The Life Interview With JuE Wong

The Life Interview with JuE Wong: She's the first Singaporean to head Elizabeth Arden

JuE Wong, the first Singaporean to head beauty brand Elizabeth Arden, learnt to lead with empathy the hard way

When kids mention their dream careers to their parents, they might name conventional occupations such as doctor, lawyer and teacher. Some, on the other hand, may speak of dreams of working with animals or becoming an astronaut.

For Ms JuE Wong - pronounced Ju-Ee - president of the global beauty brand, Elizabeth Arden, her aspiration as a 12-year-old was to make it in New York City, the city of dreams.

"I would tell my mother, as I sat around daydreaming, that one day, I will work in the Big Apple," the 49-year-old recalls with a laugh.

"I have no idea where I got that notion from or even if I knew what working in the Big Apple meant. But it's funny how things turned out in the end."

Even though I've lived most of my life outside Singapore now, this country will always be very special to me. I still visit every year and continue to hold my Singaporean citizenship to this day. My mother and brother both live here. I know that, at some point, I, too, will call Singapore home again.

MS JUE WONG on why despite living outside Singapore for so long, she still wants to move back here eventually

Today, with an office in New York City's swish Park Avenue and a home near Central Park, which she shares with her dog Gizmo, it is evident that she has very much arrived.

Just shy of her 50th birthday, the mother of a son, 23, and a daughter, 25, has already chalked up two chief executive positions on her resume for stints at the cult skincare brand StriVectin and the cosmetic firm Astral Health & Beauty.

And last August, with her appointment at Elizabeth Arden, she became the first Singaporean to take the reins of an international beauty brand.

The defining moments of her life, however, have not been the many highs in her professional journey, which has spanned three continents, including leadership positions that have broken glass ceilings in the male-dominated, C-suite world.

It is, in fact, a heart-rending loss - her husband's death from a heart attack in 2009, which she cites as having changed not only the course of her life, but also her perspective on work and family.

"I may have achieved many things in my life, but I could not have done any of them if it hadn't been for the support my husband provided me and our family over the years," she says.

Her husband took up a job that did not require much travelling to help take care of their two children while she was based overseas in places such as Bangkok and Hong Kong for work for long periods of time.

She says: "My husband had always been my anchor. His death made me rethink my priorities, but it also pushed me to persevere."

A key change for her since his death has been her leadership style. She says she now focuses on nurturing a new generation of business leaders and does so with empathy.

She says: "In the past, I think some of my employees might have described me as someone they respect, but not necessarily someone they like. And perhaps that stemmed from the fact that I had such a strong support system in my husband and family that I never stopped to consider why others could not make the same sacrifices I was making."

These days, even as she pushes her team to do well, she is also mindful of being encouraging and making sure she gives them enough space to breathe.

Indeed, it is in such moments during the interview, when she speaks about her husband and children, that her face softens.

The change may be subtle, but it underscores how when this lady boss has her game face on, she is not one to be messed with.

She may be of a petite stature and have girlish features framed by wispy bangs and long black hair, but there is something about her mannerisms that lends her an imposing air.

Her gaze is intense and her posture remains perfect throughout the 11/2-hour-long interview. Her speech, bearing traces of a Singapore accent, is thoughtful yet formidable.

The elder daughter of a civil servant father and mother who worked as a nurse, she and her younger brother, now a graphic designer with the National Gallery Singapore, were raised by her paternal grandmother while her parents worked.

"Both my parents worked hard so I grew up with these strong role models around me from an early age. I think it really framed my mindset that success has nothing to do with gender."

She had hoped to read law at the National University of Singapore, but the St Andrews Junior College graduate got accepted into the university's business course.

So she decided instead to apply to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra "to break out of my comfort zone".

While studying political science at university, she was also a student activist and championed for the school fees of overseas students not to be raised. She also spent a year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on exchange.

These experiences, she says, "made me realise how sometimes Singapore, as much as it is home, can feel a bit like a full-stop".

