost-efficient and sustainable manner. “When you read about a brilliant business, you always tend to focus on the idea because that’s the glamorous side. But why did it become successful? It is because of perfect execution,” Chan says.

The Icicle Group now employs about 80 people in offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Taipei. It is currently eyeing a seventh location, likely to be in Seoul in 2014.

Although Chan’s tight schedule means she starts every day at 6.30am with checking her BlackBerry and prioritising her goals, she still endeavours to spend 20 minutes with her son before leaving for the office. To Chan, “leaning in” at work, or concentrating more on her career goals, doesn’t necessarily mean putting work above everything else in her life. “I try to take off at 5.30pm and I never feel guilty about that. You have to prioritise and accept that you can’t spend 24/7 at work,” she says.

Other mothers, however, who see her constantly jetting off to manage offices in several countries, sometimes try to make her feel guilty. “Some of my friends say, ‘You will regret it when you get older,’” Chan says. But she adds that the decision is best for her and her family, although she concedes that she sometimes misses out on parts of her son’s life, such as accompanying him on school trips.

“You have to really know yourself,” she says. “If you decide that you’re going to work while your son grows up, then accept it. You won’t regret it in the end.”

Although Chan thinks that gender issues in Hong Kong are not serious, and that sometimes women create barriers for themselves, things are completely different when she crosses the border into China.

“I think that there is definitely a barrier [in China]. What I find most difficult is the fact that people will behave differently when you’re in an all-male environment,” she says, adding that people are more uptight if she’s the only woman around.

Chan says doing business in the mainland is very different for women than it is in Hong Kong. For example, there is the drinking culture common at business gatherings. “I didn’t know what I should do. There were times when I gave in and drank a lot with them. And there were times when I thought, ‘I should tell them I don’t want to drink that much,’” she says.

As her own boss, Chan thinks that she is fortunate not to face the same glass ceiling other women executives encounter. Stereotypes still exist, though, especially when she meets clients.

“There will be misunderstandings in the beginning. I always tell these stories when I go into meetings with a couple of my male colleagues. People usually think I am a secretary or junior executive,” she says.

Unfazed by the hiccups and failures in her career, Chan’s management skills have been honed by trial and error. “When I was younger, there was a time when I thought I just had to shout to get things done. Yes, you get things done in the short term, but people don’t respect you. Now that I’m more mature, I realise I have to control myself better. The calmer you are, the lower your voice, the softer you speak, the more authority you have,” she says.

Her maturity also helps her handle a situation some employers dread – letting staff go. “I used to find it difficult because you felt you were in debt to the staff. Now that I understand better, it’s actually a mismatch,” she says.

She also thinks that in order to maintain staff morale, communication is the key. “I spend a lot of time talking to my senior and junior people. They understand that a person might have a better future somewhere else. You don’t have to make a scene of it. We always wish people the best of luck and help them when we can,” she says.

Not averse to risk, Chan has a penchant for new business ideas. In 2010 she set up an online e-book shop – Handheld Culture – which has now become one of the Chinese e-book players in Hong Kong.

“I got in because Icicle was doing well, the company was steady. I thought it would be good to invest in something interesting,” she says.

Eventually, however, it became a distraction to her main business, so she sold it. “I don’t think I understood myself enough to get involved in other things,” she says. “So then I refocused. I think a lot of people go through that because you feel too comfortable with what you’re doing. In my experience, sometimes you have to learn about yourself through failures and mistakes, so you shouldn’t be afraid of failure.”

Apart from travelling with her family to unwind, Chan also has a passion for art and culture. She is a non-executive director at both the Hong Kong Design Centre and the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design, using her business skills to promote art and culture in the territory.

“Being an active member of these non-profitable organisations is another way to participate in the community,” she says.


An entrepreneurial mind is only one aspect of running a successful business

Face reality No one can have it all, not even men
Nurture variety Appreciate diversity in people who have different strengths
Step away from yourself Don’t just hire people who resemble you
Have faith Accept – and don’t doubt – yourself
Don’t feel bad Don’t regret your decisions or let others drag you into guilt trips
Spread out Trust people, put them in charge and delegate