Edward Po and Ivan Hong
Where the Bosses Learned the Ropes
Your first job is the start of your whole career, priming the pumps for all that follows. Two successful Taiwanese executives share the secrets they learned when cutting their teeth.
Where the Bosses Learned the RopesBy Hsiao-wen Wang
Your first job is crucial, because it can set the course for your entire career and put you on the right track to success. How can you get the most out of your first real job, gain valuable insights and develop the right attitude to work?
Two highly successful businessmen, who made names for themselves in very different industries, let us in on the secrets behind their professional careers. Meet Taiwanese fashion guru Ivan Hong and Edward Po, president of the Taiwan subsidiary of Dutch consumer electronics giant Philips.
Success Is Sweet Mung Bean Soup
As a child growing up in a military dependents' community in Taoyuan County, Edward Po loved to press his face against the screens of his neighbors' windows to secretly watch TV. Upon returning home, he would open the fridge and get himself a bowl of home-made iced mung bean soup. Po counts this sweet summertime snack among his most delightful childhood memories.
The preparation of mung bean soup requires advance planning, proper timing and attention to detail, which has also become the recipe for Po's career success. Starting with his first job, Po adopted the steady, slow cooking "mung bean soup" approach, gradually honing his skills and transforming himself into a hot, highly sought-after commodity in the job market.
Now as president of Philips Taiwan, Po always patiently tells his colleagues that team spirit is crucial. He reasons that success doesn't come overnight, but needs to be concocted over time, just like slowly cooked sweet mung bean soup.
"The sales people, those who sell the mung bean soup, can't just fly off in a tantrum if they open the fridge and find no soup. Those who cook the soup, the production people, must not complain either if the beans haven't been soaked soft enough," notes Po in explaining the need for seamless cooperation. Again he uses a bowl of mung bean soup to illustrate his work philosophy. It takes ten hours to prepare the popular dessert, from buying and soaking the beans to cooking them. A business operates in much the same way, with each step seamlessly transitioning into the next. Yet, while this seems self-evident, not a single step must be omitted.
Every individual should be not only accountable to his superiors, but also to his colleagues and, even more, to himself.
Sweet mung bean soup stands for a cooperative, responsible work attitude, an attitude that has accompanied Po on his journey throughout his lifelong career.
In his very first real job, Po worked in the PR department of Taiwanese automobile maker China Motor Corporation (CMC). It was in this job that he honed his skills and put his career on a steady track.
Revise, Rephrase, Rewrite
One day CMC management wanted to recommend supervisors for posts in the labor union. Po, who had to draft the in-house document, chose "recommendation" for the title. But his supervisor promptly returned the draft with the title changed to "suggestion."
Po's boss lectured him that he didn't have the right to make recommendations, but was only entitled to make suggestions. Together with other requested corrections and changes, the draft document went back and forth between Po and his superior some ten times before it was deemed acceptable.
"Actually, I was very lucky. Where could you find a supervisor nowadays who would have the patience to coach you ten times? These days a supervisor will get mad at you on the third rewrite. And should you need a fourth, you will be regarded as not fit for the job," Po says, with a feeling of gratitude.
When Po was learning to write press releases, computers had yet to make their appearance in offices, so he had to use a ruler to measure the spaces between characters and to determine the position of tables.
While his job entailed rather trivial administrative work, Po did not consider it a hardship. "The most important thing on your first job is building your basic attitude toward work," Po explains.
It was Po's work attitude that made him stand out among his colleagues at Philips Taiwan. Let's turn back the clock.
Fourteen years ago Po, then 33 years of age, led a five-man team which was in charge of selling car lights to auto parts suppliers. In the early morning of Lunar New Year's Eve, the first day of the most important Chinese holiday season, a customer called to say that he was in short supply of a certain kind of car light.
Without hesitation, Po, who was in the midst of a family reunion in Taipei, went to the warehouse, grabbed two boxes of the required lights, and personally delivered the goods to Tainan in southern Taiwan half a day away by car. When he returned to Taipei the same night all that remained of the sumptuous New Year's Eve dinner were cold leftovers.
"These two boxes amounted to only some NT$20,000 (in sales). But without these lights, the customer would not have been able to ship his goods," Po recalls. "Is it worth it? When he (the customer) shakes your hand and you see the look in his eyes, you know it's worth it!"
To Po, the winning formula is not competing on price, but seeking to build good partnerships with customers, just as if they were cooking sweet mung bean soup together.
Shouldering Responsibility, Tackling Tough Decisions
These experiences also deeply influenced Po's decision-making style.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Po took over as president of Philips Taiwan. Back then, companies across all sectors ordered their employees to take unpaid furloughs to enable them to weather the economic slump. At Philips Taiwan management was also agonizing over whether to implement an unpaid furlough scheme.
Faced with such a heavy responsibility for the first time, Po wrote a letter to his mentor in Europe asking for advice and discussing the company's options. In the end he decided against adopting unpaid leave.
"At the time I only felt that this was a responsible attitude. But in hindsight, if we had implemented an unpaid furlough, the good results we would have got in the first year would have tasted sweet, but in the second and third year they would have turned into a poison pill," he muses.
Edward Po's first job not only served as a springboard for his career, but also instilled in him work ethics that have served him well throughout his life.
