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Toy executive loves work and play

Published on Friday, 04 Jun 2010
Pieter Schats

As chief executive of Toys LiFung (Asia), Pieter Schats is responsible for running 120 Toys R Us stores in eight countries across the region. He originally trained as a chartered accountant and subsequently gained wide-ranging experience working in London’s financial district, for an apparel sourcing company in Istanbul, with a sports business, and handling manufacturing and distribution in the FMCG industry. Though not part of a preconceived plan, he feels each of those roles helped prepare him for life in the retail sector, which pulls everything together, and is where the customer is the ultimate judge of how good you are.   

How would you describe your approach to management?   

On balance, I probably lean towards being a 'fix-it' guy. I can usually look at a situation and see what it needs to turn the business around or make it work more profitably. That said, after seven to eight years with a company, you hope to have done all the fix-it things and to be moving more towards people development and the 'softer' areas. As a leader, I’ve also found it’s important be able to adopt different styles for different situations. For example, I’m quite directive and hands-on when dealing with the teams in our newer markets like Thailand and China. But in the other countries, I sometimes have to tell myself to stop, recognise that people have the confidence and maturity to run things for themselves, and let them come up with their own solutions.

What do you like best about your role?  

The great thing about running a pan-Asian business is that you get involved in unique challenges. Each market has its own characteristics, which can be both good and bad, but it means there is always something interesting going on. It would be fantastic if everything was going well in every country all the time, but that just doesn’t happen. Instead, we have to be ready to deal with political and economic challenges – the recent protests in Bangkok shut down our flagship store there - as well as the competition from specialist retailers and hypermarkets. Besides monitoring business performance and execution, I have to look at opportunities to develop new stores, build relationships with vendors, and push marketing initiatives, so we are always moving forward.

Is it tough coping with the travel that comes with a regional position?

The travel is not such a big deal for me. I’m quite fortunate, though, because other than US visits and attending toy fairs in Europe once a year, most of my trips are just a few hours’ flying time. I find it quite stimulating to see what’s going on in the different markets, and there is usually some down time when you can really think about how to make improvements. That’s not always possible in Hong Kong where you tend to be snowed under by the normal, run of the mill stuff.

How do you help staff to maintain proper perspective?

I’m South African, so I come from a background where keeping fit and activities outside the workplace are considered very important. For that reason, I’m a big proponent of work-life balance, both personally and for the organisation. In Asian terms, I think we do very well. We have created an environment that encourages staff to go out and do other things, with inter–store games and involvement in various community activities. Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the ethic that expects people to work extra long hours. That said, though, if someone calls at 10 pm or at the weekend, I do still feel the need to be available.

What are your current corporate priorities?

In our business, we operate on a three-year cycle, not an annual one, and we’re coming to the end of the current cycle in December. That means we’re spending a lot of time now planning our strategic direction and taking a very holistic look at where we can take the business in the next three years. I think it’s a fantastic process because it gets the management team to consider everything from GDP forecasts and tariffs to incomes, market trends and the average number of kids per family. For us, it’s not just a question of adding on 10 per cent for organic growth. We do detailed research and, based on our understanding of the 0 to 9 age range, might even start looking at opportunities in apparel and footwear.

Which toys are your particular favourites?   

Like most people, I’m still a kid at heart and have a strong leaning towards outdoor things - balls, planes, kites and skateboards. I take them home to spend time with my own kids and make sure they get off the couch and don’t just sit around playing computer games. I think the best toys keep kids active and playing with their mates or parents. This helps with their social development and in other all aspects of their lives and, in many ways, there is nothing better than playing Monopoly or Scrabble with the family. I’m not big on computer games, but I am interested in the technology that goes into them in terms of early learning and teaching new skills.  

Silver lining

  • Believes executives can benefit from losing their job at least once in a lifetime, since the experience gives a unique set of values         
  • In general, believes that if KPIs are on track, local management can be left to run the show  
  • Feels that career success is largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time

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