Ms Balbina Wong, 69, heads ImagineX, which represents more than 20 high-end fashion, beauty and lifestyle labels in China, Taiwan and South-east Asia, with overall sales of almost $900 million last year. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF IMAGINEX GROUP
MORE than 30 years ago, a fortune teller in Hong Kong told Ms Balbina Wong, 69, that fame and fortune would await her in China.
She thought him seriously daft.
'I laughed and said, 'You've got to be joking! I don't read Chinese and can barely string together a sentence in Mandarin,'' she recalls.
'But he insisted that not only would doors open for me in China, I would also be opening doors to the country.'
Well, Ms Wong did become the woman who introduced luxury labels such as Prada, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo to China about 20 years ago.
She may say it is luck but people who know her will tell you the Singaporean clocked the hours and did the time to become the retail queen of China.
She is deputy chairman and chief executive of luxury brand management and distribution group ImagineX, which represents more than 20 high-end fashion, beauty and lifestyle labels - from Marc Jacobs to Paul Smith to Jo Malone - in more than 280 outlets in the world's largest economy.
ImagineX, headquartered in Hong Kong and part of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group, also has nearly 200 other stores in Taiwan and South-east Asia. Overall sales totalled almost US$700 million (S$900 million) last year. China accounts for half the group's sales.
Not surprisingly, Ms Wong has earned many monikers and accolades. Time magazine describes her as the power broker while The Australian Financial Review calls her 'China's leading lady' in the luxury retail scene. The Business of Fashion magazine counts her as one of 'the Top 20 movers, shakers and decision-makers in China'.
The bejewelled and immaculately coiffured Ms Wong has a presence which fills her very spacious and tastefully appointed office in the spanking new One Island South complex, a stone's throw from Hong Kong's Ocean Park.
Even the Paul Smith carpet - a centrepiece in exhilarating hues of beige, burgundy and green - seems to shrink when she walks in.
Warm, gregarious and garrulous, she has a deep husky voice and is prone to breaking out into peals of laughter.
She is not to the manor born. Hers is a classic rags to riches story: A cosmetics salesgirl who, through sheer will and hunger to succeed, rose through the industry ranks to become a dowager of high fashion.
She was born the sixth of seventh children in 1943, during World War II.
Her late father, an architect, was tortured by the Japanese.
'He was never the same after that. People thought he was mentally ill but he was just deeply depressed,' she says.
Because he could not work, his wife had to work as a caterer to bring up the children. 'Our meals were often leftovers from the catering functions she did. I only had hand-me-downs,' Ms Wong recalls.
The family lived with nearly a dozen other relatives in a house in the Clemenceau area.
She studied at St Anthony's Convent in Middle Road but left school when she was in Secondary 2 to help support the family.
Her first job was selling textiles in a store in High Street, earning $80 a month. A couple of years later, she joined Robinsons as a cosmetics counter salesgirl selling first Lancome, and later, Elizabeth Arden products.
She did well, thanks to a gift of the gab and flair with using make-up.
At 19, she married an English broadcaster and followed him to Hong Kong. Her marriage did not last but her career blossomed.
Estee Lauder hired her to become its sales and training manager for South-east Asia and Australia.
She travelled extensively and spent two years Down Under.
With an 18-inch waist and her slim frame always sheathed in a cheongsam, the travelling make-up artist drew crowds as she worked in big department stores like Myer and David Jones in big cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, as well as dispensaries in little Aussie towns in Cairns and Darwin.
'I could sell so much. I'd do make-up demonstrations on stage and I'd speak a bit of Chinese. I guess it was rare to see an Oriental girl in a cheongsam in those days, they couldn't tear their eyes off me,' she says with a hearty chuckle. She could bring home more than A$1,500 a month, not a mean sum in the 1960s.
At 30, she met and married a Swiss business executive and moved to Zurich.
She gave birth to her only daughter, now 37, not long after. But domesticity did not sit well with her.
'I had to do something so I started giving cooking lessons, teaching Swiss ladies how to make curries and other Chinese dishes.'
She and her husband moved back to Hong Kong soon after.
'The moment I landed in Hong Kong, I found an apartment, a maid and I went back to work for Estee Lauder. My daughter was only 18 months old then,' she says.
Soon, Elizabeth Arden - then part of Walton Brown, a subsidiary of Lane Crawford - beckoned with the plum offer of a general manager position.
'It was a steep learning curve,' she admits. 'But I've never been afraid of learning and making mistakes. If there is an opportunity, I will grab it.'
She readily admits to being ambitious.
'I'm a survivor. I had this thing about proving to people that I could do it despite my lack of a formal education.'
'Anyway,' she adds, 'hard work never kills!'
To focus on her career, she sent her daughter to a Swiss boarding school when the girl was eight years old.
Ms Wong's climb up the corporate ladder came at a price. She had problems with her daughter, and her second marriage crumbled too.
