Chief Financial Officer of Kering Eyewear Asia Pacific Charing Lee talks to Jeremy Chan on how innovation and passion are key to thriving in the eyewear industry
Photography by Calvin Sit
Charing Lee was well aware of the typical responsibilities she had to shoulder when she took on the role of Chief Financial Officer at Kering Eyewear Asia Pacific. What she wasn’t prepared for was the task of guiding the growth of a “start up.”
“I’ve never had a chance to build something from scratch,” says Lee, a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member. “It means rolling up your sleeves and getting things done – fast.”
While not exactly a start-up, Kering Eyewear operates like one. Part of luxury apparel and accessories company Kering Group, it designs, develops and distributes eyewear for fashion houses under the group, such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, McQ, Boucheron, Pomellato, Brioni, Tomas Maier, Christopher Kane, Altuzarra, Puma, as well as Cartier and Alaïa through the strategic partnership agreement with Richemont, a Swiss-based luxury goods holding company.
Kering’s eyewear products were created through agreements with external companies until 2014 when it switched to designing and manufacturing its eyewear in-house. “We also wanted to have better synergy with all the brands,” says Lee. She adds that the main goal behind this strategic initiative is to understand and adapt to market trends more quickly, and capitalize on new and upcoming markets.
In 2015, the luxury eyewear company opened its Hong Kong office with Lee at the forefront of this new venture. Within her first year on the job, Lee and her team saw the company go from one to nine branches in the region.
“Japanese people think wearing sunglasses all the time isn’t very polite, because you would be avoiding eye-contact. So reading glasses in Japan are much more popular, and seen as fashionable.”
By operating like a start-up, the company is able to quickly respond to the demands of younger consumers and the ever-changing landscape of fashion, says Lee. It also helps having a young and energetic team, who can clearly communicate updates and ideas with each other. “We believe in transparency across all different teams, both functional-wise and geographical-wise, to make sure the practice is shared,” she says.
Through weekly team meetings, Lee and her team would discuss what achievements and obstacles were encountered the previous week, and whether timeframes needed to be revised in order to meet deadlines. “For example, our finance team focuses on incorporation, legal issues and system localization, and our customer services and logistics team lays out a lot of local operational process flows and procedures,” Lee tells A Plus at Kering Eyewear’s new office in Tsim Sha Tsui. “During the start-up phase, things changed dramatically within a week, or even a day, so we always emphasize that communication is very important.”
With a focus on Asia Pacific, Lee travels every other month to meet with commercial and finance heads. “I go to Italy, where the eyewear headquarters is,” she explains. “It’s a 14-hour flight to Venice, and then a one-hour drive to HQ, which is all the way in Padova.” She also travels to attend regular Asia-Pacific meetings, which rotate around countries within the region. “We have these regional meetings to discuss updates and tackle potential risks and opportunities. Last quarter, we went to Singapore and next time, we are probably going to Japan.” Lee says Kering Eyewear are in the process of setting up India, the ninth branch within the region.
“My day-to-day is very people-oriented,” she says. “I support local teams by providing guidance, giving instructions and discussing new policies, acting as a bridge between local and HQ teams.”
Running a start-up-type company is a balancing act, notes Lee. “There are a lot of obstacles when it comes to building everything from scratch,” she says. “It is about striking a balance between daily routines and staying on top of all projects. With new projects, teams and offices, I need to balance between all of them so time management is extremely important. With delegation and dedication, we overcome challenges by prioritizing urgent versus important things.”
Lee is currently busy expediting the distribution process of their products, by means of cutting out the middle man. “We are trying to reduce the number of contact points, making everything more efficient and easier to process. Instead of selling to the local distributors, we go to customers directly with direct salesforce,” she explains.
By discussing risks and opportunities with different local chief executive officers and commercial heads, she and her team are able to identify new business opportunities or channels. “We do a lot of market research and business plans to determine which countries are able to produce the most net profit, and that helps us prioritize where to expand.”
One size does not fit all
With the seemingly limitless varieties of glasses on the market, the pressure is on for eyewear brands to have an edge when it comes to designing and producing products. Analysing market demand helps Kering Eyewear keep up with the trends, notes Lee. “Together with the marketing team, we have a product and brand team who understand the market,” she says. “In terms of trends, we have been looking at millennials. They are more willing to take risks when it comes to fashion, and their tastes change at a quicker rate. For example, they prefer more dramatic colours, or exaggerated designs.”
Lee points out that consumers are often unaware of the detail that goes into making a pair of glasses, such as taking into account the dimensions of the temples or nose-bridges. She speaks of how the shape of people’s heads varies in different parts of the world, hence a pair of glasses needs to match certain measurements. “Even a millimetre is a big difference. We have ‘International’ fittings and ‘Asian’ fittings,” says Lee, who is passionate about stylish eyewear and admits to owning many pairs of sunglasses herself. “So, the next time you go to an optometrist you could ask whether it’s an ‘Asian’ or ‘international’ fitting – they might think you’re an expert,” she jokes.
In Japan, the demand for sunglasses is lower compared with the rest of the region, says Lee. “Japanese people think wearing sunglasses all the time isn’t very polite, because you would be avoiding eye-contact,” she says. “So optical frames in Japan are much more popular, and seen as fashionable.”
Passion is everything
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Lee had always wanted to become an accountant. She studied commerce at the University of Calgary in Canada but returned to Hong Kong for work because of its energetic nature. A member of the ACCA, she attained her CPA qualification in Hong Kong through the mutual recognition agreement in 2002.
The more she studied accounting, the more she became certain she was on the right path. “You are able to see a lot behind the numbers, kind of like a detective. Then you can relate all of this to business, and start to understand why different industries have different business models and organizational structures.”
On returning to Hong Kong, she worked for a local CPA firm as a junior auditor. But it was at Sybase, an enterprise software and services company, where she says she built upon her skills as a CPA, working as an accounting manager. “This was where I consolidated my accounting skill set. I had to understand payment processing, the taxation of different countries such as in Australia, India and other ASEAN countries like Thailand, giving me really good regional exposure.” She later worked for Italian fashion company Valentino for over six years as regional financial controller.
When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and doing as much reading as she can. “It helps me calm down and really relax,” she says. When seeking a balance between work and life, she says that it is still something she is learning to do. In addition to time management, she speaks of the importance of correctly prioritizing goals, trusting her team, understanding that nobody is perfect and that mistakes do happen. “You have to learn to let go of issues that aren’t as important and focus on what is.”
Lee encourages young or prospective CPAs to think about what they are genuinely interested in. “All industries require internal finance, which is a platform for you to apply your skill set,” she says. “But, by being passionate about a product or industry, no matter what it is, you will have a lot of motivation to understand the bigger picture.”
Kering Eyewear designs, develops and distributes eyewear for Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, McQ, Boucheron, Pomellato, Brioni, Tomas Maier, Christopher Kane and Puma.