Since PUMA’s repositioning in 2013, the multinational footwear, apparel and accessories brand has been taking the industry by storm. Its Regional Finance Director Monique Lau talks to Julian Hwang about how she helped the sports retailer re-establish a firm foothold in Asia Pacific
Photography by Juliet Shayne Lui
"Playful, fun and casual” is how Monique Lau describes her workplace. Not surprising given that she works for one of the world’s most famous sports brands. The Asia Pacific Regional Director of Finance at PUMA Hong Kong recalls the time when the entire office banded together to cheer for Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt as he ran the 100 and 200 metres sprint during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.
“The event was broadcasted live in the office, and you can just imagine that everyone stopped breathing when the runners took off,” explains Lau, an Hong Kong Institute for CPAs member. “You felt like you were a part of the games and a part of the team even though we weren’t physically in Rio.” The fastest human on the planet stole both races and the office exploded into cheers.
In 2013, PUMA Chief Executive Officer Bjørn Gulden announced the brand’s new mission statement: To be the “fastest sports brand” in the world. “We have become faster in reacting to new trends, faster in bringing new innovations to the market, faster in decision-making and faster in solving problems for our partners,” explains Lau.
One noticeable trend is the popularity of athleisure, or the reshaping of athletic wear from being strictly functional to also being ideal for everyday use – a trend that Lau believes PUMA has helped pioneer. “In 1998, the brand collaborated with Jil Sander, a famous German fashion designer, to create a pair of sneakers that combines our performance credibility and authenticity with fashion,” recalls Lau.
A reason why athleisure has flourished over the decades can be attributed to its rationale. “It’s not just about turning performance wear into everyday clothing, it’s also about a shift in lifestyle with a bigger focus in health consciousness and relaxing the standards of clothing,” says Lau. She also links the influencing power of fashionable celebrities and social media-savvy consumers to its popularity. “Young people look up to these people as heroes, like they do with athletes. Brands leverage this and it’s even more the case in Asia where celebrities are much admired.”
PUMA’s grasp of athleisure became even more prominent with the introduction of world-renowned Barbadian singer and songwriter Rihanna as PUMA Women’s Creative Director in 2015, who later created the signature Fenty PUMA collection. Rihanna is among several of the key collaborators for PUMA’s Forever Faster branding campaign, including other prominent names such as Argentinian professional footballer Sergio Agüero and Olympic athlete Usain Bolt.
“Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the brand that transformed it into being PUMA today,” says Lau.
When she joined PUMA in 2006, the company had just set up the Regional Asia Pacific office in Hong Kong. As regional controller of finance at the time, she was tasked with setting up the finance function from scratch. “The region mostly operated through joint ventures that we did not have full control over,” says Lau. Collecting the right financial information became problematic, with non-standardized information across five joint ventures in different countries.
On top of having to regain financial control, Lau also had to oversee the implementation of the enterprise resource planning system and ensure that her team accommodated PUMA’s reporting standards as well as had the necessary analytical skills. Following various mergers and acquisitions, and the expansion of subsidiaries from three to 10, Lau took up a heavier business partner role as the new regional finance director, managing the expectations of different stakeholders among global, region and countries.
“Compared with other regions, Asia Pacific is one of the most heterogeneous. We have different cultures, legal systems, languages and race.”
“With full control over the business, we could then leverage our resources to develop effective common regional strategies,” says Lau. Full control also meant the standardization and increased transparency of reporting, which made communications and decision-making processes more efficient for PUMA. “Compared with other regions, Asia Pacific is one of the most heterogeneous. We have different cultures, legal systems, languages and races. I’m glad that over the years, we have built up a team of expertise who are able to serve the function.”
Like most multinational companies, marketing investment and retail expansion are among the main costs, notes Lau. “We inherent from our headquarters some robust control measures for execution in countries, such as budget, forecast, marketing and store-opening plan approvals.”
Retail store rentals, of course, are a volatile factor that headquarters can’t control. “Rental costs are always pointing upwards, so to keep the cost ratios under control, we look at ways to improve store productivity,” explains Lau, adding that it can be enhanced by bolstering customer service, product assortment, visual merchandising and awareness and capitalization of trends.
In addition to athleisure, environmentalism is also a focus of discussion at PUMA. According to Eileen Fisher, a clothing industry magnate from the United States, the fashion industry is “the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry.” In 2011, PUMA became the first brand to establish an environmental profit and loss account. The account aims to measure the value of a business operation’s impacts on the environment by placing a monetary value throughout the entire value chain.
The company’s action to promote environmentalism did not stop there. In 2016, PUMA established the “10FOR20” as the second phase of its sustainability strategy, which outlines 10 key social, environmental and corporate targets that PUMA aims to achieve by 2020. The targets now include health and safety matters, governance such as anti-corruption and human rights. Last year, it collaborated with Hong Kong-based fashion designer Johanna Ho to recycle vintage tracksuits into fashionable street couture. “We support people who have similar values as us,” explains Lau, “because all business operations and supply chains, not just the sportswear industry, is dependent on nature.”
“Dealing with different countries has not only enriched my cross-cultural experience, but also broadened my horizons in understanding and respecting the differences in the markets even though the industries may be the same.”
From numbers to sneakers
Lau has always been fascinated by numbers and patterns. Naturally, accounting became her subject of choice while deciding on a major for university. “I studied science in high school, but I wanted to work with numbers that were more interactive with businesses, so accounting seemed perfect for me,” says Lau. After graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lau joined a Big Four firm as an auditor.
While at the firm, she pursued her HKICPA qualification. “I still remember the bittersweet experience of catching the auditing deadlines while studying for the examinations,” recalls Lau. Despite an extended stressful period of balancing work and studies, Lau passed her exams within the first year.
Lau then moved to the commercial side and joined a Hong Kong-based Swedish listed-company as an accountant. “In the first place, I wanted to gain hands-on experience on the finance function’s day-to-day [operations],” she says. The company specialized in global door-opening solutions, such as card reader locks for hotel doors, locks for safes and other components that can be found in everyday homes, schools, hospitals and even Hong Kong’s MTR system. “It was an important part of my career that allowed me to prepare myself to become a manager, because it helped me understand what the team encounters through their daily work and how we could resolve it together,” remembers Lau.
After two years, Lau had an opportunity to transfer to the regional team of the company. There, Lau discovered that the regional role offered what she had yearned for in the past – exposure to different countries and cultures. “Dealing with different countries has not only enriched my cross-cultural experience, but also broadened my horizons in understanding and respecting the differences in the markets even though the industries may be the same.”
Equipped with essential cross-cultural experiences and insights, Lau then joined PUMA and has worked with the brand for more than 10 years. The longer she worked there, the more attached she became towards sports.
“Before I joined, I wasn’t very interested in outdoor sports,” recounts Lau. “I preferred exercising indoors and usually only did so twice a year.” Whether due to the playful atmosphere of her office or the constant exposure to various sporting goods, Lau found that her “DNA had changed.” She now enjoys running outdoors and practising for 10 kilometre-marathons at least once a week, with a pair of PUMA IGNITE XT shoes. “If I didn’t do sports in a week, it’d feel like something was missing.” ◆
PUMA’s iconic logo with the jumping cat was created in 1967 by Nuremberg cartoonist Lutz Backes at which point the logo started to appear on shoes and apparel.