She’s fashionable. But beneath the veneer of this delicate, almost fragile beauty is a resilient spirit with a drive and determination – one that has taken her to where she is today.
Meet Claire Chiang, director and general manager of Moet Hennessy Diageo. As boss of a liquor company in an industry dominated by men, she has led her firm with a distinctly feminine touch, sharing her vision with her managers and staff, and helping them transmit the message of the brands while curating experiences for clients and partners.
“I’m Taiwanese,” she tells D:Code proudly. “I’ve spent much of my career in Taiwan working with various multi-national corporations. This has meant I’ve worked with people from different countries and cultures, helping me understand people better and shaping the way I approach relationships. The combined experience has also made me look outward of my comfort zone.”
She spent a good 10 years working for US conglomerate 3M in Taiwan, before joining liquor company Diageo in 2013. She was there for two years before leaving to pursue her dream of working for Chanel, a fashion house she respects dearly.
“I moved to Chanel because, in a way, Chanel is many a woman’s dream brand,” she says. “But more than that, I had long adored Coco Chanel and what she stood for. Her first boutique was financed by her boyfriend, but what impressed me was that she repaid him after she had made her own money.
“Coco Chanel took advantage of every opportunity she had and had to overcome many traditions. I adored her so much that I felt I wanted to work for Chanel,” explains Claire.
The move to the fashion house also afforded her the opportunity to see how luxury brands operated.
“They do not compromise at all when it comes to their brand, paying attention to every fine detail, and it pushed me to the extreme in marketing the brand,” she says.
Then, in 2017, a call from her former boss at 3M took her to Singapore, a move she made because it was also her desire to explore what it would be like working outside of her native Taiwan.
“I had worked for a decade at 3M in Taiwan, and was familiar with the brand and the business,” she says. That made it very easy for her to make the switch.
That feminine touch
But when the opportunity at LVMH’s liquor supply arm, Moet Hennessy Diageo (MHD), came up 15 months ago, Claire seized the opportunity to return to the luxury business.
And while both Chanel and MHD trade in luxury, the culture of the two companies are, however, vastly different, says Claire.
“When I was at Chanel, my colleagues were female, my bosses were female, even my clients were female,” she says. “The liquor industry, on the other hand, is very masculine.”
And here’s where her feminine touch begins to be felt.
“Every time I move to a new company there would be the challenge of having to understand the various ways of working,” says Claire.
Sales performance remains paramount for the company, but Claire feels that it isn’t the thing that makes her happiest.
“At my age, I feel the greatest achievement, the one thing that gives me most fulfilment at work, is how I can help my team members to achieve their career goals. It is something that drives me now.
“I have a huge passion for the people in our company and their development, and how far they succeed is a measure of my accomplishment,” she says.
And it’s a new thing for her, she concedes.
“I used to be very aggressive, I had to be very sharp. I didn’t care about my colleagues’ feelings as I focused only on targets,” she says.
“After a few years, I realised – everyone is kiasu,” she says, using a very Singaporean term in the vernacular which means being overly competitive.
“Everyone wants to achieve a good result but whenever the staff cannot deliver results – like if there were an issue about the capability of the employee, the leaders or the bosses don’t want to listen to the problem. They simply insist they want to get things done.
“I know now that it is important, as a leader, to be a listener, to understand and to put yourself in the shoes of the employee and to help them overcome their issues,” she says.
“So far, I feel my team thinks I am quite understanding,” she says.
She feels that the liquor industry, which is a very competitive one, takes its toll on the sales staff.
“We are taking care of the day trade and the night trade as well. I really appreciate and respect the sales team. There are nights when they are out till as late as 2am or 3am, and they have to show up in the office at 10am the next day,” she says. “It’s not an easy trade – you need to have the passion as well as be able to enjoy the social life, or you won’t last long.”
The price has to be right
According to Claire, there could be as many as 10 or 20 new outlets opening each month, with the same number or more closing.
“We need to have the right vision to invest in the right outlets so we need to think one step ahead for our clients. We have to observe the consumer in order to have a better vision to see if an outlet can give us more opportunities,” she explains.
In the two years and more that she has been in Singapore, she has learned something peculiar about the Singaporean spender.
“Before I came to Singapore, I thought that, with the GDP being so high here, people should be able and willing to spend. But I have come to realise that Singaporeans are very price sensitive. This is something that you won’t understand if you did not live in Singapore.
“I think this is because Singaporeans are very sophisticated. It very easy for you guys to understand new things, and information is so easily available,” she says.
So it isn’t that they’re unwilling to spend; they just don’t want to be seen as being silly for not getting the best deal for an item.
“They want to show off – that they have the capability, the network, to get things at the best possible price,” says Claire.
“And this happens even among rich people – the richer they are, the more price sensitive they become,” she adds, allowing herself a grin. “It is very interesting learning.”
She has also observed that in Singapore, there are distinct generations of people who behave completely differently from one another.
According to her, among those 40 years old and above, there are two groups – one is very aggressive, with a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, and then there is the other half who would embrace the status quo, or if they are working, would follow whatever orders they are given by their bosses almost without argument.
Demanding youngsters of Singapore
The younger ones, she says, are a lot more demanding.
