Leading business through thick, thin and COVID-19

Dec 03, 2020

With COVID-19’s impacts still reverberating across the business and economic landscape, corporate leaders are striving to devise novel strategies to pivot, adapt and pursue new avenues for growth.

CUHK Business School invited several outstanding alumni from some of the hardest-hit sectors to share their experiences. Coming from the fashion, travel, retail, theme park and catering industries, these business leaders have been managing and mitigating the worst impacts of the pandemic to prevail. How are they leading their companies in the mission to adapt to an ever-changing world? How are they preparing to recover, rebuild and reinvigorate for the post-pandemic new normal? And how has their training from CUHK Business School equipped them to tackle these unprecedented challenges?

 

Adapting to customer journey shifts to boost sales in fashion retailing

One of the most profound changes to business has to be the seismic shift in consumer behaviour, something that the fashion retailing industry needed to contend with swiftly after the pandemic began. As Hong Kong’s thriving fashion hub came to a standstill when foot traffic slowed, the drop in in-person fashion shopping was soon followed by a boom in online shopping.

At the time, Theresa Tang (EMBA 2020), Senior Director of Retail at Adidas, observed that many in the industry were still holding on to the hope that the pandemic would soon pass, and they were not recalibrating their mindset or strategies for the new reality. But she remembered the professor of her marketing class stressing the need to formulate strategic adjustments when any significant consumer behaviour shift happens.

“Knowing this, we quickly realigned our business to the new customer journey. We started looking more into what customers look for and what kinds of promotions will appeal to them and adjusted our pricing, promotions and product strategies accordingly.”

Theresa said the digital knowledge she acquired from the programme, such as about FinTech, the shared economy and KOLs, has also inspired her to leverage new platforms to drive sales, develop fresh promotion strategies and devise ways to revamp, improve and enhance her business. “Having this knowledge about the new economy has greatly enhanced our ability to adapt to changing customers behaviours. After all, businesses must evolve with the times to survive.”

Getting ready to fly again with an innovative mindset in the transformed world of travel

With international flights ground to a halt, and countries closing their borders or restricting foreign visitors, Hong Kong’s travel aficionados were not going anywhere. “This has devastated the travel industry. We even recorded a negative revenue as customers cancelled their bookings,” said Rebecca Lao (BBA 2010), Market Insight Manager (Hong Kong and Taiwan) of a world-leading online travel platform.

To increase income, Rebecca said her company had to pivot and turn their focus to local consumers. They are now capitalising on on the local market with staycations to see their way through the obstacles.

Rebecca considers it crucial to maintain an innovative mindset to stay agile and competitive. “One of the most important skills I learnt from business studies is to maintain an innovative mindset.” The many group projects and business case competitions that she participated in have honed her ability to work with different teams to develop ideas and tackle evolving business challenges.

“We must learn what travellers want and offer relevant information and services to address their needs or concerns. We need to give them the peace of mind to travel again.”

Maintaining the right attitude to navigate the constant shifts in retail

The decline in visitors has also thrown the retail industry into disarray. As one of the leading department stores in Hong Kong, Yata has both gained and lost as the pandemic reshaped the market dynamics. While business segments that depend on tourist consumption have been put under strain, those that deal with necessities, such as Yata’s supermarkets, have seen business surge.

Susanna Wong (BBA 1992), CEO of Yata Limited, said maintaining the right attitude is crucial to navigating changes of any kind. “The retail industry is continually evolving: the market, the things that you get to do, even the strategies. You must stay positive and make the most of every situation despite the uncertain outcome. In addition to making strategic decision, always remember to make incremental progress, continuous improvements. That is what management is about.”

As she tackled the challenges, Susanna found both reference and guidance from the foundational theories and business cases she learnt during her study helpful. She said the theories offered her a theoretical framework and a starting point to assess situations logically and react quickly. “Although management is ultimately about managing dynamics and managing people, you still need to approach management logically.”

Susanna said the current environment is unlikely to improve very quickly or suddenly return to normal. It is therefore best to make use of this time to prepare and build capabilities. “This way, when normalcy returns, you will be in the best position to capture the opportunities.”

Reinventing the theme park experience for new lifestyles

Tourism is one of the industries that was struck the earliest by the pandemic. Vanishing tourists and many months of government-mandated business closures brought tourist attractions like Ocean Park to a near-complete shutdown.

Rose Yeung (MBA 2002), Marketing Director of Ocean Park, knew they could not just stand still and wait. They needed to devise new ways to attract overseas tourists and local visitors and position the theme park on a better trajectory to recuperate once business resumed.

Recognising the local demand for places to relax and the global demand for physical and mental wellness activities, Ocean Park developed a series of initiatives that takes advantage of the park’s extraordinary setting. From green staycation and glamping to hiking and yoga classes, all of the initiatives were very well received.

Rose credited both her MBA training and the networks she developed at Business School for helping her navigate the headwinds. “Perhaps even more important than the skillsets and business models I learnt was the network I cultivated. We inspire one another with insights and experiences from different industries and confront the COVID challenge together.”
 
Rose expects tourists who return will have different demands and expectations for attractions, such as favouring more wellness and outdoor activities. “This will be a good opportunity for everyone to re-examine and rethink how they can address the evolving tastes and behaviours of local and overseas visitors.”

Catering to the new dining habits of customers for growth

F&B is another sector that has been pummelled by the cascading effects of pandemic. Winona Lo (EMBA 2019), Executive Director of Fuk Yuen Group, a well-known catering chain, said the demand for catering services and facilities has plummeted since February 2020. The evolving anti-pandemic regulations, shifting consumer behaviour, along with intensifying competition among industry players are also directly compressing bottom lines.

As she steered her business through the COVID fallout, Winona drew strength from the analytic skills, agile mindset and expansive network that she cultivated during her study. She said the ability to grasp the crux of situations and the access insights and experiences of alumni in different industries have been invaluable to her and her business.

“For example, while we anticipated restaurant diners’ numbers to dwindle, we also recognised that the demand for F&B would hold steady given the dining habits of Hong Kong consumers. So, we pivoted, offering takeaways and ready-to-cook meals for in-store and online purchases. In the process, we expanded our business from Chinese catering and branched out laterally.”

Winona expects that the changes to the catering industry’s ecology will be permanent. “The world is transforming so rapidly. All the three-, five- or even ten-year strategic plans that we typically make can no longer catch up with the shifts in consumer behaviour or digital transformation.”

To prevail, she advised staying ahead of consumer behaviour changes and enhancing customer engagement. “Know your competitive advantages, leverage data analytics and adapt to new consumption patterns.”

 

 

Indeed, no matter whether it is consumers changing how they shop and engage with brands or companies developing new ways to work and manage operations, digital transformation has become increasingly crucial to business competitiveness and continuity in the post-COVID new normal.

To shine a light on this topic, on 9 December, Professor Richard Baldwin of The Graduate Institute in Geneva will speak at an online session of the Global Alumni Forum 2020. He will take a deep dive into “Digitech, COVID-19, and the Future of Globalisation” and impart more illuminating perspectives and wisdom on how corporate leaders can recover, rebuild and reinvigorate businesses and economics in the digitally transformed world.

Claim a seat at this highly anticipated session by registering here today.


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