Merlin Entertainments is one of the world’s leading entertainment groups. Erin Hale talks to Gloria Yuen, its Finance Director – Asia, about managing the group’s Asian indoor attractions, and the pressure of keeping the world entertained
Photography by Calvin Sit
Gloria Yuen got her big break after one of Hong Kong’s darkest hours. A year after the SARS epidemic hit in 2003, the government announced plans to invest in the entertainment industry to help tourism recover following one of its worst years on record.
“I saw there would probably be an opportunity for me, so that’s why I selected the entertainment industry,” Yuen says over coffee. “The government really focused on boosting the economy and the entertainment business was one of those plans.”
Madame Tussauds Hong Kong was looking for a financial controller, so she applied. Little did she know that she would stay with the company for the next decade and a half, first at the famous wax museum, and then rising up the ladder of its parent corporation, Merlin Entertainments, a leader in location-based, family entertainment, listed in the United Kingdom.
The chance to work for an expanding company with a long history was an exciting opportunity, she notes. “Madame Tussauds to me is a fun entertainment business that has a 200-year plus history in Europe, so it gives me a mix of old and modern perception,” Yuen says.
She had never been to a Madame Tussauds before applying to the position. The initial visit was revealing. She found its famous wax reproductions of celebrities and historical figures to be a memorable and immersive experience that also encourages interactivity with guests.
As Yuen embarked on her new career in the entertainment industry, it was also a dynamic time for Madame Tussauds. From a company that earned initial infamy, rather than fame, making waxworks of victims of the French Revolution – before opening its first permanent location in London in 1835 – Madame Tussauds was finally expanding across Asia.
Hong Kong was its first Asian stop with a waxwork exhibit opening at the Peak in 2000. The collection came from Australia, where it had gone on tour. The new permanent location was a huge hit and now welcomes one million tourists a year, particularly from Mainland China and Southeast Asia.
“The government really focused on boosting the economy and the entertainment business was one of those plans.”
From Madame to Merlin
As Madame Tussauds expanded its Asian footprint, Yuen added new locations to her portfolio. One of her first victories was helping the company to open its first permanent showroom in Mainland China in 2006. The new Shanghai branch presented a number of challenges, from how to build up a brand in a new country while also handling different reporting standards to those in Hong Kong. “China itself is very complex in its tax and regulatory regimes, and for me, it was a big challenge,” she says.
Yuen went on to help the company expand further across the region, and Madame Tussauds now has locations in India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand in addition to the Mainland. Each location has its own special blend of characters appealing to the local audience, Yuen says. Madame Tussauds Hong Kong, for example, is the only location where visitors can see wax figures of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping.
Yuen eventually made the switch to Merlin Entertainments and these days she is Finance Director of their Asian indoor attractions team. She has added the company’s Sea Life Centre aquariums and its LEGOLAND Discovery Centres to her portfolio and now oversees 13 sites across five countries.
Sea Life aquariums can be found in China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, and offer a family-friendly encounter with marine life. LEGOLAND, meanwhile, targets children between three and 12 with LEGO displays, rides and other LEGO-themed attractions in China and Japan.
Yuen says she enjoys the opportunity to work for so many brands. “I find it very interesting to deal with different types of issues from new set up, growing sites beyond their ‘champagne effect,’ and site recovery from different challenges – either controllable like management turnover or non-controllable. Recently we’ve had to respond to political issues in Bangkok and natural disasters like a typhoon or earthquake in South Korea.”
Yuen’s core responsibilities as Finance Director are to lead her team in all functions of finance, financial reporting, analysis and compliance in the Asia region and ensure that they maintain the highest standards of ethics and integrity. She also serves as the point of contact with Merlin’s head office in the U.K.
Yuen works with a diverse team of local and international hires at each site, which requires her to sometimes adjust to each work space. “Respecting and adapting to the different cultures in Asia is very important. One thing in common is the same ‘accounting language’ we universally speak. Challenges are always there: different languages, different rules and regulations, different mindsets and different practices,” she says.
“The most important thing is we do not compromise integrity to accommodate any situation which puts the company at risk or damages our reputation,” she adds.
Another responsibility for Yuen is to make sure her team stays on top of new developments in accounting standards and professional development training, for which she often relies on her network of Institute members to share experience and best practices.
As an Institute member, Yuen says she feels she can influence younger finance team members to pursue higher qualifications. She recalls one younger staff member who obtained his CPA qualification while working for her team, during which time he was also mentored by his line manager.
