Spotlight on Michael Tien: The Right Career For You

Translated from Chinese by Tao Tao, PhD student, Department of Marketing, CUHK Business School. Abridged by Mabel Sieh

In this episode of the televised program “Talking to CEOs” on Radio Television Hong Kong, hosted by Prof. Andrew Chi-fai Chan, Director of CUHK Business School’s Executive MBA Program, Michael Tien, founder and chairman of G2000 group shares his passion in clothing and the key to a successful career.

Your Interest Is Your Career

Q: As a Harvard MBA graduate, many major corporations would like to hire you and you’ve gone into investment banking after graduation. Yet, you chose the retail industry. Why?

A: I chose to do retail business because I have a passion in clothing. I enjoyed shopping with my mother since I was young, which is rare for boys. I especially liked shopping with my family during Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays, enjoying the festive moods and displays in the malls. I still love it now.

I often tell young people that "your career choice should be driven by your interest". No matter how poor your academic achievement is, there must be some things you like, such as music or sports. And you can develop what you like into a career. Having an interest means you do it because you enjoy it, not because of fame or money. The time a person spends in his/her lifetime on work is much longer than that on playing and sleeping. If you choose to work in an area you are not interested in, even if it makes you rich and famous, you won’t have a great life. If you don’t enjoy your work, you won’t do it well either. This is what I firmly believe in.

No matter how busy I am, I always make time for my company. I will go in the office and check the newest fabrics and the latest clothing styles, and learn about the current fashion trend. There is not a single day when I don’t wear my own brand of clothes, and there’s not a single style produced without being seen by me. Every time when I see people wearing my products on the street, I’d approach them and ask how they feel about the clothes. They are often very surprised of my asking them until they saw the label inside. This is the passion I have; it’s hard to explain.

Q: Your father was in the textile industry. Is your enthusiasm in clothing taken from your father?

A:  No, my enthusiasm in clothing is not related to my father. However, my sense of responsibility towards the society is indeed influenced by my father. I remember whenever he took his guests to tour around the factory, he always told them how many people he had. His employers grew from 300 initially to 500, then to 2,000 at its peak. Every time he recruited more staff, he would tell others happily. I asked him why not tell how much money he made, and he told me if making money could create more job opportunities, that’s meaningful. I’ve carried on with this philosophy when I started my business.

A lot of my friends stopped running their businesses after they bought some property. They make money on the rent they get. But running a business makes money by the products produced by people. There is no right or wrong. I just prefer the latter because it can create jobs.

Success, Not Failure, is the Mother of Success

Q: What was your important turning point in life? Was it when you went oversees in secondary years?

A: Yes that was a turning point for me. My results in elementary school were good, so I went into an elite secondary school after. However, all the best students also went into that school. There were 160 students in my grade. No matter how hard I tried, my best ranking was between 50th and 60th, and my worst was 100th. Underachievement is the worst, because nobody remembers you. I had no confidence at all; I felt like nobody with nothing to be proud of.

After seven years in the school, Hong Kong experienced the 1967 riots. Everybody was worried including my mother. She immediately found me a high school in the United States and sent me there. After I went overseas, my ranking had a "Great Leap Forward” in one year. There were also 160 students in my grade, but I became third this time, not because I did very well but rather other students were doing very poorly.

After high school, I was admitted into Cornell University. This university was not considered the hardest in Ivy League. So I was doing well there and after that I joined Harvard University. This story reminded me of a Chinese saying: “Failure is the mother of success”. But my experience made me realize the opposite - failure is not the mother of success, for most people, success is the mother of success

Small Fish in a Big Pond vs Big Fish in a Small Pond

Q: What is your advice to young people in choosing their career?

A: Feeling successful is also one of the important factors for choosing a career. Many people would choose to work in major corporations or high-paying jobs. However, these jobs often come with such high expectations that they may not be able to handle. In fact, you can choose to be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond. Many young people want to enter into finance industry and be a consultant in investment banking. But the industry is highly competitive. Before getting in, you should estimate your chance of success.

