From paying salaries in advance of the lockdown to hiring outside of retail for the versatility of skill sets, Shir Ly Low, Chief Financial Officer, Valiram Group shines a fresh perspective on the talent journey behind the successful group, in this exclusive with Aditi Sharma Kalra.

Headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Valiram Group started its business life as textile merchants but is now a retailer of branded group. Any business that has withstood the test of time, the Valiram Group has its own tale emanating from humble beginnings.

Today, Valiram is Southeast Asia’s leading luxury goods, with presence in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Russia, Macau and Vietnam. Operating more than 350 stores, the group represents in excess of 200 brands. Its portfolio comprises internationally renowned brands such as Bath & Body Works, Kate Spade New York, Michael Kors, Tumi and Victoria’s Secret, as well as original retail concepts such as Swiss Watch Gallery, Flying Emporium, and more.

In this exclusive interview, Shir Ly Low, Chief Financial Officer, Valiram Group, talks us through the organisation's journey in growth, talent and business strategy, with the fresh perspective of a CFO's lens.

Q Valiram Group has a rich legacy since 1935. What have been some of the ups and downs in the recent journey that you and the team have steered through?

Starting in 1935 in Kuala Lumpur as traditional text merchants selling wholesale fabric, the group has grown into a leading Asian brand builder today represented in nine countries.

The three Valiram boys, Sharan, Ashvin and Mukesh dabbled in the food and beverage business, opening Café Iguana at Bangsar Shopping Centre, in 1995. Their late father, Jethanand Valiram, had been for years harping on us to get into the cash business. It was a thriving business and the concept attracted the airport’s CEO. With a cash outlay of RM50,000, they opened a textile retailing outlet at Subang Airport in 1996, even though the three brothers had no clue as to what was in store for them..

It was an accidental start but the performance shocked us so much that even the airport people were surprised. The brother were then offered more space at Subang Airport, but the caveat was that we sell global luxury brands. Dunhill was one of the earliest brands and the rest as they say was history

We have come a long way, as an organisation. Every crisis has its own learnings. We have been blessed with having high-spirited individuals with us every step of the way. It makes it a lot easier; no crisis lasts longer than our team’s grit. Our business teams come from more than 25 nationalities.

Despite the recent COVID restrictions, travel bans, regulatory changes, airline and travel related challenges, we have been able to pivot our business and remain agile. Making the right changes does not take longer than it should.

Q As CFO, what have been some of the business-critical initiatives that you’ve undertaken during this period to steer the ship and keep it on course?

Calm our teams and ensure that their safety is well taken care of. Some immediate actions we took were to pay salaries in advance at the start of the lockdown in jurisdictions we operated in. This allowed us to ensure everyone can provide and take care of their families first. Then, we looked at what support functions could do to continue servicing countries that were not on lockdown from home since our shared service is based in Kuala Lumpur.

Thanks to our technology partners, we did not experience any downtime. In fact, we launched our online site for Malaysia during the lockdown period, something we are proud of as it was done through offsite collaborations within the stakeholders. Some of us joked that we have never worked as hard at home as we did then!

Next was to plan for reopening, ensuring our products and stores are well taken care of during the lockdown periods in the respective countries. This was the easiest task, thus teams had time to focus on what is important. Without the need to worry about the team's travel schedules, we were able to deploy and act very fast wherever we saw pockets to continue engaging our customers. Many good ideas came from brainstorming sessions.

Reaching out to all stakeholders and keep communicating has been key. The energy is contagious, many ask what they can do to help, from our employees, principals, landlords, to bankers. Having a clear leadership strategy helped. Stakeholders were aware of the steps taken and more importantly why they must be done.

Q As a family-owned business, Valiram has scaled exponentially to operate more than 350 stores and bring more than 200 luxury brands to Southeast Asia, Russia, and more. How have you tackled the scale and complexity in the business?

We have put a dedicated resource behind each brand. From finance business partners to brand leaders, we are selective in who we partner with. Building trust with the right individual is key for us.

We hire outside retail a lot. Skill sets do not change with the type of business, in fact, we benefit from versatility. The ability to see the forest for the trees at most times has helped us do better. Retail is detail and it is all about the customer experience.

Q Has this strategy been impacted because of COVID-19? Faced with a need to liquidate the inventory, now that the MCO is lifted, how have you and the team managed the business?

We knew the airport and travel retail related segments will remain a challenge in the countries we operate in. Diversification in our geographical locations within our countries helped. Local demand fuelled demand in our stores. Consumers are always on a look out for deals and we try our best to bridge that.

Our sales teams came up with ideas to deliver a safe and positive shopping experience. From 'Chat& Shop' to having appointment-based store visits, there were all executed with care and attention to detail.

Having desirable products helped. With the right value proposition, liquidation is not a major concern for us.

Q What are some of the trends in customer behaviour that you’d like to highlight in terms of competing for the wallet share of a diverse range of clients?

While some consumers are naturally on a look out for deals, some are looking to fulfil their desires at a good price. People will generally continue to buy what they want, and we sell a host of products.

The needs of today’s generation are also a lot more different and they have their entire income at their disposal unlike earlier generations who would mull before making a purchase.

Q While discussing customer engagement, employee engagement can’t be too far. How have you worked with the leadership team to bring confidence, motivation and loyalty to your workforce during tough times?

Communication was key. We were humbled by the sheer grit of our people. So many stepped to ask what they can do to help during the lockdown. We crafted every country's communication plan with our leadership team.

We were transparent with our people with the options and how they can help. Many understood closed stores due to lockdown meant lower pay. In exchange many were given day-offs or asked to attend training to equip themselves.

Q Looking ahead, what are the future growth plans of the business?

Spirits are high. We know when we make it through, it will be worth the new norm. Government incentives and stakeholder partnerships have helped cushion our immediate business impact.

We want to be a preferred employer of choice and a premier middleman and destination for brands. Hence, we keep looking ahead and keep options open for new opportunities.

Q Finally, on the personal note, what has been your biggest learning during this journey?

Positive and optimistic thinking. Uplifting everyone’s morale and productivity is crucial. The best advice I got from a retailer is that you always must sell your way out of a situation.

Many a times, we all get derailed with many issues. You can either look at a glass as half-empty, looking for issues and problems; or you may look at a glass half-full, looking for chances and opportunities. I am humbled to say we have many glass half-full individuals in our ecosystem.

Photo / Provided

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