'For a time, my daughter was angry with me, thinking that I cared only about my career. But when she got married, she finally understood. Now our relationship couldn't be better,' says the grandmother of two.
Married for the last 20 years to an American businessman, Ms Wong spent 25 years in the cosmetics business before going into fashion in the 1980s, a move propelled by her search for wide shoes.
'I'm Hakka,' she says, referring to the migratory Han Chinese who moved from central China centuries ago to settle in the country's south, and other parts of the world.
'We are gypsies, we work hard and we have big feet.'
'Only Salvatore Ferragamo had shoes for my wide feet. I decided to pitch for the agency by writing to them,' says Ms Wong.
She met Mr Leonardo Ferragamo - son of the late Salvatore Ferragamo who founded the eponymous Italian luxury goods empire - not long after and became the brand's distributor in Hong Kong.
On the phone from Italy, Mr Ferragamo recalls their meeting: 'It was one of those rare occasions in life. You meet someone and you know you want to be related to that person in business.
'I had to control my excitement. She was so smart that if I had let her know how I felt, I would have lost my powers of negotiation,' he says with a big laugh.
'She has a charming personality, she has great strength, determination and diplomacy. She is dynamic, she makes things happen,' says Mr Ferragamo, adding that the whole Ferragamo clan has embraced her into its fold.
They liked her so much that they moved her to New York, where she ran the company's flagship stores throughout North America.
Mr Ferragamo says: 'You meet so many people but very few become iconic personalities in the world of business. But she is definitely one of them.'
In 1992, she moved back to Hong Kong and became a founding shareholder in ImagineX.
She had already set her target: taking luxury retail to China.
'I travelled up to China a lot in the late 1970s and 1980s when I had to train girls on how to do make-up. I already felt that there was this big dragon about to awake from its slumber.
'Even though China was nothing but buses and bicycles in those days, there was a feeling that it was going to change. It did, and a lot faster than I actually anticipated.'
In 1994, she opened Maison Mode in Shanghai, the first international store in China to stock brands such as Prada, Cartier, Gucci and Ferragamo.
The store is now long gone but in its place are nearly 300 others, in big cities as well as in far- flung places such as Urumqi. And while Prada and Gucci have left the stable, the likes of Donna Karan, Juicy Couture, Paul & Shark, and Tumi have come on board ImagineX.
She has also been instrumental in steering Ferragamo's expansion in China, where the label now has 58 outlets in 33 cities.
The story of how she stood, nearly 20 years ago, on the Bund in Shanghai - then just a mass of mangrove swamps and padi fields - and told three sceptical Ferragamo brothers that they were looking at their future is now legend in the fashion industry.
She pooh-poohs naysayers who say the global downturn will mean the end of good times for China.
'We're talking about 7 per cent GDP growth; it's unheard of in other parts of the world. The number of people coming out to urban areas keeps increasing so we'll never be short of consumers.'
She smiles when asked how she has managed to claim such a strong stake in China without speaking Mandarin.
'I have a lot of incredible people - legal and financial folks - working with me, who do.'
The former retail director of Salvatore Ferragamo in South-east Asia, Ms Eileen Bygrave, 69, says: 'A lot of people at the top never give credit where it's due but not Bina. She never forgets the people who have helped her.
'She has great instincts, and she's not terrified by people trying to sound academic to cover their lack of knowledge.'
Ms Bygrave, a friend of more than 53 years, adds: 'She can be tough. Her staff shake when she's angry but they adore her and will do anything for her.'
Another old friend, Sybil Schwencke, 71, says: 'There's no guarantee that a person with a university education or an MBA will have this thing called common sense or know how to make a buck. She does.'
Ms Wong, meanwhile, credits her success to her knack for numbers and her negotiation skills.
'Negotiations skills are very important. You don't take everything. You want, you take but you must also give. Know exactly the important things you want, don't fight over the sup sup soi soi,' she says, using a Cantonese expression to mean not sweating the small stuff.
She has never made any attempts to hide her humble beginnings or lack of education.
'The past made me what I am today. I want to inspire every young girl who comes into the organisation.
'Look at me and what I am today. You can be like me. If I can do it, so can you. I believe that when people respect and admire you, they will work hard for you.'
She does yoga, enjoys massages and dotes on her two grandchildren to destress.
She also designs her own jewellery and some of her own clothes.
'It's hard to buy clothes my size now and I don't want to be mutton dressed as lamb,' says Ms Wong, who owns three homes: a new Singapore condominium in the Newton area, a Balinese-style holiday home in Australia's Gold Coast, and a swish four-room Hong Kong apartment - filled with flowers and art pieces - in upscale Repulse Bay.
As she looks at the magnificent view of the South China Sea from her bedroom, she says contentedly: 'I am very happy. God has helped me a lot, don't you think?'
But she still has a dream.
'I built ImagineX 20 years ago. I want it to become an icon, I want it to go on even when I'm gone.'