Saturday September 15, 2012
Up Close and Personal with Kulvinder Birring
By LIZ LEE
GIVEN his Punjabi features, Kulvinder Birring can easily be mistaken as another Malaysian... until he speaks with an English accent.
The well-spoken managing director of Watsons Malaysia has been here for three years and is loving it.
One proof of that is the personal project his family has taken on. They are building their home in Malaysia, something Birring says they have never done in the other Asian countries they have lived in.
As an expatriate in three Asian countries to date, Birring admits to finding Malaysians more approachable and less pretentious.
Birring, who is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, has worked for three years in Hong Kong and 18 months in South Korea as a Watsons Korea chief executive before he was seconded to Malaysia in 2009 when the local team needed some assistance because “the business was in a bit of trouble here”.
Birring was more than happy to come over to revive the business. “I've done a lot of start-up businesses before and I like doing that,” he says.
As for what drew him to Asia, he says that his wife and himself made a spontaneous decision when the opportunity presented itself and it has turned out to be better than what both of them have expected.
“An offer came up to work in Hong Kong and she and I thought why not? The children were young and it didn't really matter about schools. To be honest, we came for the adventure,” he says, adding that the family does not know how long they will be in Asia.
“We thought if it didn't work out, we would be back (to UK) in two years. Two years became three years and then seven years,” he recounts.
“The opportunity came at the right moment for my career and also the way the global economy is shaping up, we seem to be in Asia at the right time,” he says.
Before his migration to the Far East, Birring was a senior manager with Ernst & Young and then European region finance director with McCormick.
McCormick then poached him to lead an acquisition in Europe, which Birring was rather familiar with.
“That was my first commercial role in an organisation. I never thought of the change as a big challenge,” he says of his switch from book-keeping to being at the forefront of a business.
When asked if he thought of going back to accounting, he says “I love what I do now. I love the variety of the work”.
One of his highlights was closing the deal for McCormick buying into a European business.
Coming from an accounting and finance background, he thinks it gave him the upper hand on handling the business operations. “Running a business is not that difficult, you just need a sound set of principles and build a good team around you. If you haven't got the skills then bring them in,” he shared of his key principle in driving Watsons' success.
“In running a business, at the end of the day, we are here to look after the 2,000 employees and our shareholders' interest,” he speaks of his role in Watsons Malaysia.
His believes that his training in accounting helped him be analytical and very quickly pick things up as a manager.
On the local Watsons landscape, Birring was the man behind the brand revamp. He decided Watsons stores needed a fresh look and brought together the Watsons loyalty card programme with his team.
Internally, he saw the staff needed proper training and made sure customers service was upgraded.
“For me, the starting point for anything is people. We looked at the type of people we had and whether they were in the right roles and decided on what sort of training they needed,” he says.
One of the key changes he brought to table was the simplified processes at the head office, making it easier to run the stores locally as well as the right incentive schemes for the staff “because a customer's perception of the brand is formed through the service our staff provided yesterday rather than what we (the management) are telling them (through advertising)”.
With Birring on board, Watsons Malaysia increased its turnover by 40% in 18 months. Under his purview, Watsons has also expanded with 30 new stores over the same period with 20 more in the pipeline.
Birring says the company has put in more training because that was definitely a lacking component prior to his arrival. One effort a customer might notice is the badge a staff wears, showing how many “stars” they have earned through their service.
For its loyalty card programme, Birring says the target is to register a couple of million members. Watsons has over a million at the moment.
“It's worked really well with the branding. We've brought in many more new products from around the world and really enhanced our beauty segment, bringing in exclusive brands,” he says.
For Malaysia, the growth path is set on Watsons' health business.
“Now the next phase is to establish the health business. It's a massive investment in the business but it pays back,” he shares of Watsons' five-year plan,
“The first part is to increase the base of pharmacists and we have pretty much doubled the size of our pharmacists to 70 now.”
To complement the pharmacist base will be Watsons health advisers who are trained nutritionists to assist customers.