Beauty Lies in the Details
What is fashion? No one knows better than Taiwanese fashion czar Ivan Hong, founder of Catwalk Production House, one of Taiwan's biggest modeling agencies. On his first job, Hong learned to never miss a detail, and to quickly grasp what makes people tick. In so doing he laid the foundations for his dominance of the Taiwanese fashion world.
Wearing a golden ring and a pearl necklace, with a burgundy tartan plaid boutonniere pinned to the lapel of his dark grey suit jacket for a special touch, Ivan Hong carefully caresses a custom handmade dress with a lacy fabric of white flower patterns.
In the three decades since Hong rather accidentally stumbled upon his first job in the fashion industry as a fashion planner, he has developed an inseparable relationship with "beauty."
At the age of 35 Hong crossed over from fashion planning and fashion show directing into the modeling agency business, founding Catwalk. Originally a three-person agency, Catwalk has expanded greatly over the years. It now has almost 100 models under contract, including celebrities such as Lin Chi Ling, Ethan Ruan and Sonia Sui.
Somehow Hong has a Midas touch – he knows how to turn an ordinary person into a star. What Hong regards as "beautiful" today, might tomorrow be a new fad that takes Taiwan by storm. But very few people know that the godfather of fashion, whom others call "teacher," has never missed a detail, starting with his very first job.
Details, Details, Details
Hong loved dancing, but was not much into studying. After graduating from the precursor of Fu-Hsin Trade & Arts School in New Taipei City, Hong passed the entrance exam for the Department of Fine Arts of National Taiwan Normal University. But he soon found out that the rigid teaching there did not appeal to him. So he quit in his sophomore year and landed a job with Singapore Airlines despite being a college drop-out. In that year Hong was the only new hire without a college education.
"Back then there were no computers, only telegrams. Whatever information was relevant for an individual traveler had to be written on memo cards – for instance, where the passenger would fly from Taipei, where he would stop over and for how long, which hotel he would be staying at during transit, who would meet him upon arrival and so on," notes Hong, recalling how cumbersome customer service was before the digital age. Hong spent all day and night memorizing airline codes.
"Even now I fondly remember my stint at Singapore Airlines. You couldn't afford to commit any mistakes. One mistake, and you were dead!" One and a half years of exhaustive training at the highly rated airline made Hong understand the importance of attention to detail and adherence to standard operating procedures.
To this day, Hong personally makes sure that every accessory and prop has been prepared when staging a fashion show. He won't forget a single makeup item or even a scarf. At the set he will make a fuss if he feels that a model isn't wearing the right eyelashes, or if a flower arrangement is not placed in the right spot.
Making Gong Li Smile Again
Working at the airline also helped Hong develop the ability to sense others' moods and preferences, to be friendly and attentive. In Taiwan's fashion circles a story circulates, perfectly illustrating how Hong makes people feel comfortable.
In 1988 Taiwan's entertainment industry began to cross the strait to China for work. On a windy, cold winter morning, Hong was busy with a photo shoot in Yuanming Park in Beijing.
He was styling Hong Kong movie star Idy Chan, who was to be photographed for a magazine. Also on the set was Chinese actress Gong Li, who had just started her movie career. She was upset because she didn't want to wear a revealing dress that exposed her bare shoulders and back. Arms crossed in a defensive posture, the 17-year-old debutante actress pouted her lips, tears streaming down her face.
When Hong was finished with Chan's hairdo and makeup, he quickly helped Gong Li adjust her robe by pulling up the sleeves, which were originally resting on her upper arms, to cover her shoulders. Immediately a smile brightened up her face. Hong immediately called out: "Quick, touch up her makeup!"
"Actually, that's all I did," Hong recalls, playing down the incident.
However, when it comes to the models under contract with his agency, Hong is more demanding. "That's all" will never do.
Nowadays, models and celebrities need not only good looks, but also brains. Typical examples of this new trend are American actress Natalie Portman, who graduated from Harvard University, and British model and actress Lily Cole, who earned an art history degree from Cambridge University.
Models Doing Their Own Makeup
Hong demands that his models have fashion know-how, be intelligent and look good.
"Otherwise, they won't be able to extend their catwalk careers into backstage jobs. If you want to work as a fashion show director, but don't even know how to spell the name of the brand you're wearing, you're doomed!" warns Hong, finally revealing the stricter side of his personality.
Hong demands, for instance, that his models know how to do their own makeup. He believes that the models themselves know best which powder foundation matches their skin and how to apply eye shadow to bring out their best features.
It also takes readiness to experiment and try out new things. When Japanese cosmetics brand Shu Uemura opened its first store in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, the cosmetics were not yet sold in Taiwan. So Hong, who was a big fan of Shu Uemura face powder, personally went to Japan to buy the coveted powder and have it used by Catwalk celebrities.
"Actually, (Taiwanese star model Lin) Chi Ling looks best when she does her own makeup," Hong reveals.
Hong has come a long way, working as fashion planner, TV program producer, styling director and model agency boss. Yet he still went a step further establishing his own fashion brand.
Last year he joined hands with renowned Taiwanese fashion designer Lu Fong-chih to launch the high-end custom-made fashion label Luhong. The brand name combines the family names of the two founders, but it is also a homonym of the Mandarin word for "handmade tailoring."
After more than 30 years in the flamboyant fashion and modeling business, Hong still harbors a certain nostalgia for his first job, for those wonderful days of single-minded dedication.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz