Saturday July 28, 2012
Up close & personal with Rhoda Yap
By JOHN LOH
BritishIndia CEO gets ...
RHODA Yap is a smart cookie. Her rsum reads like a dream: alumnus of both King's College and Cornell, an ex-McKinsey consultant in the United States and though it does not appear in official records, she has been compared to Yoda, the Jedi master.
In her first in-depth interview since becoming the chief executive officer of homegrown clothier BritishIndia a half year ago, the fresh-faced, energetic 30-something has a simple explanation for how she got hired.
“I tell people it's nepotism,” she laughs, in reference to the fact that BritishIndia founder Pat Liew is her aunt. But for someone as accomplished as Yap, that is too harsh.
“Then again, if she didn't think I could do this job, I don't think she would have passed the baby to me,” she tells StarBizWeek.
“I also had an understanding of what it was like being in the family business as prior to McKinsey I was a lawyer in my father's firm.”
Yap says her aunt was on the lookout for someone to take the company to the next level and felt her niece to be a good candidate, given that she had grown up around the brand.
Naturally, Yap took some time to think it over. She had had lengthy discussions with Liew while she was still in McKinsey before she was ready to take the leap at the end of last year.
“My aunt, uncle and even dad all chipped in. They said, You can do all these things with your Fortune 50 and 100 clients. Think about what you could for us',” Yap recalls.
The Kuching lass had first trained to be a lawyer, but towards the end of her law degree at King's College in London, she decided impulsively to enrol at the Berklee College of Music there.
Though they accepted her application, she never went through with it. Yap remembers her parents quizzing her about the return on investment, or lack thereof.
“I had a dream of getting into music. I was also a little nave. In Asia, you're probably a little coddled in what you expect music education to be,” she says, knowing in hindsight it was the right move.
Yap gamely made her way back home, but realised soon enough that she was not suited to a career in law. Lawyers had a habit of seeing the negative and poking holes in the cases of their opponents, a trait that did not sit well with Yap, who is an optimist at heart.
She also began to notice that her clients were seeking her out for business, instead of legal, advice.
So it was off to New York for her MBA at Cornell University. One summer, she snagged a coveted internship with McKinsey in the KL office, but ditched it in favour of an investment banking internship with JP Morgan in New York.
By a twist of fate, Yap realised while at the Wall Street bank that the people she enjoyed working with there were former McKinsey employees.
“That started the journey into McKinsey again,” she enthuses. “The recruiters joked that I was the most-screened candidate by the number of interviews I've been through 13 in total.”
The day after thanksgiving about four years ago, Yap got an “exploding offer” from JP Morgan for their finance programme.
“I quickly told McKinsey I had this offer and within 24 hours they arranged for me to meet the Pittsburgh partners,” she beams, and the rest is history.
A consultant's life
McKinsey, which Yap joined right out of Cornell as an associate, will always have a special place in her heart.
“The coaching culture was very strong,” she explains, adding that of all people, it was the managing director who taught her to use Microsoft Excel.
Asked why she chose management consultancy over investment banking, Yap points out that the latter often revolved around creating financial models.
“I can do it, but I didn't enjoy it. Consultants build models too, but our work is more about solving problems.
“McKinsey's emphasis was on the value we bring to clients, and that resonated with me. It is easy to go for the highest paying job, but that won't make you happy.”
Based in Pittsburgh, but with much shuttling between Boston, New York and Chicago, Yap's specialisation was in operations transformation, which meant helping companies streamline and increase their operational efficiency.
On some of her funnier experiences with clients, Yap shares that there was one who, during a meeting, waved his hand, asking her to cut out her Jedi mind tricks.
The client said this because she had somehow managed to get them to do something they initially disagreed with, but ended up believing was their idea. That was how the “Yoda Yap” moniker came about.
Meanwhile, the ups and downs in her three-year career as a consultant yielded an important lesson on life.