Birring explains the rationale: “If you are sick, you go to the doctor but if you're just a little under the weather, you would come to Watsons. Or maybe you just want to try new products to suit some changes in your lifestyle.”
“It's not just about handing over pills and also being concern about customers' wellness,” he says, adding that he feels the level of health education in Malaysia is lacking compared with the UK.
However, Birring would not go to the length of identifying Watsons as a public education service but “I would like us to be at the forefront of giving advice on healthy living”.
“In a way, that's giving something back to the community as well,” he adds.
While Watsons Korea is a beauty-heavy market with about 60% to 70% of the business , the business in Hong Kong ,with a slightly older population, leans towards healthcare.
Birring thinks for Malaysia, the business would be a mix of both beauty and health. Although he opines the understanding and knowledge are not quite there yet, Malaysians are generally very receptive to such information.
“Also, Malaysia is urbanising very quickly and people are beginning to understand the stresses of modern living like the environment, pollution and traffic, and how that affects them,” he says. On the potential to grow the retail chain, he says “It's a growing nation, people are getting more disposable income.”
For the Watsons group, Birring says the next growth market is Indonesia which has six stores at the moment. In Malaysia, where Watsons has been around for 18 years, there are now 257 stores nationwide.
Locally, Watsons has been growing three to four times ahead of the Malaysian retail market in the past few years due to team effort.
While managing the team in Malaysia has been enjoyable for Birring, he admits he has a few pet peeves.
“Before coming to Asia, we (foreigners) tend to group the whole of Asia as one. So the learning experience has been fascinating,” he says.
However, what he had to find out the hard way was the hesitation in Malaysians when they disagreed with an opinion.
“What I have learned is that whenpeople nod when you speak to them it does not mean they agree with you and will execute your ideas. It just means they heard you,” he quips.
Realising that, Birring has encouraged more engaging discussions within his team to change the working culture. “Hopefully, I have brought to the team a more open culture in discussions.”
“I am more a consensus leader because I believe that if the team did things through consensus, they would find the work more fulfilling and therefore can execute more quickly,” he says.
To that, he adds that he is a fairly straight-forward person who prefers to raise issues or practices that need to be changed in team discussion and expects the same from the team.
“Often in organisations, people can't make those changes but the team I have here has been able to. I haven't changed any of the management people since I joined,” praising his management team.
The successful leader that he is, Birring works against a higher benchmark than what the Watsons management had before his leadership.
“There's this thing about okay lah' that was really irritating,” he says, half exasperated, “Because okay lah' isn't good enough for Watsons.”
He notes that it was “a little bit of the attitude we had, that being average was good enough”.
“Well, it's not.”
That said, Birring finds Malaysia quite the pleasant country to build a base in. As an expatriate, he believes there is no perfect country thus one has to take the good with the bad.
When asked if he would consider staying longer in Malaysia than he had been in Hong Kong and South Korea, he says he may just do so.
“We may be actually. We just bought a house here now, which we have never done before in any other markets we worked in,” he says, calling the move a little bit of a natural progression and the realisation that the family would like to stay in Asia longer.
He is also glad the family has built a good circle of friends in Malaysia, an attractive factor to stay aside from the tropical sun which his wife loves.
“This is home, everywhere we go, we call it home,” he says, “There's never thinking we are going back to the UK. We've never brought up our kids like that. We tell them your home is where your family is.”
Speaking of his family, he thanks his wife for being the equipoise to his driven attitude.
“I think having my wife around has been a blessing because she brings a lot more balance to what I do with my life otherwise I would be a workaholic and I don't think that is healthy and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone,” he says, retrospectively.
“Everything about life has to be about balance.”
BORN: Jan 9, 1971 in Birmingham, UK
PERSONAL: Married with two sons
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: BSc (Hons) Accountancy from University of East Anglia
RECOGNITION: ICAEW member
CAREER: Ernst & Young; McCormick and Watsons Group
FAVOURITE FOOD: Wife's and mum's cooking
FAVOURITE PLACE: Sitting in my Ferrari driving through southern France and northern Italy
VALUES: Genuine respect through understanding others' opinions as individuals
INSPIRATION: My dad