Vital stats: Since relocating from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 2014, Grace Xu leads a team of 30 to provide full HR support to more than 1800 employees in 13 different Maisons (Brands)and Richemont supporting functions in Hong Kong and Macau.
Q How did you become an HR professional?
Honestly before I was 30, I did not have a clear vision on what I wanted to do with my career. My education background is in chemistry, so a career in HR was definitely not something I had in mind when I was in school.
Before moving into a full time HR role, I worked in a business integration department managing joint venture integration projects on the mainland. I learned a lot about HR operations and processes helping new joint ventures set up HR departments and to build a company culture.
Before joining Richemont in 2010, I was a senior manager for the transaction integration service at Ernst & Young (EY)as a HR advisor. Working at EY was one of the key milestones of my career because I got to meet with many senior HR executives from different industries and meet with many intelligent colleagues from different background and having different views. The experience was incredible, it completely changed my way of thinking, communication and decision making and inspired me to pursue a career in HR eventually.
Q What brought you from Shanghai to Hong Kong?
I was born and raised in Shanghai and was based there until 2014. People have different priorities at different stages of their lives. The role with EY was great, but I also had to travel a lot. I wanted to stop travelling and spend more time with my little boy who was going to attend primary school at that time.
The role for Richemont as the HR associate director for Cartier came up and the rest is history. In 2014, I got a fantastic opportunity internally to move to Hong Kong with my family to support all Maisons under Richemont.
It was a big challenge to manage the HR function of 13 Maisons in Hong Kong and Macau. The impact on my family was also huge, especially for my boy who had to adjust to the school system in Hong Kong.
Q From managing the HR function of Cartier to all Maisons under Richemont seems like a big step forward in your career. How did you cope with this challenge?
When I was with Cartier, I worked closely with the CEO in China and Maison HQ HR team. In my current role, every Maison has regional or local managing director, and Maison HQ HR team which I need to take care of. As one can imagine, the scope of my role expanded by leaps and bounds.
One of the great things about Richemont’s culture is it is very open. We believe that people make the difference, not processes.
All the Maisons under the Group are encouraged to maintain their own culture. All 13 Maisons have their own way of working and different values; my job is to look into the individual needs of each Maison and try to attend to its needs.
Q Retailers are known to have high turnover rate. How do you retain talent at Richemont?
High turnover rate is a major challenge for the retail sector. It is a priority for us to provide staff with room to develop in order to build an engaging team.
We have a unique initiative called the Richemont Retail Academy (“RRA”) which provides employees with special learning experiences. The academy upholds Richemont’s strategic value of fostering a learning culture to encourage individuals and the organization as a whole to develop and grow.
The whole retail sector is under transformation, the RRA aims to equip our employees with the core knowledge, competencies and mindset required for work at a boutique or office under Richemont.
Promoting internal mobility is also a good approach. We encourage employees to explore all options internally before they decide to leave the company. We have an internal job application policy in place and HR plays a key role to facilitate such moves between different Maisons or functions. Successful transfer cases increase positively every year.
Lastly staying competitive with compensation and benefits is another key to attracting and retaining talent. We are one of the leading companies in the retail sector to introduce flexi-benefits.
The proposal for flexi-benefits was raised two years ago and was officially launched in April this year. Back then, the luxury market was a little slow, making it not the perfect timing to get the budget to enhance benefits. But I felt it was the right thing to do and raised the idea with management team and headquarters.
Q How did you convince the board to approve offering flexi-benefits at a time when the business outlook was not as rosy?
To make the plan work, we had to get the support of stakeholders, including the regional and headquarter management teams. We managed to convince regional management there would not be a huge surge in costs to introduce flexi-benefits. We pointed out the current insurance plan already included a buffer on annual inflation, and by taking that into account, the actually rise in the budget would not be significant.
We also made our business case to headquarters that offering flexi-benefits would enhance Richemont’s reputation as an employer since we would be the first in the luxury product retail sector to offer such benefits to all staff population. It also became a global pilot program launched in Asia Pacific in a sizable market within Richemont.
Management was also convinced the Hong Kong business would pick up again soon because the slow growth was because of the Occupy Central movement and anti-corruption policies on the mainland, both of which would not affect business in the long-term.
At the early stages of introducing the new benefits scheme, many employees were worried they were losing benefits. The HR team spent a lot of effort explaining to employees how the plan works and how they can take full advantage of it. As of now, we have 40% employees opting in for flexi-benefits. They are the ambassadors for the policy.
Previously, they had no idea how much the company spent on their benefits; now they can see exactly how much they are allowed to spend. They are impressed by how generous the policy is.
Q Could HR leaders make it to the CEO level?
HR professionals by nature are strong communicators. They read people well and communicate well, which are important attributes for a CEO.
But that is not enough. A CEO needs to have a clear vision and be able to compellingly communicate that vision to inspire, motivate and lead others to contribute to its success. If HR professionals are able to develop those qualities, there is a good chance they can be CEOs.
Q What is your view of human resources as a business function?
I see the HR department as a business enabler, acting as a trusted business partner to enable leaders and managers to attract, support, retain and develop diverse talent to achieve and sustain the company’s mission and vision. HR professionals also need to constantly look for opportunities to improve core HR services.
Q What do you enjoy doing during your free time?
We encourage staff to work smartly and healthy and I try to lead by example. I leave the office around 6:15pm every Tuesday and Thursday to work out in the gym with a personal trainer.
Doing exercise is part of my life now. I really enjoy it a lot. Family and friends are another key part of my life. I try to spend time with them as much as possible.
Photo: Anakin Cheung @ Emil Photography