Executive MBA Insight Helped Consolidate This Alum’s Business in China

After a successful career in hospitality management, Singaporean Simon Wang was ready for a change. A temporary posting in China led to a career that flowered alongside the fortunes of that country’s swelling economy. The alum leverages his EMBA Specialization in Luxury, Today and Tomorrow to consolidate his position in selling wines to the world’s most influential middle- and upper-class.

Simon’s career has been defined by opportunity.

That first opportunity came when he left his native Singapore as a young man for his hospitality degree in Crillon, Switzerland. Then, opportunity beckoned in North America and Asia, the “New World” of hospitality, to manage some of the finest hotels in the world. In 1994, he moved to China in what was supposed to be a one-year stopgap move. Twenty-six years, a characteristically opportunistic career change from hospitality to luxury wines and spirits, and an Executive MBA from HEC Paris with a Specialization in Luxury later, he’s still there.

A market primer: generations in China

Today, he is COO of ASC Wines, a staple player in an ever-expanding Chinese market.

His nearly three-decades-long career in luxury wines and spirits began in 2000. He calls the transition from hotels to hooch an attempt “to test whether I could be successful outside the hospitality industry.”

His and ASC Wines’ rise coincides with that of the world’s largest consumer bloc – the Chinese middle class. This informs his nuanced understanding of the generational proclivities of the consumers that drive China’s growth.

Unlike the West, where generations are colloquially defined with zingy buzzwords like “Baby Boomers”, “Generation X”, “Millennials”, and “Generation Z”, China’s terms are characteristically pragmatic: “The ’60s” for people born in that decade who came of age in the 1980s; “the ’70s” for people who came of age in the 1990s; “the ’80s” for people born in that decade; and so on.

HEC Paris Executive MBA

Shanghai, China’s largest city, is Simon’s base of operations.

“When China opened up in the late ’80s, the first batch of people who brought wine to Guangzhou’s vaunted Spring and Autumn Fairs were from Hong Kong. These merchants had to ingratiate themselves with local officials, often turning to high-end wines as gifts.”

As such, wine was introduced to the Chinese market as a top-down luxury item.

“The ’60s generation, along with the ’70s, mostly worked for the state, and they didn’t buy wine for their own pleasure. They only looked at the price tag; the only thing that mattered was that the wine was expensive, opening bottles only to entertain and to please.”

The first changes in that behavior, according to Simon, came with the ’80s generation, when the young people forming China’s brand-new middle class started studying abroad.

“They have access to information and other ideas. They don’t blindly follow brands and price tags like their parents did. Same with the ’90s generation. They don’t really care what the older generation thinks — only listening to KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders, or influencers).”

As a result, “we have to evolve into a one-stop-shop, with pre- and post-purchase services,” he says of what the road ahead looks like for his company.

In other words, Simon smells opportunity.

A journey of learning and discovery

“Life is a journey about learning and discovering,” he says of his driving philosophy. “First you learn, and then you discover. If you don’t take steps to proactively learn, you can’t discover, and you’ll always be blinded by your preconceptions.”

“And what’s the best way to learn?” he muses. “By going back to school!”

In late 2014, by which time his effort to drive ASC’s growth from a 2-million yuan to a 1.5-billion yuan-per-year company was well underway, the thirst for learning led him back to Europe, and HEC Paris.

“At that stage, I needed to prove to myself that the work I had done in building up the company’s operational processes was sufficient that I could work and study at the same time,” he explains. “It was a litmus test for myself as a manager in how well I had trained my staff. After all, they say that a manager is only as effective as how the company performs when they aren’t physically there. Doing my EMBA and working at the same time was a good chance to find out.”

“One of the most important things I took away from [the luxury Specialization] that was that luxury brands are like religions. You need a coherent message to recruit a believer.”

For Simon, the EMBA was an opportunity to take a step back from the demanding responsibilities of his job and gain more insight into the things that he thought he already knew. The management concepts he learned during the program were of immediate use to him.

“The luxury course was eye-opening,” he says of the Specialization he chose, which would take him and his cohort-mates to Paris, Milan, Florence, and Shanghai. “One of the most important things I took away from that was that luxury brands are like religions. You need a coherent message to recruit a believer. How do you secure their loyalty, so they spend their disposable income with you?”

“I could relate that to the wine business. Wine is so much more than FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), because it’s a lifestyle, really. You can take anything from a 2-buck-chuck, entry-level wine, to a $20,000 Romanée-Conti: there’s a different, refined approach for each. To whom do you want to sell? How do you keep their support? How do you classify sectors? How do you keep them as customers? Those are some things that I learned.”

Mapping out the culture

He used those lessons to bolster the knowledge and experience he brought with him from his career’s first stanza. Hospitality had imbued him with a deep appreciation for the potentially consequential nuances required to slip seamlessly between cultures. The EMBA’s multicultural environment, with 50 nationalities represented, was an apt training ground for acquiring the tools necessary in culturally sensitive leadership and decision-making practices.

“Certain things that can be done in one country that are taboo in another. In China, for example, if you’re too direct in your constructive criticism of people, they’ll never talk to you again. This is known as the famous loss of face. In Japan, you may find that just because your contact is nodding their head in front of you, it doesn’t mean that they agree with what you’re saying. It’s simply an acknowledgement that you’re talking.”

As an alum

“People have this impression that China is a mysterious market,” he says. “It’s not. I offer the cultural and historical insight to try to explain that.”

Simon has since capitalized on his know-how, HEC’s network, and his ground-zero proximity to the rocket ship that is China’s consumer economy. Before COVID, he hosted annual dinners that marked a highlight HEC Alumni event in the Luxury Specialization’s annual pilgrimage to Shanghai.

“People have this impression that China is a mysterious market,” he says. “It’s not. I offer the cultural and historical insight to try to explain that.”

In a manner of speaking, he offers opportunity.

More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe, and nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris Executive MBA is ranked #1 in Europe and #3 in the world; click here to learn more. If you’re ready to take the next step in your EMBA journey, introduce yourself here