Nicole Youn(MBA2005-I): The Luxury of Being the Trend-Setter
January 09, 2013
Unlike many of her other peers, Nicole Youn (Tsinghua-MIT International MBA) who was a former professional synchronized swimmer in her teenage years in Korea, is now making a name for herself in the top luxury goods industry in China. Immediately after her graduation, Youn took on the position of supervisor at Louis Vuitton’s only flagship store in Beijing before assuming the role of Product Analyst at the Chinese headquarter of the luxury brand after six months. Thereafter, she rose up the ranks to become the assistant manager of the marketing department. She is currently the Assistant Merchandising Manager of the Fashion Division in Chanel.
As a trend-setter in fashion, her name is synonymous to passion and success. Her story embodies the spirit of unrelenting drive and perseverance.
Dreams Do Come True
Recounting Nicole Youn’s story would not be complete without mentioning her first encounter with LV. It took just one campus recruitment drive by LVMH Group at Tsinghua University to change her life. As a postgraduate who was about to complete her Tsinghua-MIT International MBA program and was determined to make it big in the fashion industry, Youn arrived at the campus recruiting drive much earlier than her peers and sat at the first row. Her preparatory efforts to understand the company better beforehand had paid off when she was given the opportunity to answer a question posted by the Human Resource Director. Impressed by her well-prepared answer, the Human Resource Director then presented her with an opportunity for an interview on the next day, thereafter appointing her as the supervisor of the only LV flagship store in Beijing after several more rounds of interviews.
Filled with excitement, Youn was about to embark on a journey others could only wish for; a career in the premiere fashion industry. Unbeknownst to her, she was about to face one of the biggest challenges in her life. Besides being the only foreigner in her workplace, and having minimal experience in the fashion industry, Youn also has to cope with working as a frontline service personnel. Not one to succumb to hardships, Youn was determined to grasp the ropes of working in this industry and communicate with her colleagues and customers in mandarin fluently in the shortest span of time possible.
Just like her subordinates, Youn had to be at the front line to attend to customers all the same. When customers came to know of her nationality, they were puzzled as to why she would be working as a frontline service personnel in China. Her friends also questioned her decision to work manually at the counter despite being an esteemed MBA degree holder. All this started to raise doubts within her, who would oftentimes feel dejected and even uncertain about the path she took. Yet, as the popular saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”. These experiences would only serve to drive her to constantly improve herself to deliver a better experience for her customers.
This was no easy feat for her due to her high intensity working life; she works two shifts a day, and only dismisses around eleven to twelve at night. During monthly inventory stock-takes, it would be normal for her to not leave the store till four in the morning. As a store supervisor, she was placed directly in charge of thirteen employees, all of varying competency, from the experienced and enthusiastic to the apathetic. Coping with her busy schedule and job scope was already proved to be difficult, and now she has to be on the constant lookout for the thirteen employees placed under her charge. Even after completing her tasks for the day, she had to carry out debriefing sessions with her employees in Mandarin using English materials. Thanks to her undying spirit and passion honed during her teenage years as a professional sportswoman, she worked hard to overcome her language barriers, despite being a native speaker of neither English nor Mandarin. Through effective staff management, Youn had even led her sales team excellently to top the sales chart in China at one point, and ultimately delivered the most successful LV Trunk Show in the history of China.
The LV Trunk Show is a private sale reserved for exclusive customers before new goods and products are officially placed on the racks. The flagship store of LV would organize such trunk shows three to four times a year, each time inviting around twenty distinguished guests to preview and purchase the collections before they go public. At that time, she had recognized trunk shows to be a perfect opportunity to gather customer feedbacks. Hence, during her term as the flagship store supervisor, Youn had implemented a customer relationship management strategy to ensure the attendance of right targeted guests for the trunk shows and allow her to gather invaluable feedback on new collections, thereby improving sales figures drastically to become the best performing store within China. Before long, Youn’s newly implemented customer relation management system was later adopted for other future trunk shows to come.
