Many of us have probably juggled with the idea of switching careers or even starting our own companies. However, making career changes and becoming entrepreneurs are not easy decisions as they tend to involve substantial risks, especially for fresh graduates and young professionals. If this sounds like you, you will find our EHL webinar with EHL alumna, Jiang Wang, former CEO of Fun Academy (China) and an entrepreneur with twenty years of experience working in high-end medical and hotel chain operations management, a helpful guide.
Jiang (second to the left) shaking hands with Fun Academy’s Co-Founder and CEO, Sanna Lukander
From Hotelier to Healthcare
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I graduated from EHL in 2003 with a Master’s degree in Hospitality Administration. Upon graduation, I joined the hotel industry and initially worked at The Venetian Macau as a project manager. I later took up various leadership positions at Hilton and Kempinski, before I was invited to join the healthcare industry. After working in the field for a few years, I started two companies, bringing two European brands, Segafredo and Fun Academy, to China. Recently, I sold my last company, so I am currently free like a bee.
How did your experiences studying at EHL and working as a hotelier help your career changes?
I think my EHL study experience has definitely been one of the most important experiences in my life. My time at EHL has enabled a lot of changes and allowed many things to happen. However, most importantly, it changed my way of thinking and opened up my mind. I felt like I was playing a video game – EHL unlocked many things for me.
Being trained and having worked as a hotelier also give me many other advantages. For instance, we have a very natural service mind. We pay attention to details and are very responsive. We take actions, and we are usually proactive in dealing with problems. These are qualities that are very common amongst hoteliers, but not as much in other industries. Hence, I think I benefited from those trainings that I had with the hotel industry.
When I joined the medical industry, it was still very rare for a hotelier to be working in healthcare. At that time, the medical industry in China offered relatively poor services. Standard operating procedures (SOP), which were so common in hotels, remained non-existent in the medical industry. When I spoke to my team about SOPs, everybody stared at me in confusion and asked, “What is that? Why do we need that? We are doctors. We are nurses. We do check-ups. We don’t need to follow a standard for our services.”
The problem was that a lot of medical practitioners deemed service to be secondary and failed to realize that healthcare is also a service industry. When doctors and nurses are meeting people, they are providing something to their patients, which is, in fact, a service. Hence, medical practitioners need to put customers in front of them, consider what the customers need, how the customers feel, and whether the services are delivered in a proper way that the person is pleasantly taken care of. This service mindset created a competitive advantage for the company that I was working for, as we were the first one in China to set up a medical standard operating procedure for health check-ups. Eventually, the SOP became a bible for operations.
After we set up the SOP, we shot a video and conducted training sessions for every doctor and nurse. The results were really successful – it was almost revolutionary in the health check-up industry. In fact, people were coming to our company and asking our CEO, “Where did you find the team to work on this bible?” When I filed for our IPO (Initial Public Offering) in NASDAQ, I explained this SOP to all the investors, and they were very impressed. It was a tremendous achievement for me. I was very delighted to see that my knowledge and skills could be applied to other industries and still work really well.
I also applied the hospitality SOP in another company that I joined, which specialized in hemodialysis. While our competitors could not even build one center in six months, we built five centers in the same time frame, thanks to my experiences in the hotel industry, where we were taught how to build and run a chain. And in slightly more than a year, we built 35 centers.
My experiences showed me that, while it seems like when you move across industries, you are climbing from one mountain to another totally different one, there are, in fact, similarities between them. Many things are interconnected, and there are many skills that can be transferred and applied. Fundamentally, people need to unlock their minds so that they can unlock their skills.
Bringing Segafredo to China
What is the story behind bringing the Italian coffee brand, Segafredo, to China in 2013?
It was by chance, although I certainly love coffee. After working in two large medical companies, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure on me despite my achievements. I wanted to do something that would untie me from that pressure, from the mind that always had to think about death, patients, blood, and the white hospital walls. So, I picked up something that is cozy and warm, and I did not think too much about it.
I went to Italy and met with the owners of the Segafredo. I liked the brand because I studied the history of the brand and found out they have a rich heritage. The owners were very friendly, and it was probably because we were speaking the same language. They were from Italy and they knew EHL. They also knew the catering business and the hotel industry very well.
How has the coffee scene in mainland China evolved from when you brought Segafredo to China in 2013, to when you exited the company?
