Aaron Boey: Building the Brand of Asian Talent
Aaron Boey has played a critical role in putting brands such as Tiger Beer, Philips and Levi’s on the global map, as well as creating a new global jeanswear brand, Denizen. He speaks to HQ Asia about how his formative years at Asian companies helped him to succeed at multinational corporations.
My journey into the world of business was an accidental one. Growing up in Malaysia, my heart was set on an academic career in scientific research. I was fortunate to have secured a scholarship to pursue a PhD in biochemistry. However, because of a change in policy of granting university tenure, my plans were scuppered. The news stunned me and I had no idea what to do next with my life.
I was so disappointed and I was willing to consider something completely different. I remember flipping through the newspapers looking for an alternative career. The one thing that grabbed me was an advertisement from Singapore Airlines (SIA). They were looking to hire management trainees. I had no idea what a career at SIA was like, or even if I was qualified to apply. But I recognised it as a company that not only embodied the romance of travel, but also represented the best of Singapore. It was a world-class brand, and I knew I wanted to be part of its success story. It was my first experience of the power of branding.
The selection process was gruelling. I found myself competing against candidates with MBAs from the best American and British universities, who already had a grounding and foundation in business. I wondered how a biochemistry graduate from Malaysia – who, a few months prior, hadn’t even considered a commercial career – could compete.
Incredibly, I was one of half a dozen applicants selected. I found out later that the company was not looking for people with deep knowledge of the airline industry or in business. Instead, they were looking for people capable of learning, and who were strong in analytical thinking. My scientific background, which I feared would hinder me, was actually a big help in that regard.
Do your best
Back in the late 1980s, I was responsible for airport operations when SIA introduced the new Boeing 747 ‘Megatop’. It was a new aircraft within the industry, and had technical kinks to be ironed out. This led to more flight delays than usual. It was a challenging time. When you tell 350 people their flight will be delayed, you get yelled at. Nothing prepared me for this. The only thing I could do was say, “I’m very sorry – we are doing our best.”
When passengers became exceptionally difficult, we were taught to say, “Please help me to help you.” That was a great message that I have carried through my life. Try always to be part of the solution, not the problem. It was also a great lesson in branding: all great brands help their customers solve their problems.
I remember a rainy morning, where a flight to London was delayed. A passenger on the plane wanted something from his checked-in luggage, and I told him that I would try my best to bring him the bag. I rushed from the plane onto the aerobridge, and down a flight of stairs. In my hurry, I lost my footing on the wet stairs and tumbled onto the runway tarmac. The tarmac – designed to hold the weight of jumbo jets – was incredibly hard. I clutched my knee in excruciating pain.
Sitting in the rain, I told myself: “You have a job to do – do your best.” I picked myself up and retrieved the passenger’s luggage, hobbling all the way. The pain in my knee persisted, and I found out later that I had suffered a hairline fracture, and was on crutches for weeks afterwards.
My boss noticed the whole episode. And, a few months later he said, “I respect you because you did not give up. Anyone else would have just said, “I’m hurt, I cannot go on”. But you finished the task.”
I learnt a lot at SIA. It was also my first experience, and still one of the most vivid, of a strong consumer brand.
Building an Asian brand
While I enjoyed working for a company with an established brand, I also wanted to help a company grow its brand globally. I left SIA to join Asia Pacific Breweries (APB), the home of Tiger Beer. Both were Singaporean companies, but SIA and APB could not have been more different. While SIA was structured and process-oriented, APB had an entrepreneurial, risk-taking culture. At that time, APB had a long history in Singapore and Malaysia, but was only just starting to build its global brand.
At APB, one of my first jobs was managing the Heineken brand in Singapore and Malaysia, before going on to lead the Tiger Beer brand – first in these two markets, then eventually across the APB group. My passion for Asian brands really took off here. Everyone in APB was filled with passion and zeal, and we wanted to put a Singaporean brand on the world stage. Tiger Beer was our brand and, while it was expanding globally, it was still firmly anchored in the heritage of Singapore. The link with the Singapore national brand also helped tremendously in reinforcing Tiger Beer’s credentials as a quality brand, and was especially valued in emerging markets.
The APB leadership team also understood that process counted a lot less than results. We were not big on writing elaborate business plans. Our mission was clear: to grow the Tiger Beer brand. It was the shared passion for the company, the entrepreneurial culture and the great team effort that brought us success. Also, at that time, Tiger Beer was participating in and winning gold medals in prestigious international competitions like the European Monde Selection. That gave us all the confidence that Tiger Beer was as good as, if not better than, any other beer.
When I left, Tiger Beer had gone from being known mainly in Singapore and Malaysia to being the leading brand in Indochina, and more broadly across Asia. It had also established a beachhead in the UK and the US. I learnt a lot at APB, including the value of entrepreneurism and shared passion, and that the real battle is for consumers’ ‘hearts and minds’. I was also very fortunate to have served with a group of very talented and passionate Asian executives, who were as good as anyone working for the foreign beer companies.
Developing Asian talent
Following APB I worked for two global multinationals: Philips Electronics and Levi Strauss & Co. In both companies, I was one of the few Asians to hold senior management roles. I noticed there were other Asian talents who were very good at their jobs, but who struggled to make a strong impact with senior executives.
The reality was that regional talents in large global companies were often evaluated in ‘snapshots’: they had a few pivotal moments that could either make or break their career. For example, if the global CEO visits your region and you are asked to make a presentation, you have to take the opportunity to leave a positive impression. But, who prepares our Asian talents to ‘show up’ for these challenges? Because of their cultural upbringing, many Asians tend to be humble and overly respectful of more senior people, and that may prevent them from showing their full capabilities. There is no real system that helps Asian talent communicate, articulate and better brand themselves, especially in environments that assess talent using Western lenses.
Many Asian leaders possess qualities that their superiors would do well to notice. They know to how to drive rapid business growth, something that many leaders in the West – due to years of sluggish economies – may have lost the ability to do. Many Asian leaders are also keen to learn and humble about what they still do not know. Asia has only recently recovered from centuries of decline and there is often a strong desire amongst Asians to learn from the West, and then to integrate those learnings with Asian traditions.
What matters is not how much you know, but how much you are able to learn and apply.
I’ve been tremendously blessed in my career – having had the chance to work with great Asian companies like SIA and APB, as well as top global brands like Philips and Levi’s. I started my career hoping to help companies build their brands. That remains a life-long mission. In addition, my passion today is to help drive the brand of Asian talent, and to help usher in the first wave of a truly global talent pool with Asian values and Asian roots. These two goals are clearly interconnected – the rise of great Asian brands will rest on Asia’s ability to nurture its talent.
This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 06 (2013). Aaron Boey was formerly the Executive Vice President and President for Commercial Operations Asia Pacific at Levi Strauss & Co.