As a 12-year-old Alain Li, Regional CEO of Richemont Asia Pacific wanted to become a chartered account like his father. Today, with an accountancy degree from City in his back pocket, Alain heads up the luxury goods powerhouse Richemont in one of its largest markets.
“As the eldest son, I guess you either rebel and want to do something completely different …” Alain Li (Economics and Accountancy, 1981) says. “… Or you follow in your father’s footsteps. And so from quite a young age, I think I was 12 when he was made partner in his firm here in Hong Kong, I said, Oh, you know, that’s what I want to be, I want to be a chartered accountant one day.”
According to Alain, the reputation and location of City, University of London, then City University London, played an important part in why he moved from Hong Kong to London for his studies. He remembers great sports facilities at the University, getting stuck in with different activities on and off campus, and also meeting a diverse group of people.
“I made friends very, very quickly. It was a very international group of students as well,” Alain says. “Like with everything else, it’s the people who make it, and I am in touch with quite a lot of people I was at City with. I think that’s a marker of the kind of friendships that we developed, and I hold that very dear to my heart.”
After completing his degree at City, Alain knew he wanted to go into business, a decision that would eventually bring him back to Hong Kong.
“MBAs were not as prevalent as they probably are now,” Alain says, pointing out he graduated almost 40 years ago. “So, a lot of people who wanted to go into a business career sought a professional qualification.”
Having worked in several different industries, including pharmaceuticals and office equipment, he returned to Asia in 2000 to join a consumer electronics company.
“I have always had very strong ties to Hong Kong and to Asia, being half Chinese and growing up here in Hong Kong, and at that time, it was just when China entered the WTO and I just got a feeling that things were happening in this part of the world,” he says. “And then Richemont approached me in 2006, just when Richemont China was being established.”
Alain has been in his current role since 2006 and says it’s the one he has enjoyed the most.
“I feel very much at home here, it’s been 16 years and also in a region that has offered incredible opportunity, and I count myself very lucky.”
Richemont has 20 what they call “maisons” around the world and Alain expresses a genuine admiration for the creativity and craftsmanship that goes into the products and brands that are part of the group. These include for example Cartier, Chloé, and Mont Blanc.
“Having the opportunity to develop such a fantastic business in this part of the world has been very, very rewarding and challenging at times because we cover everything from China all the way to New Zealand and so there are a lot of different things to cope with.”
There is also the human aspect that Alain enjoys.
“We sell products and services that often mark special occasions for people. The most obvious one is jewellery for weddings and engagements. So, in addition to offering wonderful products, we mark important times in people’s lives and often people pass our creations on as heirlooms,” Alain says.
However, with luxury comes high expectations.
“We’re always striving to do the best in terms of not just the creations but the service we deliver and, also, the aftercare. There’s a lot of customer interaction.”
Having been in the industry for as long as he has, Alain Li has had the opportunity to see significant change.
“One of the biggest changes is that the market for luxury has grown multiple times, and not only because of what’s happening in Asia. I think we see globally that the luxury industry has been very fortunate to have had this type of growth rate,” he says.
According to Alain, the pandemic didn’t slow down the industry, as a matter of fact, some results have been better than before. He explains that travel and technology have been big factors in the growing market, calling it a “tremendous evolution”.
“I think people sometimes think the luxury industry is not as fast-paced, but in today’s global, connected digital world, I think every industry has been impacted.”
With growth comes its own set of challenges, not least to maintain a good service. To do this, talent development is very important, according to Alain.
“Not just to hire new talent, but to train people, to retain people, to give them that sense of purpose that they all feel when they have a career ahead of them.”
The luxury industry may not have suffered financially, but the global pandemic has still been a challenge.
“Over the last 12 months it’s obviously been about looking after people,” Alain says. “We’ve been living in very volatile and unpredictable times. I think just maintaining that kind of cohesion and sense of belonging when you can’t meet physically with people has been one of the biggest challenges that I’ve certainly faced in my career.”
What is important for a CEO in a challenge?
“I think making good decisions comes from being well informed and well-advised. Even if, at the end of the day as the CEO, you have to make the final call and that can sometimes be quite tough,” Alain says. “I think being very adaptable is something we’ve all learned to be in the last months, and just being available to address people’s concerns, even if you don’t always have the answer.”
Although Alain has accumulated extensive experience, he still makes a point of keeping an open mind.
“I’ve been very fortunate to grow up in a multicultural environment from a very young age, and I’ve been allowed to travel as well, also from a very young age. I’d like to think that it’s important to keep an open mind and to also know to seek advice when needed,” Alain says. “I think it’s important never to stand still. Let’s put it that way.”
His advice to anyone who would like a career similar to his own mirrors his experiences.
“I did many different types of internships, just to experience things,” he says. “I think the life experience you gain from seeing different cultures, different countries, and meeting different people is something that’s really invaluable. That’s something that I really encourage people to do. I’ve done that with my own daughters.”
Gazing into the future Alain hopes to spend more time both with his family and his community.
“I’m becoming a grandfather in a couple of months and I’m very much looking forward to that,” he says, taking the opportunity to acknowledge how fortunate he is to have a supportive family. “I’d like to continue to work in some capacity, and get involved with the community and support causes I feel are important.”
These causes already include gender equality and diversity.
“It seems like there’s still sometimes a lot of misunderstanding between different cultures, so, you know, I hope that I can continue to be a good citizen to my community and help in any way I can.”
Alain will be sharing his experience at the upcoming event Supply Chain Management in Luxury Goods: Challenges & Opportunities in a Global Pandemic on Wednesday, 13th October 2021. A big thank you to Alain for sharing his story.