“He shared that he appreciated the environment that we provided him to learn from us, and the encouragement, which facilitated his development into a qualified accountant,” she says.
Yuen says that two recently implemented accounting standards have impacted her work: Hong Kong Financial Reporting Standard (HKFRS) 15 Revenue from Contracts with Customers, and HKFRS 16 Leases. While they have had a significant effect on her work, these updates have also required “a lot of backend work to cope with the changes,” she says.
She says much of this work involves first understanding how the changes will impact Merlin and its financial statements going forward, liaising with auditors in other countries who apply the same standards locally to their statutory accounts, and also training other employees across Asia.
“My problem solving skills were also developed from the analytical skill set during those eight years as an auditor.”
The cost of fun
At Merlin, each site brings its own challenges, she says. At Madame Tussauds, the key drivers of cost are wax figure maintenance and staffing, which varies depending on the season.
“For labour cost, we require more assessment from time to time on the mix of permanent staff versus variable part-timers. During non-peak season, you may not need to have that many part-time staff, but for peak season, like summer and bank holidays, you may need to hire more part-timers. That’s a way to control cost,” she says.
Merlin’s Sea Life aquariums, on the other hand, have a completely different financial profile.
“Even if you close your business, you still have to feed the animals so we have to invest in the life support system,” Yuen says. “Also the maintenance on an aquarium is quite massive. This has an impact on the bottom line. In terms of the profit margin, the aquariums are a lot lower than Madame Tussauds.”
Another way that Merlin controls costs, Yuen says, is to merge management roles where they can provide more synergy. She says Merlin might put one manager in charge of liaising with travel agents to bring tourists from India to three of its sites across Asia rather than having three individual employees working in different countries to attract Indian tourists.
For her next project, Yuen will be keeping her sights set on Hong Kong, where Merlin will open a new family-based attraction next year focusing on children aged three to 10.
Even though she has almost 20 years of accounting experience, Yuen continues to apply many of the lessons she learned from her father, who was also an accountant. His influence guided both Yuen and her sister to ultimately become accountants as well.
“I still remember I learned my first bookkeeping entries from my father over one of my summer holidays when I was very young,” she says. “I also found that I had a natural feel for numbers. I don’t hate numbers.”
Her father pushed her to study overseas and Yuen ended up studying accounting at Sydney University – a choice she says that helped her to learn important life skills.
“The decision to study abroad was also inspired by my father because he always encouraged me to be more open and set my sights overseas. I learned to be independent and had to adapt to a new environment.”
After finishing her studies in the late 1990s, Yuen returned to Hong Kong where she worked for PwC as an auditor for few years before moving back to their Sydney office for two years. She spent eight years in the industry before gaining her CPA qualification.
“What I built as my core competencies was professionalism as an accountant, with sound accounting knowledge. Integrity is another key basic competency which enables me to gain trust from others,” Yuen says.
“Managing a portfolio of clients from a property developer to a canned soup manufacturer also trained me to perform tasks independently,” she says, looking back at her Big Four experience. “My problem solving skills were also developed from the analytical skill set during those eight years as an auditor.”
Now married with children, Yuen says her family life inspires her work for an entertainment company.
“I have a son who loves animals and LEGO so much that working in a family entertainment industry definitely helps to explore his vision and interest. Indeed at work, I would contribute my ideas by looking at things from my son’s perspective and thought from his ‘customer journey’ to help the marketing team to design our new products for the guests,” she says. “Besides, as a mum, I found myself seeing things differently. I found that I am more empathetic towards the younger staff at work. These are new qualities I have developed a manager.”
Over her many years in the accounting profession, Yuen says she has seen growing recognition within the accounting profession that work-life balance is important to overall employment success. While she has her busy weeks during crunch time each month, many workplaces are now acknowledging that employees need their break time. Yuen believes many of the younger generation of accountants have helped to change the industry’s culture. “The younger generations are much more laid-back,” she says.
Advising the next crop of young CPAs, Yuen says they should focus on one core competency that they feel the most passionately about and build their skill set outwards from there. Slowly, over time, it is possible to build a cluster of skills and diversify both experience and critical thinking.
Madame Tussauds first opened in London in 1835 and was founded by Marie Tussaud, a native of Strasbourg, France. There are now nine musuems in Asia, seven in Europe and North America and one in Australia. The newest museum opened in New Delhi, India in 2017 and features over 50 wax models, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar.