Forgotten veterans grease the gears of Ada Ho’s social enterprise L plus H Fashion
The days when Hong Kong was known as a factory town are well over and most people will have forgotten all about the skilled workers who were displaced when the city’s manufacturing industry shifted to the mainland in the 1980s. Not Ada Ho, though. The director of L plus H Fashion (“Love plus Hope”), a social enterprise that produces high-quality knitwear for global brands, is determined to provide a platform for these workers to once again put their expertise to good use.
Ho, a Harvard graduate, gave up a luxury office in Central and a successful business career to work in the fashion company’s factory in Tuen Mun. “I want to help others find their value in life and through the process I hope I can find my own,” she says.
Starting a new manufacturing venture in Hong Kong, however, is a tall order. First of all, Ho had to settle on a management system that suited both industry veterans and a new generation of fashion workers. “I started off with a plant manager who had an abundance of experience in factory management, but I found that he was unwilling to adapt to new things and allowed bad factory-management habits to persist. In the end, I decided to break the top-down management culture common in factory systems by training middle managers to run the factory,” she says.
Such a system raises the question of how the factory could function without a distinct leader, but Ho thinks that a top-down system limits creativity because nobody dares to raise their opinions. Knowing how important it is to encourage creativity in an industry like fashion, Ho decided to give her young and inexperienced staff a chance.
“We are an organisation that looks to improve at all times, so our management has to have that mindset. Although the young managers lack experience, they are willing to learn and explore. They are like blank pieces of paper – they absorb new knowledge easily,” she says.
“Of course, the veterans have their value as they will focus on technical aspects. My management style is to let the old and young learn from one anther. The veterans educate the youths on manufacturing skills, while the youths guide the veterans with modern-day management philosophy.”
Getting young and old staff to mesh can be a challenge, Ho says, but she believes that constructive debate in the workplace is a positive step. “All my staff, young or old, need to demonstrate that they are team players. I am not looking for people with the best abilities – I prefer staff who are able to collaborate with others,” she says.
When training new managers, Ho aims to give them as much exposure to different parts of the operation as possible. This breaks with traditional factory management where there is a clear division of labour and everyone specialises in one aspect of the operation. “At L plus H, we need staff to be all-rounders. We want them to attend various kinds of management meetings. From renovation of the plant to safety issues in production, all staff are involved. The goal is to train up everyone’s entrepreneurial skills,” she says.
To help staff develop, Ho says she encourages them to present her with solutions instead of providing them herself. “I don’t want my staff to only be able to implement my instructions. I want them to think further and deeper about the tasks that they are asked to do,” she says.
“I believe modern-day business leaders should not give out instructions; rather, they should try to make staff understand the objective of their tasks and come up with solutions. It is definitely more time-consuming than simply giving out directions, but it is a wise thing to do for the long-term development of the company.”
She adds that nowadays, working styles have become more complicated, especially in small companies where workers interact with a large number and variety of stakeholders to get a job done. “People can no longer excel by specialising in one area in particular. They need to be all-rounders and collaborate with a diverse variety of stakeholders not limited to clients or staff – anybody can be a stakeholder in a company in today’s working environment,” she says.
The modern work environment is complicated further by the fact that the boundary between work and leisure time is becoming increasingly blurred, Ho says. “With a smartphone, people can basically work whenever and wherever they are. They do not need to sit in front of a computer to work. I used to have friends telling me that I was a workaholic because I was checking my e-mails when vacationing at a resort in Thailand. But this is how things are going to work in this era,” she says.
Ho recently took her quest to help other’s find their value in life beyond her company’s walls. She set up a drama initiative that brought together 80 students from four “band three” schools – including visually impaired students from the Ebenezer School & Home for the Visually Impaired in Pok Fu Lam – for a production of the musical The Awakening. During rehearsals with the students in preparation for the September performance at the Kwai Tsing Theatre, Ho watched their confidence grow as they learnt how to sing and dance.
“From start to finish, I spent six months preparing these 80 band-three students, who were entirely new to singing and dancing, for the production. Our society has always put a ‘loser’ tag on band-three students, looking down on them as the bottom 30 per cent. To be honest, like most people, I was worried that these students would be trouble-makers and difficult to deal with. But they were nothing like that. Day by day, I saw their acting improve as they became more passionate about it. They were willing to accept and learn from criticism,” Ho says.
While the students, many of whom have complicated family backgrounds, do not benefit from the support of wealthy parents, their talent still enables them to make strong impression. “I tell the students not to compare themselves to those who come from more privileged backgrounds than they do,” Ho says. “The drama experience lit the passion in their hearts and that belongs to them.”
STITCHING TOGETHER A GREAT CAREER
Ada Ho gives her five keys to job success in the 21st century
Match your values with the company “High pay and generous benefits cannot ensure you have a prosperous career. Join a company that shares the same values as you do.”
Embrace challenges “You must have a willingness to work hard and learn, and have the toughness to endure hardships.”
Stay flexible “Be prepared for changes at all times.”
Develop team skills “Have a high EQ and a teamwork mentality. You will be dealing and collaborating with many different stakeholders.”
Go the extra mile “With new technology, the concept of official working hours has been blurred. One can be working anywhere at anytime, so long as he or she has a mobile device.”