The same also goes to selecting a school for children. Everybody wants to study in an elite school, but it may necessarily be good for you. Still, many parents choose to let their children be a small fish in a big pond, hasten them to study harder and harder, hoping that they will turn into a big fish one day. A few of them will make it, but most will not. Instead, they become losers, feeling mediocre, powerless and unhappy. I often told my daughter to estimate her child’s ability, and not to choose the weak schools so that the child can be the best with paying any effort, but also not to choose the top ones, making him feel he can never catch up with others and feeling discouraged.

The Strategic Positioning of G2000

Q: How did you choose the positioning of G2000, which seems to be narrow with targeted customers of newly graduates within five years?

A: We narrow our positioning in order to focus. G2000's focus is not only to create new jobs, but also social value. It may sound grand and vague but I want to help those young people who step into the society for the first time to acquire their first business suit. They just started out in society and are lack of confidence, taste and budget. So, we position ourselves at giving fresh graduates “the first suit in the society" - a simple and decent suit to leave their boss a good impression. Not only are our suits of excellent value for quality, our styles are easy to match. Our position has not changed in all these years.

Q: What is your strategy facing fierce competition from foreign brands such as Uniqlo, H&M and ZARA?

A: My strategy against competitors is stay focused. Most women in Hong Kong like to shop in ZARA. With so many styles, there must be something for everyone. Facing this kind of competitor, we should focus more on our original niche. If we blindly follow the opponent, it will be impossible to catch up. Our positioning is business wear in more formal style, which is very popular among university graduates.

Q: What about the China market? Is your positioning the same in the mainland?

A: It is huge market in China with potential customers close to a billion. But our business isn’t that successful. The reason is a lack of execution. With branches in 40 mainland cities, it will take me four years to visit each of the shops. But I don’t really have the time to do that. The challenges we face in China is not about vision; they need to be resolved by onsite supervision and follow-up work.

Find Your Path by Knowing Yourself

Q: You mentioned about the importance of staying focused. How do we find our focus in life?

A: First, you have to know yourself. This is the most important and the most difficult thing to do in life. You are the only person who knows where your passion lies. Someone once asked me to help him find his passion and I told him his passion was his interest. Then, he said he didn’t have any hobbies, and asked me to recommend some for him. There must be something that a person finds interest in. It’s just that we never thought about turning our hobby into a career. I always encourage young people to do so, and change their jobs to suit their interests. Only when you try different kinds of work will you find your interest. Sometimes, you have to lower your expectation or sacrifice a little salary to explore your talents in different positions. 

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About "Talking to CEOs"

    Since 2002, CUHK EMBA has been running the "Talking to CEOs" TV/radio program with Radio Television Hong Kong. Distinguished business leaders, academics and government officials have been invited to share their experiences and insights with CUHK alumni and students.

Got any comments, insights or questions? Post them here to further discuss the topic:



Chi Wong
3/24/2016 12:46:33 AM
A career is a long-term occupation. It's often made up of many different jobs. Choosing a career can seem overwhelming because there seem to be so many out there. A person should figure out what careers would be good for him/her based on interests for the long run.
Chi Wong
3/24/2016 12:43:25 AM
Most people find a job in various industries by word of mouth: the more people and the more business one knows in the industry, the better the chances on would get.
Chi Wong
3/24/2016 12:41:38 AM
People who have set up their own business tend to be happier. They take responsibility for their own future, and take control of their own destiny. Self employed people are happier about their work-life balance even though they work the longest hours - because they have more control over their time.
3/22/2016 8:59:39 PM
This spotlight reminds me something and encourages my thinking. Yes, interests are important. But sometimes when interests become your jobs, they may not be your interests any more. For example, I like football very much. Obviously, I am not qualified for football players at this age. I can still try to be a football writer or commentator. But I guess if I do so, I will lose my enthusiasm for football in one day: I cannot express my passions for certain teams freely and may be required to give comments which are not my intentions. So my bottom line is to do something that you do not hate. Not necessarily interests.