Forbes describes Supaluck Umpujh as Thailand’s “retailing queen”, who oversees The Mall Group, the country’s second-largest retail chain, with more than a dozen malls and department stores.

The family’s $1.6 billion (revenues) retail empire includes the hugely popular Siam Paragon mall and luxury-retail destination Em District. This features the EmQuartier, an office and shopping complex and the upcoming Emsphere, which will have a large arts and performance center. Her 6 siblings work with her.

Earlier this month, Supaluck spoke about innovation in the shopping center business at the Nikkei Global Management Forum in Tokyo, but her lessons can be applied to businesses and entrepreneurs around the world in every industry.

As a female entrepreneur, I’m always inspired by female business leaders and the advice they share – especially business women in Asia given the cultural challenges women tend to face in this part of the world. So, without further adieu, here’s my top 10 lessons from Supaluck’s keynote and panel session:

  • Don’t be afraid to be a complete novice: She started her university studies as a doctor, but was afraid of blood so changed to pharmaceutical engineering. Her father asked her to help with the family retail business in Bangkok, but neither of them had experience in the industry. To learn, she visited almost every big department store in the city – learning everything from scratch.
  • People might underestimate you because of your age: After learning enough about the Bangkok department stores, she turned her attention to Japan. She thought they had some of the best stores in the world, and travelled there at 23 to learn more about the retail business in the country. She looked like a teenage girl. One boss of a Japanese department store was surprised she was a female retail manager so young, but was very kind and generous to her in his advice. In the end she got to know Tokyo even better than Bangkok.
  • Embrace early failures and move forward: Supaluck opened her first mall in 1981 when she was still young and inexperienced. After two years, she had to close down. The merchandise, facilities, etc. was not up to scratch. She felt she couldn’t compete with other stores in the neighbourhood. She had to accept to herself total failure. Then she begged for a second chance from her suppliers, promising them she would make the next one a success. Her father taught her to fight, not be defeated.
  • Break new ground and do something original They want to be happy, have fun with friends and family, and be entertained while they shop”. Supaluck decided to build a department store based on these fundamental human needs. Her second mall included, for the first time ever, entertainment in a Thai mall: ice rink, theme park, water park, cinema, and more. It was no longer just a shopping mall – it became a kingdom of happiness. At the time, it was a huge revolution and pioneered the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
  • Gain confidence from your first big victory: After this initial victory, she gained the confidence to believe in herself, be determined and committed, and show innovation and creativity tied to a pioneering spirit. These are the driving factors that turned her mall group into an unparalleled success.
  • Stay focused on long term vision amidst short term setbacks: Next, she wanted to created a real luxury mall with all the big global brands. So, she launched her Emporium mall project. With this, she brought brands like Chanel to Thailand for the first time. It was in 1997, the same year as the Asian financial crisis. The Thai baht fell off a cliff. She suddenly had to deal with tenants in crisis.
  • Find opportunity in the midst of crisis: With the Thai baht falling, 7 million tourists to Thailand grew to 17 million in the space of a few years. This was a great opportunity for the Emporium to sale huge amounts, and it became a top tourist destination in Thailand. Locals and tourists alike flocked to the mall. The Emporium’s reputation grew internationally, which gave her the confidence to build her next project: Siam Paragon.
  • Attempt to do something truly world class: Siam Paragon was opened in 2005 by the Princess of Thailand and became a phenomenon, with over 1 million visitors on the opening day. It is still the number one tourist destination in Thailand after 13 years. It succeeded due to incredible innovation on the customer experience front. Everything was bigger, better, more sensational than Thailand had ever seen. Siam Paragon became the top Instagram destination in the world, ahead of Times Square, Disneyland, and the Eiffel Tower.
  • Expect the unexpected: After Siam Paragon, Supaluck wanted to move beyond single shopping malls and build an entire shopping district like she’d seen in the heart of Tokyo. Here people would be able to live, work, and enjoy a good live. This project became known as Emsphere, a 700,000 square metre area. Again, she looked to create something never before seen in Thailand. And this time, it was also a world first.
  • Change is inevitable: 35 years ago she started with her trip to Japan. In some ways, she has come full circle. She predicts the new era will be about the digital revolution: IoT, e-commerce, etc. Nobody knows what the future will hold, but she is not worried or scared. Rather, she is paranoid. She sees potential threats as opportunities.
Gina Heng

Gina Heng

Founder

Gina Heng, founder of Miss Kaya and entrepreneur, noticed that the existing financial management services available sounded too complex, filled with jargon and hence too dull.

It is time for a change given the role women play in today’s world professionally and otherwise. Miss Kaya’s mission is to empower women and allow them to achieve financial freedom and live the lifestyles they want.

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