Retailer Judy Yu driven by passion and purpose
Long-time Hong Kong retailer Judy Yu has spent a lifetime bringing a raft of brands to the territory.
And she has no intention of giving up any time soon, even though she did seriously mull retirement after half a century in retail.
“Two years ago I was thinking: all my classmates have all retired. When we have lunch together, I am the only one rushing in and out because I have appointments. So two years ago I was really on the border of deciding what to do. But I decided I had better continue because I have been in retail for so long.”
Judy Yu is the founder of Carsac, which over the past 35 years has brought a long and distinguished list of brands into Hong Kong and Macau, brands spanning the fashion, accessories, footwear, fine jewellery, food and lifestyle categories. On the list: Aigner, Bodum, Daks, Faconnable, Fratelli Rossetti, Joseph, LeSportsac, Mandarina Duck, Pylones, Ruco Line and, more recently, Cristel & Perigot and Swell.
Once she decided to continue, Yu decided to go and find something new to do. JY’s, a multibrand shoe retailer at Sogo in Causeway Bay stocking Ruco Line and French brand Arche was the result.
With that concept bedded down, she is on the lookout for the next standout brand, a quest that regularly takes her to both New York and Europe.
“I have my passion and I love to share. I have made mistakes, I have done good things.
So, I thought, why not use that from this moment onward?”
Yu is eager to impart her experience – good and bad – to help younger generations learn the challenges of the retail world.
“I always mingle with young people: they call me Aunty Judy. I like to study new ways, how the young people think now, their lifestyles and their trends.”
Art at the start
“I started in retail 52 years ago when I was 18, at an art gallery, Donald Moore Gallery. It was run by a Singaporean British guy, but it was much more than an art gallery. That was my first job.”
As well as reproductions and prints, the gallery sold books and records. It was enough for her to catch the retail bug.
“Ever since I have always been involved in either retailing and wholesaling. So even now at Carsac we are doing retail and wholesale. It is very unusual for an Asian business to manage both retail and distribution, because as a firm either you’re very specialised in retail or you’re specialised in wholesale; they are very different ballgames.”
After the gallery came an interior design business, before nearly a decade with Singer, the sewing machine brand.
In 1981, Yu accepted an offer to become GM of Lanvin HK, a joint venture between France and Japanese businessmen importing the French fashion label into the city. The following year this morphed into Carsac. As such, she had two bosses: one French, one Japanese.
“They are both amazing. It was very difficult for the Japanese one to accept a woman to handle his company, but he was very westernised and had an open mind. They came to Hong Kong four times a year, each time for three to four days.
“I was so happy, because for those days I spent with them, I learned a lot.”
Carsac subsequently handled Lanvin for Hong Kong for a decade before the French company took back the rights. Mandarina Duck was another such example – a frustrating issue for Yu.
“The problem is that when you make a success of it, the brand owner wants to take it over themselves. So we spent a lot of years building brands here from nothing into well-known names, then we would lose them.
“We can ride on the international success of brands, but we enjoy doing it when nobody knows the brand and where we can build it up.”
Fast forward to 1997. By this point, Yu was on the company’s board when the Japanese partner decided that at 75 it was time for him to retire. The French partner, whose other business had grown into a well-known local-brand distributor with luxury labels in its portfolio, wanted to acquire the stake. Yu had other ideas.
After several months of negotiating, she became a partner in Carsac, then another year on she acquired the remaining stake.
While Carsac was losing money at that stage, Yu was unperturbed, knowing the business as well as she did and having strong contacts in the city.
“I went to the bank and it helped me out because it knew my record and it knew I was the one taking care of the business.”
Besides traditional retail, Yu has also dabbled in the restaurant sector. For three years she ran Hong Kong’s first Asian-Western fusion casual-dining eatery, Yugamama. Although it closed in 2007, people still remember the unusual concept, and it was fondly recalled in a South China Morning Post lifestyle feature as recently as this year.
The idea of Yugamama was born after Yu was asked by Lee Garden shopping centre management if she could develop something unusual in food as they were about to renovate the complex.
“They knew I loved to eat and to cook, and they said ‘Because you travel so much, you must know what is good and what is not so good. Can you look at a concept for us?’.
“So I started to organise and to learn. It took one year because I worked on it for three months only in the evenings as that was the only time I could find people free to do something for us.
“During this time I found a few partners. When you are in the restaurant business you must have partners – they get many people to come to your restaurant to eat.”
Even the concept and design were worked on from zero.
“I had the idea that whenever a family wants to go out to a restaurant, there is first a big meeting. The father will say ‘I want to have a steak’, the wife says ‘I want Chinese’ and the kids will say they want to go to McDonald’s, or have a hamburger or pizza. I thought: what if you could offer something for the whole family so everyone could have what they like at the same place?”
After 12 months Yugamama opened its doors, first selling Beijing-style dumplings from a noodle counter, then building the menu to include pasta and American-style foods. Drawing customers initially was hard as it was below ground and there was little or no signage. Yu had to rely on word-of-mouth and her strong network of friends and business contacts to draw people in to try it.
“I really created my concept from nothing and I did not come from the food or F&B industry, I was always in fashion and lifestyle.”
The restaurant closed when Yu refused to pay a 60 per cent rent increase, which would have resulted in the eatery losing money. It subsequently took the centre a full year to find a replacement tenant for the space.
“It was a pity. I negotiated for a long, long time, but finally I was heartbroken to have to close it. Emotionally I was attached to it, but it was a business decision in the end.
“People still come to me asking if I can open it again. If you have one good dish that goes into your stomach, it goes into your heart.”
For all the disappointment of Yugamama, the past three years of retail tumult in Hong Kong has been the toughest period for Yu and Carsac. The huge drop in mainland visitor spending and the belt-tightening by locals spooked by the political climate drove more than two years of consecutive monthly retail sales declines, a trend now showing real signs of reversal.
“It was difficult. I think what I did was exactly the same as other people. We closed some non-profitable shops. If they did not contribute anything, we cut them off. Of course, these are things you are connected to passionately, but from the business angle you have to overcome your passion to cut right away. It is most important to cut your loss and do it quickly.”
She says a positive side to the downturn was the emergence of property managers prepared to share some passion.
“Passion is the most important word I use. They have to pass through the tough period together with us, not say ‘This is the space, take it or leave it’. I say to them: in the good days you take a lot of commission from us, so now you have to share the pain with us. If they say take it or leave it, I say OK, I’ll leave it.
“At one time a friend asked me: why don’t you get somebody to back you up? But I don’t know how to, so I remain a small operator. We are small. But then the property giants… they’ve been really pressing us. I think it is really not nice. If you can’t survive, you give up.”
But Yu has never given up – and has no inclination to do so.
“My philosophy is happy living… Bad moods will keep you from progressing.”
Happy Living is Carsac’s company slogan.