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Talent-grooming Prowess

A.S.O Shoes on an Upward Ascent


Once a humble salesperson, Jessie Hung is now the vice general manager in charge of grooming a growing talent pool that has made A.S.O Taiwan's leading shoe retail chain.



A.S.O Shoes on an Upward Ascent

By Benjamin Chiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 415 )

At the end of 2007, when disaster struck Taiwan's retail industry in the wake of the global financial crisis, Shui-mu International, the company behind the A.S.O shoe brand, grandiosely celebrated its year-end party at a five-star hotel, highlighting the company's all-time record turnover of NT$3.4 billion. On the stage Shui-mu International general manager Joseph Lo, son of company founder Lo Shui-mu, was busy handing out more than 200 designer handbags as a special reward to the company's top salespeople.

A.S.O Shoes stands out for bucking the downward economic trend, posting 11-percent growth last year. But the company is well aware that it owes its stellar performance to the more than 600 salespeople, almost all women, in 199 stores across the island.

At the glitzy party the petite vice general manager Jessie Hung sat quietly in front of the stage. Yet it is Hung who has honed the almost 200 store managers into a powerful team of sales champions.

Twenty years ago Hung was only a humble sales clerk. But thanks to the company's methodical training system, which is modeled on the traditional master-apprentice relationship, Hung was able to make it from manager of a small shoe shop with annual sales of NT$15 million to vice president of the mother company, with sales volume of NT$3 billion.

Joseph Lo is convinced that "talent cultivation was crucial" for expanding A.S.O Shoes from a local shoe retailer into Taiwan's largest footwear retail chain.

Working and Learning alongside a Master

In its early stage A.S.O Shoes adopted the same approach as most retail businesses, using a rather improvised master-apprentice system. "The store manager was like a master. The system was completely based on tacit understanding. It was all about learning while you work," recalls Hung, whose own career growth was nurtured by such tutelage.

Compared to its competitors A.S.O Shoes put a stronger emphasis on handing down experiences from master to apprentice. Chairman Luo Hsui-Mu single-handedly established a system of store manager meetings in which he personally taught the managers one-on-one. Starting with the most basic management report sheets, he would show them how to analyze the figures to find out where the problems lie.

At the core of the master-apprenticeship system is the ability to provide guidance when it comes to detail. Hung recalls that in the past, company supervisors and employees had to fill out daily report forms. "Ten years ago the old chairman would still call the store managers every day to inquire about the day's sales, and he would directly give instructions if sales were below expectations," she recounts. Learning from the boss, Hung started to think beyond her own store's daily sales, gradually developing entrepreneurial thinking.

Hung still clearly remembers when one day she realized that the company was going overboard with new shoe models, releasing as many as 250 per season. Looking at the sales figures, Hung was surprised to find that 50 percent of the company's products generated 80 percent of sales. Due to the vast selection of shoe models, the company faced bottlenecks in marketing and inventory management, so Hung proposed that the number of shoe models be radically reduced and marketing efforts be focused on the bestselling products.

Only a Good Boss Trains Good Assistants

True to the traditional master-apprentice training approach, A.S.O Shoes store managers and regional supervisors not only keep a close watch on daily sales figures, but also have to bear heavy responsibility for training capable assistants.

Hung believes that if supervisors want to be promoted, not just sales figures should count, but also how well they train their assistants. At A.S.O Shoes employee turnover rates and coworker ratings are also taken into consideration when it comes to granting promotions.

The almost 200 store managers return to company headquarters for meetings and trainings four to five times a year. Hung takes advantage of their absence to give the assistants an opportunity to showcase their ability to run a shop by themselves. "When the store manager's away, the deputy can't let sales slip. This gives everyone a sense of loyalty and team spirit, and also allows us to observe which assistants have potential," Hung explains.

However, in these fast-changing, fiercely competitive times, the slow-working master-apprentice training system has also required some transformation. While the time-honored system had churned out fine talent, it could no longer keep up with the company's rapidly increasing need for new talent. Over the past seven years, A.S.O Shoes sales have grown 5.6-fold.

Therefore, two years ago the shoe retailer introduced a management associate program – a tool for grooming leadership that is popular among multinational companies. Through the program A.S.O Shoes recruits university and technical college graduates, injecting new blood into this company more than half a century old.

Joseph Lo, who initiated the company's massive expansion in recent years, is frank about the challenges that lie ahead. He believes that the company not only has to improve its master-apprentice system, but also needs to introduce systematic management by gradually developing teaching materials on the standard operating procedures for the company's eight major departments – finance, information technology, marketing, information management, general affairs, procurement, and research & development – which will all be digitized. At the same time the company will open in-house university and graduate school courses to cultivate mid- and high-level managers.

A Strong Team Proves the Leader's Success

In the past it took at least five to six years to train a manager capable of taking sole responsibility for a store. "Now we need not even one year to finish training someone as store manager," asserts Hung.

Having made it to the top from the lowest rungs of the career ladder, Hung has learned that a master should not be soft on his apprentices or try to be overly nice, but instead should point out shortcomings at the right moment.

Hung one day observed how a veteran manager in her department tended to thwart other coworkers' suggestions and efforts by readily commenting, "I think it's impossible. It's not unnecessary." As a result, team communication often hit a brick wall.

At the next opportunity Hung took the manager aside and pointed out his weakness. She told the manager that he shouldn't limit himself unnecessarily, and "when you make ‘impossible' your pet phrase, you only bring all discussion to an immediate halt."

In contrast to many master sellers who know how to push sales but are not able to impart their skills, Hung has always firmly considered teaching and guiding to be a supervisor's foremost duty. Only if the sales power of the entire team increases can a supervisor count it as his or her greatest achievement.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 女總教頭練兵,嚴師出高徒