"My time in ANU and UCLA opened my eyes to the opportunities that were available overseas and made me realise how important it is to be at the right place at the right time," she says.

"I still use that as a benchmark for everything that I do today - it's not just about what you know, but how you apply yourself."

Winning underdog mindset

She joined the Singapore office of the international trading house Cargill in 1987 after graduating, spurred by the opportunity to travel and learn something new to her.

Her 71/2 years spent as a trader at Cargill took her to Hong Kong, London and Geneva. The experience kept her on her toes and taught her the ropes of business.

She says: "It got me well situated in a business setting and taught me that business is all about strategy, tactics and gunning for results."

It was at Cargill in Singapore that she met her late American husband, Mr Robert Fidler, who was eight years her senior and also a trader with the company at the time. They married in 1996 and moved to Arizona, her husband's hometown.

Ms Wong at that time had left Cargill and was working at Pepsi Co, where she had risen to become a director of its China counter-trade operations.

Her family's relocation to the United States, however, meant she had to commute frequently between the US and Asia.

She did this for 18 months before finally deciding to take up a brand manager position in the US instead with the American personal care and household cleaning products manufacturer, Dial Corporation.

The new job meant moving to a lower position, but she was not bothered by having to take a step back.

She says: "To me, it was a different industry and I wanted to prove myself. I didn't have a chip on my shoulder and expect to be promoted just because I had been a director at Pepsi Co.

"I've always been the sort to acknowledge that I don't know enough, need to find out more and then get ahead of the curve."

The move proved pivotal for her career. Dial had, at that time, just acquired Freeman Cosmetics and did not have any international markets for the brand, so she was tasked to grow the brand globally. This marked her foray into the world of beauty.

Four years later, in 2002, she moved to skincare brand Dr Murad and ran its international business.

Looking back, her move into the skincare business in the late 1990s, just as the industry started to take off, might seem like a calculated move. But hindsight is 20/20 and she considers that opportunity a lucky break instead.

She says: "At the time, I was in my mid-30s and, in many ways, it is also the time you begin to notice your first wrinkle and first sun spot. So while my move into skincare was one I was personally invested in, I was lucky in that the platform of cosmeceuticals was just emerging and it was one I really believed in."

Her success in the skincare industry can be measured by the number of leadership titles she has chalked up at successful brands such as Perricone MD, ZO Skin Health, Astral Health & Beauty and StriVectin.

But equally, it can be seen through her commitment to being a hands-on leader who is in touch with the ground and who wants to keep learning new things.

She did this while she was the CEO at StriVectin by setting aside six hours a month to work the sales floor to understand the challenges her staff faced.

Her gusto is perhaps why she is highly sought after in the beauty line. Her moves in the industry have all been the result of headhunting. She has never been in want of job offers since 2002.

StriVectin's chief financial and operating officer Cori Aleardi, who worked with Ms Wong for nearly four years, says: "JuE impressed us with her enthusiasm and tenacity. And as she progressed in her career, I saw her willingness to take people with her on these journeys, even if it meant slowing down just a bit to ensure they are aligned, learning and contributing to challenges."

Having now taken on the reins at Elizabeth Arden, which has seen four consecutive quarters of growth since she joined last August, she hopes to push her team to succeed the same way she did while at smaller skincare brands - by adopting an underdog mindset and staying hungry.

Indeed, she has her work cut out for her - to make the storied Elizabeth Arden brand relevant to a younger, digital generation.

She says the challenge initially gave her cold feet, but it was her son who convinced her to take the job.

"He was the one who told me, there will always be lots of start-ups you can grow, but there is only one Elizabeth Arden."

Of her new role, she says: "In this job, I feel like I'm a referee - looking at everything and everyone at the same time. But for me, it's always been about taking pride in my work and, in this position, I'm really excited to bring people along with me on the journey.

"At the end of the day, helping people is how you help yourself grow. People and relationships are what really matter in the end."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Beauty world boss'. Print Edition | Subscribe