As MD International at Europe’s largest health and wellness retailer, Holland & Barrett, Echo Lu is accountable for the company’s international markets, which reach across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
everywoman editor, Cherry Casey, caught up with Echo to find out more about how her career in retail has taken her across the globe, and what she’s learnt along the way.
Your first cross-continent move was from your native China to the US, to complete a post-graduate degree – what happened next?
After my post-grad in HR, I joined a pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, as I was attracted by their mission to ‘extend and enhance human life’. I worked in various HR roles for seven years in the US, the UK, and China. I was then headhunted by Tesco and was lucky enough to work with many amazing people for ten years, across different regions, functions and markets. After Tesco, I ran Homebase as the MD before it was acquired by Westfarmers/Bunnings. At the beginning of last year, I joined Holland & Barrett, because of my passion for health and wellness and our new owners’ global growth ambition for the business.
How has this experience of working and living in different cultures benefitted you personally?
I think it’s helped me better understand who I am and gain a greater insight into my own culture. My theory is, when you live in a second country, it’s inevitable you’ll make comparisons with your home country, but only when you live in a third do you gain a new perspective and can look at your own culture in a more objective way. Also, if I never left China, I would not have met my husband!
And how has it helped your career?
Having empathy, relationship skills and a level of cultural sensitivity are really important as we work with an increasingly connected world. Cultural differences can really be misinterpreted or sometimes magnified, partly through lack of understanding and also through the way people communicate – it’s much easier to misunderstand people through written communications. People across different countries and cultures fundamentally all want the same things from work – they want to be trusted, engaged and inspired, and they want to learn and grow. However, how you communicate, engage and lead needs to be different.
The other significant benefit of working across different markets is that you can take great ideas and best practices from one market to another. As William Gibson said, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’
What are the challenges of frequent international assignments?
I always find working in a new country or visiting a new market energising because I like the diversity and enjoy learning about different cultures and understanding how things work. During our 20-year marriage, my husband and I have done seven cross-continent moves. We have two daughters and I think it’s wonderful they get to have a global view of the world and they’ve learnt how to adapt. I guess one downside would be that it’s difficult to form roots – you feel like you fit everywhere, but also nowhere at the same time.
What is exciting about working in the retail industry?
It’s really not a dull sector. If you look at the retail landscape over the last hundred years, it has undergone seismic change – everything from the introduction of self-service supermarket, to 24-hour trading, to loyalty schemes and the disruption of online shopping. Ultimately, the role of retailers now is to meet new customer expectations, and engaging experiences are becoming much more important than just the buying and selling of physical goods. What you stand for as a brand is also hugely importantly – customers care about why you do what you do; they don’t just buy brands, they buy into brands.
In terms of the sub-sector I work in – the health and wellness space – we’re lucky enough to enjoy vibrant growth. A number of macro factors have led to this – people are more health- conscious, society is ageing, government is becoming more focused on healthcare, there’s more development of science and tech into human health and there’s a rise of middle-class consumers, especially in Asia-Pacific. All of this means there’s a huge amount of innovation and growth in our sector, which is part of the reason I joined Holland & Barrett.
Women make or influence 85% of consumer decisions but only 20% of retail executive teams are women – what can be done to increase that figure?*
The biggest challenge I think for a lot of women in business is their own confidence and self-esteem. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the education system, or how society shapes opinions and biases, but even from a young age, girls seem to set higher standards for themselves and give themselves a harder time than boys, and this is backed by statistics.
One of the things I wish I knew when I was younger is that nobody can reject you or put you down unless you let them. And the most important words are the ones you say to yourself.
When you were appointed MD of Homebase in 2015, an article in Retail Week stated that the brand were keen to appoint a woman to the role. Do you think your gender helped bring something particular to that role?
For home improvement, the majority of decision makers are women, even if they don’t make up most of the customers. But I don’t think whether I was a woman as MD or not made any difference. What was important was to understand our customers/homemakers.
Homebase was a great brand but had lost its way over the years, due to its focus on financials, rather than customers. The key challenge we had was – how can we better help customers create a home they love? To do that we had to first understand our customers, then what problems they’re trying to solve, then how we could solve it better than anyone else.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
We are not who we think we are. What we think is who we are.
Book your place at the Everywoman in Retail awards on 11 September at: www.everywoman.com/events-awards/2019-barclaycard-everywoman-retail-awards