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Sara's shorthand for success

Published on Friday, 18 May 2012
Sara Beattie has built her business from a one-woman secretarial operation into a leading international training and consulting firm.
Photo: Edmond So

These days, Sara Beattie, whose self-named brand is synonymous with secretarial services in Hong Kong, has little to do with the steno pool that got her business off the ground.

The business she founded in 1964, now the Sara Beattie Group, is today an international training and consulting firm specialising in the personal and professional development of administrative support and management professionals. Beattie herself spends her days whizzing from one client meeting to another, and flying in and out of Hong Kong, to China, Malaysia and India, where her enterprise has a presence.

“We have not done secretarial services for a long time because businesses have evolved. That was our USP (unique selling proposition) then, and for a long time. But that’s a very small part of our business now,” she says.

Some people luck into success. You could say that Beattie was at the right time and place to make Sara Beattie, the enterprise, happen. When opportunities arose, she was often in a position to take advantage of them, having made smart moves and done the groundwork.

When Beattie, a hopeful young Malaysian-Indian, arrived in Hong Kong with her British husband in the early 1960s, the territory was poised for an economic boom. The influx of foreign investment had just begun.

In effect, Beattie’s business was set up as a solution to her own need for employment. Despite being armed with 150-160 words per minute shorthand skills, she could not find a job. But, confident and undeterred, she recognised an opportunity in the large number of foreigners flooding into the territory to explore business opportunities. The market was ripe for secretarial services.

She paid HK$5 to have her services listed under a column titled “Secretarial Service”, a term she says she coined for the purpose, in the South China Morning Post. Before long, her competitors had begun to list themselves in the same column.

Beattie set up herself as a secretarial service and sent off sales letters to the top hotels, inviting them to offer her services to visiting business guests.

“If visiting businessmen need our services, please call and I will send you my best temp,” she wrote.

When they called, she went herself “because I was the only temp I had”.

Beattie quickly found out she lacked one vital skill – typing speed. Her two-finger boogie on the typewriter wasn’t impressive. The best employers expected her to type at the speed of lightning. The solution: take down the dictation in the hotel, and type it off site – in her office. The arrangement was successful, and when business began to grow, Beattie had to hire typists on a temporary basis.

In those days, hotels did not have business centres and soon her secretarial service was thriving. When some hotels began to contemplate setting up their own secretarial service operations, she offered to send them her temps and help set up the service. By this time, the Sara Beattie brand was well known in Hong Kong and she knew the ropes well. That’s how she went into the business of hiring out temps.

Quick thinking in the form of free after-sales service – providing follow-up services for expat clients departing from Hong Kong – paid enormous dividends: They came to her for secretarial services when they returned to Hong Kong to set up businesses.

“They would say, can you help find schools for my children or can you find something for my wife to do. So, before you knew it, business was thriving and I learned to go from temp to permanent,” she says.

By 1968, Beattie started tapping into the steady supply of skilled young women, travelling to Hong Kong from Europe. They provided interpreter skills services for the massive Canton Fair in Guangzhou attended by suppliers largely of manufacturing equipment, from around the world.

“Sara Beattie was providing interpreters. I would send two languages – the native language of the client, say German, to translate from German to English, and Chinese, to translate from English to Putonghua,” she says.

Business was so good, on one such occasion she booked an entire floor of the President’s Hotel (now Hyatt Regency) in Kowloon with her clients. She was also serving hotels in China.

“Many of the early businesses had their expat staff live in hotels and not outside. Sara Beattie supplied staff to the clients staying in those hotels,” she recalls.

By the end of the decade, she was contemplating setting up a secretarial college. The idea materialised in 1974, with a chance meeting with an American friend.

“One of my friends who had been an educator started her own school – The College of Executive Secretarial Services. She was offering a two-year American collegiate programme, shortened to 18 months. She was getting out of a taxi and I was getting into it. We haven’t seen each other in a while,” she says. 

A quick update by the taxi door revealed the friend was selling her school and Beattie was looking to buy one. They both got into the taxi.

Later, over a cup of coffee, Beattie purchased the school. Soon, Sara Beattie College, for executive secretaries, was in operation.

Like Beattie’s enterprise, the secretarial profession has come a long way since the days of typing letters and making coffee for the boss. Gone are the typists and secretaries who would never quite make it into the managerial ranks. Today, there are administrative support and managerial staff with a bigger role to play.

“The moment computers became significant, the role of the secretary changed,” says Sara. “Every boss began to use a computer… And all the secretary had to do was send it off to the right address. Her role began to include more internet research and increased relationship with the client base,” Beattie says.

This shift is reflected in the name change of the professional institution for secretaries set up in 1948 in Kansas, which became known as the International Association of Administrative Professionals in the 1980s. Beattie, who had celebrated an annual Secretaries Day from 1985 to 1990, renamed the event to Administrative Professionals Day.

The college curriculum also changed. “We switched to computer, introduced different skills like research and innovation,” she says.

By the early 1980s, Beattie had expanded into corporate training and branding exercises such as the “Golden Voice of Hong Kong”, a competition recognising people for answering the telephone well. Sara Beattie became synonymous with quality administrative talent, as the employment services arm ensured that graduates got jobs.

The 1997 recession did not spare the business. Companies did away with their executive secretaries and hired executive assistants. At the same time, the increase in the number of universities in Hong Kong from two to eight cut the number of student enrolments and quality candidates.

To sustain its business, Beattie quickly purchased distribution rights for Bullet Proof Manager – an executive training franchise – and began to offer it in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Sara Beattie Corporate Training took off, providing staff with soft skills training for entry to mid-level positions. The business also established a presence in India and Malaysia.

Beattie also brought in the Princeton Review franchise, working with schools and individual students who wish to complete their education in Ivy League tertiary institutions the United States.

There are plans to strengthen and broaden the company’s overseas presence this year. And the groundwork is being laid out for a “retirement” plan in the distant future to assist underprivileged families in South Asia in restoring the sight of visually-impaired children.

Beattie’s story is one of agility and adaption, flexibility and innovation. “Times have changed, the nature of employment has changed, industry has changed, expat employment has changed, our business has changed. We are now in the business of empowering people to do more for themselves,” she says.

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