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Sophia Tong

Pollinating B&Q with IBM Concepts

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Former IBM general manager Sophia Tong is one of a new wave of executives taking on new challenges. How will she transfer her IBM experience to a new industry and what impact can she have?

Pollinating B&Q with IBM Concepts

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 420 )

Former IBM general manager Sophia Tong changed battlegrounds in March  this year, joining the Test Rite Group, a worldwide group of companies specializing in sourcing and retailing home accessories and tools. It is best known as the operator of home improvement chain B&Q and home decor retailer Hola in Taiwan.

Tong's story is one of a Taiwan-based enterprise searching for a top executive from a foreign company to help it expand its overseas presence, but many observers wonder what kind of capabilities the blue-blooded IBM devotee can bring to a local retailing group.

"I'm making this my last mile before I retire," says the poised Test Rite Group CEO, elegant as always in a white suit. 

In her new job, she plays the role of a "learning persona" cross-pollinator.

Tom Kelley, the general manager of design firm IDEO, popularized the terms in his book The Ten Faces of Innovation. According to Kelley, one form of "learning persona" within an organization is the "cross-pollinator," an innovator skilled at observing other industries and cultures and then applying ideas obtained from the outside world to the enterprise they work for.

In hiring Tong, Test Rite Group chairman Tony Ho hoped she would infuse back office processes and resource integration operating concepts from the globally integrated IBM into Test Rite, which is expanding and building global planning and management capabilities.

"The CEO came onboard to speed up the group's integration," says Jennifer Jan, Test-Rite Retail Group's general manager for marketing.

What, in fact, are the skills and talents the mild-mannered Tong brings to the table?

Getting an Edge with Administrative Skills

Looking back at Tong's 25-year career at IBM, she demonstrated both outstanding sales ability and sound administrative skills.

After joining IBM fresh out of National Taiwan University's Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, Tong left the company briefly twice, once when she got married and the other time when she emigrated to the United States. She began as a secretary in back office administration, and then rose through the ranks to purchasing and special project management, fully mastering IBM's internal processes from the bottom up.   

Then in 1990, hoping for a position that would give her more room for personal development, she entered IBM's core – the sales department. Overnight, she had gone from being an executive with her own office to a junior saleswoman without even a partition around her desk, an abrupt change that left her agonizing over her decision.

But Tong capitalized on her extensive back office administrative experience to develop special traits that set her apart from the other salespeople. Because she was intimately familiar with IBM's internal processes, she could quickly and precisely let customers know how long it would take to process their requests and the type of support she could offer.

"The basic skills I obtained in my early career in administration really gave me a leg up when I moved to sales," Tong says.

In 1992, she rose in the ranks to special assistant and Taiwan sales manager for IBM's very important large corporate clients. She also spent time in Japan, in charge of the Government Business Group, and from 2002 to 2005, she worked in China heading IBM's banking business there. It was during that time that she met Test Rite's Ho.

Tong's experience, from back office operations to sales, helped her understand the connections between different functions and the company's internal processes, from budgeting to special project management. She internalized the concepts of target management and performance evaluation and also gained exposure to corporate management and resource allocation from a global perspective.

Bravely Leaving Her Comfort Zone

Tong believed that IBM's greatest asset was its solid system. Managers set targets for those they supervised and, at the end of a certain time period, gave them an evaluation.

"To us, it was as common as eating," she explains.

With Ho's Test Rite Group, Tong now faces the challenge of making inroads across ethnic Chinese markets. During the group's expansion phase focusing on cross-regional operations planning and management, Tong's main management test will be to figure how to optimize the synergies among B&Q, Hola, and other Test Rite Group brands.

"This is a last try," says Cindy Chen, the Taiwan manager for human resources solutions provider Adecco. When many high-ranking Taiwanese executives hit promotion ceilings at foreign companies, they "change course and look for another stage to perform on," Chen adds.

Originally intending to stay at IBM until she retired, Tong admits she found she did not enjoy doing the same thing over and over.

"If you first think it through and then have the guts to leave your comfort zone, the rest depends on whether you have the willpower to persevere," Tong says, knowing many will be curious to see what kind of chemical reaction the pollen nourished at IBM will have at the Test Rite Group.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier


Chinese Version: 童至祥 在特力複製IBM經驗

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