“There was this Friday night in New York when I was trying to piece this model together, and I knew there were issues. My friends were waiting for me for dinner, and I was thinking, I'm working so hard!'
“Then I thought about the pua weavers in Sarawak who spend months on their craft. And I was like, this is my pua. I realised it wasn't so bad, the model would just take a few more hours and not months. And I'm in my nice apartment here, so it's OK,” smiles Yap, who admits she has never woven a pua herself.
“I was very happy in the US,” Yap quips. “It came to a point where the opportunity (BritishIndia) was presented to me. In everything I do, I have to feel butterflies in my stomach, and I felt that.”
There was, nonetheless, hesitance on her part. “The journey would not be complete if I didn't mention that TalentCorp also played a role. They helped me understand the big picture of where Malaysia was going. That was ultimately what I got sold on. If it was 10 years ago, this would not have been my choice.”
Yap was brought back under TalentCorp's returning expert programme, whose incentives include a flat tax rate of 15% for employment income for five years and tax exemption for all personal effects brought into Malaysia.
“The first iteration of TalentCorp was not satisfactory in my mind, but they really tweaked it and are addressing the right issues. It gave me the security of knowing I would have the infrastructure to get the right people.”
One of the things that worried Yap most about working in Malaysia, she says, was access to talent and human resource.
To that end, Yap has done her part in plugging Malaysia's brain drain problem. At press time, she had lured back two Malaysians, one from Australia and the other from the US, and roped in her ex-colleague from McKinsey, who is from India.
More crucially, there is the prospect of exciting growth in the region. “If you think of the next ten to 15 years as your prime, would you rather be in a mature, and perhaps problematic, economy, where growth is impressive at 5%, or are you going someplace where 5% is sluggish and the low teens is a possibility?” she quips.
The optimist that she is, Yap has high hopes for her home country, and displays, at this interview at least, not a hint of cynicism.
“You know, Malaysia is going to be a developed nation. We are on the cusp of something great. When you're always here, it looks like everyone is complaining. But I travel a bit, and it's actually not that bad. It just depends on your frame of reference.”
Yap's illustrious aunt, who started BritishIndia after cutting her teeth in department store Metrojaya, is now group CEO and runs the design team.
“My role is to tell them I want more of this design and less of that,” Yap laughs. Her input, she explains, will be purely data-driven, for example by harnessing the numbers to determine which cuts or lengths are more desirable.
While it has only been seven months, she knows where she wants to take the company. “There are a few key things that make a good brand: an inherently good quality product, which I'm confident we have, as well as the sense that it is unique,” she shares.
“A lot of brands out there draw from the future. But those that have endured, they draw from history, because history is rich and timeless.”
Yap contends that BritishIndia is not short on opportunities. “We get a lot of enquiries to do various things and to open in different markets. The key is prioritisation the organisational mindshare is only so much. If someone asked me to set up shop in Fiji, that sounds exciting, but it would take up a lot of time.”
The company currently has some 300 staff in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as 20 stores directly under its control, which Yap coyly refers to as her twenty children. Other than franchise-based stores in Thailand and the Philippines, it has yet to open elsewhere in Asia.
“You can see why I'm excited. Indonesia is very high on our radar. We have enquiries from Cambodia and even Iran,” she exclaims.
On the possibility of a listing on the stock exchange, a plan that was floated some years ago, Yap says her options are open, but a solid plan is not on the table.
And her prescription for happiness? “First, you have to have people and family around you who take care of you, and you look after them as well. That is a universal source of happiness. Another is having meaning in what you do.”
With the family jewel in hand and a head full of ideas, it looks like Yap has a new, beautiful pua to weave.
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: MBA from Cornell University
NOTEWORTHY: Sold a plate of fried rice for US$100 at a charity auction
FAVOURITE FOOD: Char kuey teow
FAVOURITE PLACE: London
HOBBY: Civilisation, the computer game