Kevin Chiang, president of Ever Rich Duty Free, has brought a lot of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking to helping run the company his father built. From reinventing the company’s image and brand to appeal to a broader market, to spearheading CSR efforts, to leading his team through the significant challenges to the travel and tourism industry posed the COVID-19 pandemic, Chiang has continuously pushed the boundaries of what a duty-free company can do.
Chiang connected with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier in June to discuss his educational background, his experience with successfully upgrading a traditional retail company, and the ways in which Ever Rich has sought to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on its business.
You spent much of your youth in Canada and received your university degree in economics from the University of British Columbia. How did your experience studying abroad help shape your worldview?
The approach to education in Canada is totally different from what you see in Taiwan, where kids are taught to be obedient and studious at all times. The Western education I received instead taught me how to be more determined and learn about myself – what I like and don’t like. It really helped me build my character. It’s a much different type of cultural model for how to cultivate the next generation.
Before college, I had a lot of fun and was more carefree. Although I maintained a good GPA in high school, actually testing into university and making it to graduation was difficult. I had a lot of classmates who had a harder time than me and ended up taking six or seven years to get their degree. College was really the place where I learned about the hard work that’s required to start building a future.
You led an effort to upgrade Ever Rich’s corporate identity system. In what ways did the company’s branding or image change during this process?
When my father first started this business, there was not much focus on the customer experience aspect – designs, ideas, or presentation. It was more about basic commerce; they developed and trademarked a red-and-yellow “Duty Free” logo, and that was about it. Later, the travel retail business transformed into more of a premium gifting industry. There was an increase in demand for nice packaging and a recognizable brand identity in the duty-free business.
When I began working in the company’s corporate office, I received a lot of complaints from key customers – people of status like government officials and celebrities – who were hoping for a better logo that could represent Taiwan on gifts they buy at the airport. I brought up the idea of updating Ever Rich’s corporate identity with my managers at the time. They supported me and gave me full authority to remake the company’s image.
It was not an easy process. It included the whole package, both short-term and long-term planning, as well as looking at our identity from the point of view of our partners, our suppliers, and our customers. We really wanted to break out of the confines of being just a duty-free business, which is relatively similar across markets.
What are some of the unique aspects of Taiwan’s duty-free industry? How has Ever Rich found success in this market?
There isn’t anything particularly unique about Taiwan’s duty-free industry, but that is something that has pushed us to break the mold on what a duty-free business can do. For example, at Taoyuan International Airport, we have adopted a public-private partnership model, under which we are responsible not only for our duty-free business, but also for maintaining a number of the airport’s public facilities, such as bathrooms, shopping carts/trolleys, and some smoking areas. We also help organize several cultural activities, including calligraphy classes during Chinese New Year and summer camps for kids. The aim of these efforts is to better utilize the normally empty spaces in the airport and create something that’s memorable for travelers.
In addition, we are very much focused on the customer experience. We have the most airport-based service staff per customer of any market and have longer hours of operation as well. This means that our staff must be very capable and have good customer service and language skills. They need to be self-confident and passionate about Taiwan – and act as if they are “tourism ambassadors.”
Such an approach also means that customers are guaranteed personalized, one-on-one service, a feature of our business that has been very successful for us.
Last summer, Ever Rich completed a major renovation of the shopping and food and beverage areas of Taoyuan Airport’s Terminal 2. What was the process for undertaking this project and were there any difficulties involved?
It was indeed very difficult! While the building is not exactly that old, a lot of things were added to it over the past 25-30 years which were not recorded on paper. Renovating it therefore required a lot of guesswork.
For example, we often had to cut through or take down pipes and electrical wiring during the renovation process. Because there were no blueprints to reference, we usually went ahead with the work until one of the airlines or other businesses called and notified us that we’d cut off water or electricity to their part of the building. So there was a lot of testing and a lot of waiting, and we had to be very adventurous and very patient.
Also, thanks to the work we did, we were able to reorganize quite a bit of Terminal 2’s plumbing and electricity and developed a 3D mockup that the airport can use in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the travel and tourism industry, which includes duty-free businesses. How has Ever Rich worked to overcome the challenges caused by the decrease in international tourists?
I would say that we haven’t yet overcome all of the challenges, and we’re trying out a lot of new methods to get customer numbers back up. Our normal customers are not traveling internationally during this time, but there is still a demand for duty-free products or products that we are launching. The challenge is transitioning from a business based mostly on international travel and tourism to one focused more on the domestic market. This necessitates movement toward the internet and e-commerce, which is already a very competitive industry.
We are also launching products that are not usually sold duty-free. With the recent COVID-19 outbreak and Level 3 restrictions in Taiwan, we’ve tried to introduce more frozen foods to our product line, since people are stuck at home and are cooking more often. However, we’ve faced a problem with logistics. Transporting frozen foods is more expensive and there are fewer courier companies that have refrigerated trucks in their fleets. Given this, we have been unable to get as much value out of this business model as we wanted.
Nevertheless, we are constantly working to adapt to a changing situation, determining how we can better serve our customers with technology and increasing no-contact sales. I think this is a consideration most retail-oriented companies are making recently.
What do you regard as your main strengths as a manager? Do you have a certain philosophy of management that you follow?
My biggest strength is that my father is the founder and creator of the company! All joking aside, what that really means is that to prove myself capable, I have to take on a lot more responsibilities and approach the business from multiple different angles – long-term, short-term, from the point-of-view of the consumer and from that of corporate. To do these things well, I need to have a big heart and be dedicated to making the business run well.
In terms of a management philosophy, I simply believe in investing in people in order to create a better world for tomorrow.
You have been a champion of corporate social responsibility. Why is it important that companies adopt CSR values? Have you seen this concept catch on among your peers in Taiwan?
Ever Rich chose to adopt CSR principles not because it brings us any external value, but rather to introduce discipline to the company’s operations and to work toward the betterment of society on a consistent basis. We strive to embed these values in our DNA and make their integration into our business a real learning experience for us.
In addition, we have seen many of our peers in Taiwan take up this cause and have learned from their experiences as well. Thanks to them, we are now looking at expanding our CSR to cover more categories. We are learning a bit more and getting a bit better every day.
What is your favorite way to unwind after a long week at work?
Of course, I enjoy spending time with my wife and two young sons during the weekends, but I also need a bit of “me time” when I’m not at work. I really enjoy motorcycles – I have a Harley Davidson that I love riding – and have been getting into weightlifting as a way to stay in shape and clear my mind. Doing these activities releases some of my stress and helps me be more conscious and present at work and at home with family.