Juliana Lam’s hands-on approach is reaping rewards for her family’s business
When Juliana Lam returned from Canada after graduating from university, she enthusiastically took a job at AML Group Holdings, a glove-maker founded by her father, Frank, and godfather, Edward Cheng, in 1963.
From a young age, Lam was a great admirer of the company, and she could not wait to get started. "I spent many summers interning at the company. I finished my economics degree in three years instead of four so that I could start working as soon as possible," she says.
When Lam joined AML Group, she was not given any privileges. "When I started, I was a junior staff member on the lowest pay. My father made it a point that I report to the merchandising manager and not to him. I started out as a junior merchandiser - the most junior post - and slowly worked my way up," she says.
As a junior merchandiser, one of Lam's duties was to draw diagrams of samples and send them to craftsmen. To ensure she was not getting special treatment from colleagues, she made it a point to not let her status affect the way she worked. "I didn't write my name on the diagrams so that the craftsman would not know it was me, the blue-blooded girl. I wanted them to treat me like everybody else. More importantly, I would get to learn from my mistakes," she says.
Lam's big break came when her supervisor resigned and she took his place for a visit to the US to see clients. "At the time, I only had one year's experience as a junior merchandiser. I was terrified. I wanted to do my best, so I did loads of preparation. I dug into faxes sent by the clients over the previous two years to try to learn more about them. The trip turned out to be a huge success and I earned my first promotion, to senior merchandiser," she says.
Negotiating with clients was one of the major obstacles Lam had to overcome when she first went to the US. Having to drive on her own to various locations to visit clients was another. "At the time, there was no GPS or mobile phones to ask for directions. It was really scary for a girl to be on the road alone, but it turned out fine because my father had helped me prepare," she says.
This preparation had come, without her realising, when she was still at university and her father encouraged her to rent a car to visit different places at weekends. "Now, looking back, I think he was secretly preparing me for my job because he knew I would be on the road a lot meeting clients. He wanted to sharpen my driving skills. I was really impressed with his vision," she says.
Lam eventually worked her way up to become the group's managing director. Over the years, she says she has developed strong relations with clients and is only interested in forming long-term collaborations. "This is a mentality that my father taught me. Many people say businessmen are cunning, but I never saw that in my father and our business partners. We maintain long-lasting relationships and have developed trust for one another," she says.
Lam thinks one of the most impressive things about AML is its focus on its core products. "Many manufacturers have moved on to investing in real estate or finance because those are more profitable. AML remains focused on manufacturing. We always look long term and are not interested in making a quick buck. We developed our business steadily, with a strong foundation," she says.
In recent years, Lam says, the manufacturing sector on the mainland has earned a bad reputation for mistreating workers and people are less willing to join the industry. She has, though, found ways to make working at her company more appealing.
"I understand that it is painful for workers living in rural areas to have to leave their family to travel to the city to work, so I decided to bring the factories to their doorstep," she says.
"Instead of setting up one huge factory in the city, I built small factories in rural areas. Now the company runs 18 factories in rural areas on the mainland. Each factory is four to five hours away from the airport. It is certainly more difficult to manage, but it makes life easier for the workers."
Working for a manufacturer that makes plans for the long term, Lam ensures her factories operate in a green fashion. "We have installed solar panels in factories and provide better ventilation to reduce reliance on air-conditioning. Many people think manufacturing is the main culprit for poor water quality, but in recent years, the government had tightened up requirements for sewage treatment," she says.
There is a Chinese saying that one can only do business if one is willing to go the extra mile. Lam agrees, which is why she never passes on the chance to visit business partners.
"Clients can say all kinds of things about their financial stability to try to get better payment terms. I like to see things for myself, so I visit them at their offices. If you see that employees who were there last time are missing, then the company is probably cutting costs. I will ask to visit their warehouse to see if it is empty or the stock has been left unattended for a long time. If you want the business to run smoothly, you have to put in the effort," she says.
Lam's son is in Primary Four, but she has no plans yet to start grooming him to be the company's third-generation representative. "I would love for him to work for the family business if he is interested, but it is up to him. My father never forced me to look after the business - he knew there was no point. If you want someone to excel at something, you have got to love it," she says.
BE COMPETITIVE, BUT UNSELFISH
Juliana Lam dishes out five tips on how to be a great business leader
Don’t just think of yourself “Selfishness limits solutions. If you think from other peoples’ points of view, you can have many more options.”
Actions speak louder than words “If you have a plan, realise it, otherwise it will always stay a plan.”
Find your competitive edge “Think of your strengths, not your limitations. This will help you find more solutions.”
Accept that you can’t win them all “If you want something done, understand that you have to pay a price.”
Don’t think of yourself as the boss “Try to be the best employee. Stay humble and be willing to learn.”