Career Advice Working Women

Untangling China

Michelle Cheung took Henkel’s mainland hair-care business from the fringes of failure to shimmering success

While thousands of international companies have looked at mainland China with dollar signs in their eyes over the past few decades, not all have been successful in their attempts to expand into the country due, in part, to differences in work and management culture.

For a long time, the beauty care division of German manufacturer Henkel was one such entity. It started developing its hair-product business in the mainland in the 1990s, but struggled to make a major impact. General managers came and went, but still no breakthrough was made – until Michelle Cheung stepped in.

“Some considered my move to the mainland a step down because [before] I was the regional vice-president of finance for Asia-Pacific, managing billions of dollars, and I moved to the mainland market which is worth a few million only,” says Cheung, now corporate senior vice-president for Henkel’s retail and professional divisions in Asia-Pacific. “But I don’t see it that way. I have been working in finance my entire career and I embraced the chance to learn something new and to run a business.”

Cheung was appointed Henkel’s China general manager in 2006. By taking over an area that had hardly shown impressive past performance, she knew she was in for an uphill battle, but thought she had the solution.

“In all businesses, the key to success is to have a motivated team. When I took over, the morale of the team was not high. The company had been losing money and there were constant changes in management. I needed to pull the team together,” she says.

The key to motivating a team, she says, is to show its members that they have good future prospects. “I am a strong believer in developing local talent. I am willing to give them training. Now two of the [current] general managers, who serve as my left and right hand, are from the mainland, coached by me,” she says.
Cheung’s approach to managing people is simple – to be fair to everyone. “Respect is the key. I am not here to be nice, I am here to do business, but I am willing to listen to anyone and I am polite to everyone. People may not like me at first, but after they find out that I am a fair person who is trying to do good for the business, they become more motivated,” she says.

After settling the China team down, Cheung’s challenge was to boost sales. She believed in the company’s products, but with the China arm losing money year after year, she thought it was time to introduce a new marketing strategy. “I had to spend money wisely. Firstly, television commercials were too expensive, so I switched to magazine advertising instead and spent my budget on educating potential clients,” she says.

At the time, the types of hair care and treatment products sold by Henkel were relatively new for mainland consumers, so educating them on their benefits was the first step to seizing market share. “I employed consultants at various sales points to educate consumers on the importance of hair care. At the beginning, the usage rate of hair-care products was really low, but I find that mainland consumers are very open-minded and they accept new products with open arms,” Cheung says.
Relationships, or guanxi, are very important to doing business on the mainland, she adds. “People believe in the person more than the brand. I try to make myself easily accessible and I am willing to listen to feedback. I started building relationships with salon bosses and business began to take off. The mainland is a huge market – you cannot have it all. You need to work with partners and try to make a win-win situation,” she says.

Cheung put an end to Henkel’s financial losses in China after just one year. The next year, in 2008, she was promoted to general manager of Greater China. She made another step up the career ladder in early 2012 when she was promoted to regional vice-president for retail in Asia-Pacific, and again later in the year as she took up her current position. At one level below board level, she is the first Asian to occupy such a high position at the company.

“When I am doing business, I find it a lot of fun. I get satisfaction from winning customers over and persuading other businesses to work with me,” she says.

Henkel, like most companies, is seeing an influx of post-’80s and ’90s employees join its workforce. Cheung disagrees with the view of many employers that these generations are spoiled and lack ability. “We run a management-trainee programme on the mainland for university graduates. At their gradation ceremony, I tell them that the older generation may have said the same thing about me [being spoiled] when I first entered the job market. Maybe this is always the thinking of older generations. Every generation has their way to success and competition pushes them forward. If you are committed and proactive, you can succeed anywhere,” she says.

Although Cheung is focused on her career, she also finds the time to care for her family. “My family is used to me flying around. For the past seven years, I have spent my weekends in Hong Kong and weekdays in Shanghai. I don’t get to see my son every day, but that does not mean we are not close. I call myself the weekend wife and mother. If you are spending quality time with [your children], it is better to see them once in a while than see them all the time,’ she says.

On workdays in Shanghai, Cheung works from 8am to 8pm. “For me there is no such thing as finding a balance between work and life. I think they are the same to me because I love what I do,” she says. “One will not count the minutes they put in at work and the time they have for leisure if they are passionate about their work.”


Michelle Cheung explains her five keys to successful management

Teamwork “When I first stared at Henkel, the first thing my boss taught me was that nobody is perfect. Achievement is built on team effort.”
Lead by example “You have to set a good example for staff to have trust in you.”
Talent development “If you have a good reputation for developing talent, it attracts talent.”
Be focused “Know where to work, where to win and where to focus.”
Be disciplined “I am disciplined with my lifestyle in order to keep myself in the best condition to handle my busy working life.”