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More to business than money

Published on Friday, 10 Sep 2010
Mike De Bell

There is no doubt that Mike De Bell took an unconventional route to his current position as vice president of Asia for shoe company Crocs. Now in charge of a fast-evolving brand with an expanding retail network, most of his experience prior to joining in 2006 was in the electronics sector. This saw him working, over the course of 16 years, for a series of Asian-based enterprises where he gained, among other things, the transferable skills and confidence to take on new business challenges.

At present, his priority is to keep pushing for growth, while steering the still young company through the transitions and rationalisations that come with ambitious targets and rapid evolution of the product line. He talks to John Cremer.            

What do you focus on in managing the business?  
We have a fairly complex business model that, just in Hong Kong, involves sales, customer service, finance, HR, distribution and planning. Manufacturing is in Shenzhen and our Asia region includes Australia, India and South Africa. Every market has its own nuances, but they are 80 per cent the same, so I try to let the local organisations understand the local nuances, while I look at the drivers and results. For me, it is not a matter of concentrating on profits, but on doing the right things correctly and realising that people can overcome a lot if they have a passion for the business.

How do you deal with the pressure and find ideas? 
It is very easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget some of the fundamentals. My normal routine involves emails before leaving home, meetings from nine to five, and then more emails and late night calls to the US. Sometimes, it is best just to say “enough work”, turn off the BlackBerry and computer, and get away somewhere to read, walk, play golf, and give yourself time to think strategically, when you are not dealing with the tactical issues or putting out fires.

As a manager of people, what are you trying to improve? 
Feedback I’ve had – and this was from the US – is that I need to work on being a little bit nicer at times. I tend to be a bit direct and sometimes it offends people. For that reason, I’m trying to be more open to listening to other people and their ideas and a bit less abrasive in my approach.     

What is your particular strength in business?  
I think it’s my ability to break things down, identify the cause of a problem, and then find a way to resolve it logically. When doing this, I’m not that emotional, or if I am, I just let it all out and then concentrate on fixing whatever is not right. As part of that, my staff know that if they come to me with a problem, they must have two solutions to propose. I want to encourage them to solve their own problems, and if they come with ideas, it opens the way for coaching and discussion.  

How do you keep in touch with market trends and customers?
On the marketing side, we believe in a grass roots approach which brings us into direct contact with the consumer. To reflect that, we introduced a rule in Singapore that says all staff have to work in one of our retail stores for at least four hours every six months. It is kind of scary for some of them, but the key for us is the experiential aspect of getting people to try on our shoes, so all of team should know what is involved in that. I worked in a store in Singapore last week, and there’s no better way of learning about the customers.             

What major challenges are you currently facing?          
From the organisational standpoint, we are looking at a number of internal things because of the extreme growth of the company. One is the proliferation of styles – there are now about 240 – and having that many can create “havoc” for planning, distribution and merchandising. Therefore, we are trying to right size the product offering by constantly evaluating the sell-through and asking ourselves if we really need those styles that don’t account for at least 1 per cent of overall sales. 

The other thing is to keep building the brand. For all intents and purposes, we are only five years old in Asia and many people still associate us with our original clog shoe. We want consumers to understand we have “a shoe for every you” – for work, around the house, hiking – and to try them on.

What should young people focus on at the start of their careers? 
Working hard is obviously an important piece of it, but besides that, I think they need to make the right decisions about who to associate with. As my parents used to say, choose your friends wisely and be humble. In business, you always hear about the likes of Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch, but I admire the kind of guys who can just make it happen and get the job done without all the self-publicity. I think you should choose people like that as your mentors.

Leader's lessons

  • Recommends Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell as an easy read which can give different perspectives on life    
  • As a sports fan, will look for management lessons in what different coaches do right or wrong    
  • Has found over time that markets may differ, but it doesn’t take long to understand the characteristics of each

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