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Mina Choi Tenison

Yue-Sai Kan

Founder and CEO of House of Yue-Sai


Name: Yue-Sai Kan

Books: One World, The Complete Chinese Woman, The Chinese Gentleman, Yue-Sai’s Guide to Asian Beauty, Etiquette for the Modern Chinese, How To Be a Beautiful, Healthy and Successful Modern Woman

Position: Host of “Yue-Sai's World,” Founder of Yue-Sai Kan Cosmetics, proprietor of House of Yue Sai

Education: Brigham Young University

In her purse: Crocodile purse, makeup bag and makeup, Hermes business card holder, House of Yue-Sai notebook, Montblanc pen, Palm Treo


Dubbed the “queen of the Middle Kingdom” by Time magazine, Yue-Sai Kan is the ultimate Chinese businesswoman.

A best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning television producer, and a cosmetics queen, she has successfully bridged the East and West by using her name to create a unique brand and business empire.

Yue-Sai was born in China but moved to the US at the age of 16. She returned to China in 1986 and took the country by storm with “One World,” the first national show aired on CCTV focusing on the world outside of the Middle Kingdom.

Then in 1992 Yue-Sai created China's first ever cosmetics brand. By 1996, Yue-Sai Kan Cosmetics had become the number one brand in China, with sales in excess of USD 27 million and offices in 14 cities.

When L'Oréal came courting in 2004, Yue-Sai gave up her day-to-day involvement in YSK Cosmetics and entered yet another arena that has always interested her: lifestyle. Now her lifestyle television series, “Yue-Sai's World,” is nationally aired in China, and is the most-watched TV show on Shanghai TV's international channel. She has also written a number of books offering advice to both Chinese men and women on how to live a “modern lifestyle.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Yue-Sai has spent the last two years developing another business concept and late last year opened The House of Yue-Sai in downtown Shanghai, a new “lifestyle retail concept” that she believes will transform the Chinese home in the same way her cosmetics range transformed Chinese women. CIB sat down with Yue-Sai at her new store on Beijing West Road in Shanghai to discuss her new venture and just what it takes to be a sucessful businesswoman in China.


What made you come up with this new lifestyle and accessories business?

Well, I have 98% name recognition in a country that is notoriously difficult to penetrate. So I thought about how I could extend this valuable equity to other lines of business. I came up with the House of Yue-Sai because there is nothing [like it] here. [There’s] no Chinese lifestyle brand.


Can you tell us more about the concept behind The House of Yue-Sai?

What we’ve been trying to create here is a one-stop shop, so a buyer can walk in and furnish their entire house. . . What I wanted for the House of Yue-Sai is for the customer to buy anything they want and for it to offer a mixture of Western and Eastern themes.


You talk about bridging the gap between the West and the East. Do you feel more Chinese or American?

I am a Chinese woman so there is a lot of Chinese in me. I would say 30% of me is Chinese, but not more than that. Any more than that would make [my style] dreary and old, so I take the best of the Chinese traditional techniques and concepts and mix them with new themes and twists. I personally think if things are too Chinese, they will be boring. . . This year, I’m living full-time in China for the first time [since the age of 16.] I think you must get out of China so you can get inspiration from other places. However, China is a great place for business. I want to set the trend for lifestyle as I have done for the cosmetics industry.


Do you see yourself as a Chinese Martha Stewart?

You know, when I started doing television, people kept saying, ‘You're Oprah! You're the Barbara Walters of China!’ And then when I started the cosmetics business, they said, ‘You're Estée Lauder! You’re the Chanel of China!’ and now they are all saying, ‘You're the Martha Stewart of China!’ I have nothing against Martha Stewart, she’s really a brilliant woman, but I feel closer to Ralph Lauren because he has a whole range and a completeness to his collection.


You started as a journalist and media producer, and then became an entrepreneur. What do you think of when you look back on the past 20 years?

Being a journalist is very simple. If you are a journalist, you want to report a story in the most interesting way. Business is different. Every day, there are purchasing issues, manufacturing issues, sales issues, and tax issues, as well as interactions with customers. Every business has its own values. For example, I started a take-out business in New York City. It failed miserably because the execution was a failure. For a business to succeed, it's always about the execution. Then I started a Chinese doll business because there were no Chinese dolls. It didn't make a lot of money, but we had some sales and it became a niche business. I started YSK Cosmetics because the Vice Premier of China asked me to make an investment in China in the early ‘90s and I said ‘OK. I'll go into cosmetics,’ because I couldn't find cosmetics for Asian women 17 years ago. It was quite difficult. There was no cosmetics industry here and I couldn't even find manufacturers. I had to beg international cosmetics professionals to come and live in China when I started.


What made you sell YSK Cosmetics to L'Oréal?

We were courted by many different groups and we decided on L'Oréal. It was like seeing a handsome, rich, successful, extremely efficient and very worthwhile man that I could marry my daughter to. But it's still a marriage because I'm still alive. It's different for Chanel; she's dead. If I could limit my activities to just the creative arena, I would be very happy but unfortunately, I have to manage my own businesses.


Can you tell me some of the challenges of running a business in China?

One thing about Chinese staff is that if they see that something is not right, they don't do anything about it. And I ask them: how can you tolerate that? So it's difficult. The other problem is that it is very difficult to train the staff when they simply don't have the exposure to what ‘style’ or ‘lifestyle’ is. I have to try to instill in the staff the concepts that I take for granted.


What are the good aspects?

They are hungry and money-oriented and if you can show them why, they will work hard. Westerners talk about ‘quality of life,’ but they should look at how much the Chinese have to work to make money.


What are some of the lessons you've learnt in China?

You need connections in China. This country works on connections. If you're a foreigner, then you need people who will teach you the strange customs and mindset of the Chinese people. There are ways of doing things that are unacceptable to you that may be acceptable to others. So if you are Chinese, it is easier, but if you are a foreigner, you have to pay your dues.Whenever foreigners tell me they've been in a business in China for eight years [or more], I think it's about the right time for them [to finally] make a breakthrough.


Has it been hard to make it to the top as a woman?

No. Today, women are just as successful as men. I have girlfriends who own marble quarries, girlfriends who make tires, girlfriends in the construction business.


Do women and men have different business styles?

I think women are much more detail-oriented and process-oriented. That is sometimes a strength and sometimes a drawback. So a lot of bankers and publishers are women. Women also make great editors, but sometimes they can't see the big picture. I try to see the big picture. I have created the House of Yue-Sai in such a way that it can expand into many categories.


Are most of your customers women?

No. Half of them are men. When I was signing my book Chinese Gentleman, half of the people in line were women buying the book for their boyfriends or husbands. And vice-versa was true for the Modern Woman book. In fact, doing business with men is easy. They buy a lot in one-go.


Do you think being a powerful businesswoman is compatible with family life?

I'm single. There is nothing wrong with being single. I love being single and I love being on my own. I think it's difficult to have a husband and run a business. Some people are more brilliant and can [juggle] everything. But it's really hard to manage everything. I was married before and it's a choice. Some people stay in a miserable marriage forever, but marriage is like a business too. Unless you find freedom, faithfulness and reliability, why would you stay married?


Any last words for the 98% of people in China for whom the name Yue-Sai is synonymous with ‘success’?

I always did something because I felt that I could do something good for China. I have no regrets whatsoever. Every time I go into a new venture, I go in with my eyes open. If it fails, you learn something from it. Failure is never a failure. You can always learn something from it.

China International Business (CIB) - March 2008

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