In just a short span of six months, Nicole Youn was already showing outstanding performance, and making a name for herself through her remarkable achievements. Her initial first-hand experiences at the flagship store’s frontlines had also proved to pay off, as they allowed her to deepen her understanding towards customer experience and product knowledge. Soon after, she was transferred to the marketing department of the LV headquarter in Shanghai to take on the role of Product Analyst.
Paris, Behind the Glitz and Glamour
As the Product Analysis Specialist, Youn’s job required her to devote her time to market research, conceiving marketing strategies, monitoring sales figures and making purchases amongst many others. It was essential for her to closely follow the company’s sales history in recent years, how effective and influential the branding of her company was, constantly evaluate customer needs and preferences, and even adopt a macro-outlook to identify market trends in the region. All these details were key factors for her to make accurate and wise decisions when making purchases from the headquarters of LV in Paris on behalf of the Chinese stores. Undoubtedly, this was an intricate and highly-demanding task that required her sensitivity towards market trends, and also subjected her judgment and professionalism to the test, as the choices she made would ultimately affect the performance of the Chinese stores. Every decision she made was as an evaluation for her competency as the Product Analysis Specialists; anyone in the job who made decisions that were considered to be sub-optimal by their superiors ran the risk of being eliminated. It was especially difficult for her, as she had only been recently transferred to the headquarter. Now in charge of footwear products, which required a strong understanding of its many intricacies, Nicole Youn had to take up the challenges of learning fast, mastering her new role and performing up to the high expectations placed upon her by her superiors.
Youn would visit Paris at least thrice a year to make purchases, and each visit lasted for two weeks. Despite being among the glitz and glamour, her priority would always be her job, bringing only the best products back to the Chinese consumers. During her two-week stints, she would alternate between various runway shows, picking through tons of shoes to accurately decide on the type and number of purchases to be made for that season.
When asked to comment on her job, she admitted, “Initially, it was exciting. However, as the novelty wears off, it is inevitable for one to be daunted by the overwhelming amount of stress. During the weeks when I was tasked to make thousands of purchases for the male and female footwear collections, I was only able to turn in after 2 a.m. every day”. And that is not all. Even after making her purchases, she had to singlehandedly code and itemize every pair of footwear into the company’s inventory system, giving us just an inkling of how massive her workload was.
Youn vividly remembers her time in Italy after one of her routine buying trips in Paris. Immediately after she finished making her purchases in Paris, she had to lead a group of twelve top-performing sales personnel to a factory in Italy for a training program conducted by the local designers. “The designer spoke in Italian while a French counterpart simultaneously translated his words into English. As a Korean, I had to interpret his words into Chinese for the others,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “Ultimately, I took pride in being able to clear up any misconceptions the audience may have, and had helped everybody to benefit and enjoy the training program”.
A year later, Youn steadily rose up the ranks to assume the role of assistant manager in marketing for the female footwear segment, before being promoted again, just months after, into taking charge of the core business of LV: leather goods. At present, she is currently working as the Assistant Merchandising Manager of the Fashion Division in Chanel, a position envied by many in the world of glamour.
Unfazed by the rat race of the modern fashion industry, Youn had managed to scale the corporate ladder with her own capabilities. As harsh and cruel the working life out there seems, it is nevertheless easy to bet replaced by another if one does not keep up with the intense competition. Yet, it is even more commendable that she had achieved her current success without any relations or prior personal networks.
Nearing the end of the interview, Youn had admitted that her experiences as a professional sportsman, coupled with her time at the School of Economics and Management of Tsinghua University, had morphed her into a more resilient individual. More importantly, she is thankful towards Tsinghua IMBA Program for equipping her with the necessary skills needed to raise her competency in the retail sector and most importantly, presenting her with the opportunity to interact with the recruiting personnel of LV.
The rise of the Middle Kingdom has brought about a surge in the demand of luxury goods amongst the Chinese consumers. By 2014, China is expected to surpass Japan as the world’s largest consumer market for luxury goods. Being constantly engulfed in the world of luxury, Nicole Youn is truly a leader of the pack of trend-setters.