Segafredo is the number one coffee brand in Italy, and you see a lot of their shops in Europe. However, in China, there were none. In 2013, coffee was still very, very new to Chinese people. While Europeans may drink four cups of coffee every day on average, Chinese people probably drink 0.5 cups in a week. The new generation, however, has completely different consumption patterns, so I think it is an industry that has a future.
While the coffee industry is still booming, it has developed in a different way. It used to be that big brands would plant the coffee, roast them in factories, deliver them to distributors, and the distributors would send them to shops or small coffee shop owners. However, nowadays, with advanced logistic technologies and the transparency of information on the internet, many small roasters and small coffee shops are roasting their own coffee. They no longer need to rely on big suppliers.
Till this day, the Chinese market for coffee remains very fragmented. The only brand that is widely recognized is Starbucks. Costa, at some point, was trying to enter and develop in the market, but ended up with no success. There are also other small brands here and there.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you brought Segafredo to China?
The biggest challenge was to build a brand and tell the story in a way that the Chinese audience can understand and appreciate. In the Chinese market, you cannot tell a story in the same way as you would in Europe – because they each have a different understanding of tastes. In Europe, we talk about Segafredo and its history; we talk about our dark-roasted and light-roasted coffee. However, if we used the same lines in China, our customers would ask, “What is dark-roasted coffee?” A lot of Chinese people simply do not understand these concepts. Although Segafredo is a very common brand in Europe that everyone knows very well, it is a new brand in China, so we had to use a different way of telling the story.
Building up a brand in China is quite a challenge for European brands, especially the mature ones – because they always think, “I am already number one in Italy. Everyone knows me. Why should I do advertising? Why should I do social media?” Hence, the budget that they give to the Chinese market is like a drop of water going to the sea; they completely neglect the sheer number of provinces and cities in China. So, that was the biggest challenge – building a brand.
Bringing Fun Academy to China
What is the story behind establishing Fun Academy?
I’m a mother of two – regretfully, I didn’t manage to pay enough attention when my first child went to kindergarten. But then I made sure to be a lot more attentive with my second child. However, the fundamental reason for establishing Fun Academy is that, when I was working at the casino, I remembered seeing a lot of kids with problems controlling their behaviors and thinking logically. And when I spoke to psychologists who specialize in child psychology, they said that there was no chance of fixing the children’s problems because these issues need to be addressed at a younger age, typically before the age of six.
Additionally, in China, many parents are tiger moms and tiger dads. They always tell their children, “you must do this” or “you must do that,” and their parenting method kills the joy of learning for kids. I thought, why shouldn’t the kids learn in a fun environment and in a fun way? Of course, only having fun does not make life glamorous. Children need knowledge, they need to learn, they need to grow up, and they need to have skills. Subsequently, I established Fun Academy, where we put effective learning and having fun together.
How has the early childhood education industry evolved in China?
It’s hard to say right now, because there are many uncertainties coming from the market. There have been policy changes since November 2018, and we have not figured out a clear direction yet. There is the possibility that kindergarten will become compulsory and free. If that’s the case, then it would be a big blow to the industry. However, technically speaking, even if that happens, it would still take some years for the government to implement that, so the situation remains unclear. I would say that the future of the industry is definitely bright, but it has been impacted by policies and regulations too much in the last two years. If anyone wants to run a kindergarten in China, I would recommend that you don’t run a large-scale one. Run something small and sweet, that you can have some control and flexibility over.
Advice for career changers and future entrepreneurs
What are your thoughts on making career changes across industries? What are some necessary skills and points that people should pay attention to?
When I look back, I think the most important thing to remember is not to limit yourself, because there are many possibilities out there. Whether you would like to step out of your comfort zone and take up the challenge is your own decision. Is there something that you already know you cannot do? Probably not. The way we have been trained and the education that we have received can enable us to venture into many, many areas. This is because we have been told in the best way to manage people, to deal with people. If I can manage hospitals, if I can manage doctors, I think anybody can.
What advice would you give to fresh graduates who would like to start their own companies?
I would say, look down into your pockets and see what kind of weapon you have first – because you are most likely to succeed with what you are good at. If you know nothing about the industry, but you have the passion to learn, you can begin with learning. Don’t start with something that you’re not prepared for at all. Look at what kind of tools you have that can enable you to move forward. You can take a little bit more risks if that is the breakthrough you want. Set a goal that you can reach with a jump; don’t set something that is completely hopeless to attain, especially if you’ve just left school. If you set unrealistic goals, it will just hurt your confidence.