“They ask for too much. They don’t appear to have much gratitude. Maybe they have been too pampered by their parents,” she says. Singaporean youngsters are different from their Taiwanese counterparts, who don’t have it so easy, she adds.
“It’s because of the economy and the market. Taiwanese youngsters won’t quit so easily. But for the young people here in Singapore, it is so easy for them to get a job. If they don’t like a job they will just quit and spend some time to find themselves, or to take time to explore other options.”
She doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, though.
“They’re just different because of the way they were brought up,” she insists.
She also notices that there is a trend among Singaporeans to lean towards a luxury experience rather than luxury items like watches or branded goods, which is something that augurs well for MHD.
“They desire to live the elegant lifestyle, so this is something we can curate for these people. We have a very beautiful brand, we have a beautiful champagne, and here’s what I love so much about this industry – it combines science and art for luxury.
“If you plant a grape, you need to understand your soil, to make sure your grape can mature in the right time and in the right size so you really need to invest a lot in research and development, and that’s the science.
Claire says each bottle of Moet Chandon takes three years to put together – there’s a year to plant, a year to grow the grape and then another year to blend them all.
“It’s even longer with Dom Perignon, which takes up to 10 years. When you become aware of all that goes into the making of each bottle, you start to appreciate the value of every drop of this precious liquid. You will have to finish it,” explains Claire. And therein lies the art – of appreciation.
“For me, the most important thing is how to deliver this message of what this product is about, to tell the story of the making of this precious liquid. But the important thing first is for our own people – our staff – to understand and appreciate this wonderful product in their hands.
“So I spend a lot of time with our people. As leaders in the business we need to engage with the employees to get them to see this message so they can communicate it to the consumer.”
Customers are important, but her staff is her priority
While many businesses and companies look at the customer as a priority, Claire says that her focus is on her employees.
“I see the employee as the priority, otherwise you have no means of reaching your customer,” she says.
“I spend more time with the staff to make sure all the touch points are met so we can deliver our brand and our message to the consumer,” she explains. “You have to create an experience and let people feel it and love it, so that they can and want to be part of it.”
Before heading to the office every day, Claire would wake up early in the morning – at 6.30am – and spend time with her 10-year-old son before he leaves for school.
“I will have coffee while he has breakfast, and I’ll talk to him in the morning because at night, it is difficult for me to spend time with him because I’m usually home late. I will then walk him to where the school bus will pick him up.”
And then this 43-year-old mother would go on the activity that keeps her healthy and looking not a day older than 30.
Discipline is the key
“It’s something I’m proud of myself for – I run five days a week. No matter how late my previous night was, will run. Six to seven kilometres daily, more if I ate too much or drank too much,” she says. “I have been doing this since I was 30 years old,” she says. “So that’s 12 years now – the only year I took a break was when I was pregnant with my son,” she adds, smiling.
She takes part in marathons, too. She ran at the recent Standard Chartered Marathon, and in July this year, was at the Gold Coast Marathon. Next year, she plans to run in the Sydney Marathon.
“Every year, I will choose one city to run a marathon. I have done eight full marathons already,” she says. Usually, she would fly in for the weekend, complete her run and head home to Singapore.
The amazing thing is, she hates exercise.
“I hate it,” she says emphatically. “I am very lazy. If I can stay home I would but the reason I push myself to run is I want to stay healthy. I am quite driven. If I set myself a goal, I will push myself.”
That 40 minutes of her daily run are also her “me time” – she won’t use headphones or listen to music, it is a time for her to think of what she has to do for her day and to plan accordingly.
“I am really proud of myself for this in that I do not compromise.” Just like Chanel.
“I started running before I joined Chanel!” she points out, allowing herself a giggle.
Right. And aside from that, she loves travelling, and fashion.
“I love looking at different styles, it is something I truly enjoy,” she says.
A heart for relationships
Relationships are vital to her, too.
“I love talking to people. I am a bit motherly. I enjoy helping people to solve their personal issues or career issues. Even if I leave a company, my ex-colleagues will still come to me for advice about their lives, their future,” she says.
And she has plenty of friends.
“They come from different walks of lives, from various industries, and they are young and old. I cherish relationships. There are seven billion people on earth and we can’t know all of them, and I don’t want those I have loved and known to become lost in that crowd of billions. So we need to leave a mark and give positive energy to those we meet and love.”
You might find her hanging out in a place that’s laid-back: something chill, like a bar or a lounge, where she can talk to people and have more interaction, rather than in a club where you might be required to shout to hear each other. And what drink should you offer the boss of MHD, if you met her at such a bar?
“A red wine, or an Old Fashioned. In some ways, I am very classic,” she says. “And I will buy you a drink as well. I don’t feel a lady needs to be taken care of all the time. I feel good if I can take care of others, too.” Indeed. Just like her idol, Coco Chanel.
“A strong woman is raised by her environment,” she says. And the secret of her motivation?
“My son. He is my motivation to be stronger. In terms of career, I feel I need to become stronger and to mature into my role, and in doing so I can take care of my boy better.”
So whether she’s female, a mother, or simply a woman who knows what she wants, Claire has shown she’s well capable of not just surviving but thriving in the corporate sphere. And more than that, she sparkles in a man’s world – like a boss, and with plenty of grace, too.