If you want to do business in China, call Balbina Wong. The deputy chairman and ceo of luxury-brand management and distribution group ImagineX, as well as its retail-management sister company the Walton Brown Group, Wong, 64, has played a pivotal role in the expansion plans of brands like Ferragamo, Hugo Boss, Marc Jacobs, DKNY, Tumi and Coach into what is predicted to become the world's biggest luxury market.
From headquarters in Hong Kong and regional offices in mainland China, ImagineX (part of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group) represents 23 high-end fashion, lifestyle and beauty brands in more than 360 points of sale in greater China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan). But it doesn't stop there. While, for example, Prada and Gucci are not on her books anymore, it was Wong who provided the springboard for both into mainland China, and she continues an association as their landlord through the Walton Brown Group's shopping malls, the most prestigious of which are specialty designer stores called Maison Mode.
"No one else combines her knowledge of fashion with a real knowledge of the territory," says Michele Norsa, CEO of Ferragamo. Part of Wong's success, he says, is also owing to her physical presence. "When she enters a room, you see all her jewels and you feel her power." Wong, a Singaporean who does not speak Mandarin, is also an expert at the guanxiloosely translated as "connections"that are vital within China.
The sixth of seven children, Wong was born during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore and had to leave school to work. "I will never forget that I was hungry for many years," says Wong, who these days maintains homes in Hong Kong and Singapore and on Australia's Gold Coast. A stint behind the counter at Elizabeth Arden led to 25 years in the beauty business, culminating in a job working for Estée Lauder as regional sales and marketing director for Asia. A haphazard search for wide shoes led Wong to Ferragamo and eventually into fashion. Soon she was the brand's distributor for Hong Kong before moving to New York City to run Ferragamo's U.S. flagship stores. But sensing the potential of China, Wong moved back to Hong Kong in 1992 and became the founding shareholder in ImagineX. By 1994 she had opened the first Maison Mode store in Shanghai. "Right up until 2000, ImagineX did not make money," Wong admits. "One must look at China long term." Her sights are now set beyond the big cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou. "Chongqing is one of the most populated cities in the world, with nearly 32 million people. And there are at least 100 cities in China with more than a million people." While Wong preaches caution when it comes to the numbersonly a tiny percentage of China's population can afford luxury goodsshe says it is vital to recognize that many now know about brands. "Always give them the latest. What Hong Kong has, China has to have," she counsels. As for the future, Wong predicts that by 2012, consumer spending on luxury goods in China will surpass America's, and by 2015, it will be equal to Japan's. "Presently," Wong says, "it's about 1.5% of the populationor, you could say, the tip of the iceberg."
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