Meet Richard Chang of Costco

Costco’s Senior Vice President of Asia Richard Chang is a well-known fixture of the international business community in Taiwan. A former college and professional basketball player, Chang emphasizes the important skills future leaders can develop from playing sports and focuses on the practical lessons young people can learn from their college experience and early career. Chang connected virtually with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier in September to talk about his unique approach to management, why he has found his experience working with Costco for nearly three decades so fulfilling, and how the company has found success in Asia despite the prevalence of other local international hypermarkets. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

What did you major in in college? Did your studies prepare you for your eventual career?

I majored in Political Economy, which is essentially a mix of economics, political science, and some business, with a real emphasis on the interdependence of countries and markets, as well as on how geopolitics affects the economy and business of different countries.

I don’t think that my major in particular prepared me for what I do today, but I do believe that college itself is good preparation for the real world. Learning how to be independent, to think critically, to communicate with different kinds of people, to set and pursue goals – these kinds of skills are essential. That’s what I try to communicate to young people nowadays. Of course, you want to do well in your classes. But it’s the skills you develop through the general university experience that I think are most important for moving ahead in life.

How have you applied the skills and mindset you developed as an athlete to the work you do in a corporate setting?

There’s not a day that goes by or an issue that arises that I don’t draw from my experience as an athlete to approach. All of those cliches that you’ve heard about sports and competition are true, and they apply to business as well. Working hard, training, getting better, stronger, faster – we do those things daily in business.

This is why I tell a lot of parents – especially in Taiwan – that if their son or daughter enjoys sports, they should let them explore that interest or passion. By engaging in those activities, they’re going to learn things about functioning in society that they won’t learn sitting in a classroom. Sports will also teach them about healthy competition and help them develop a competitive spirit, which will benefit them in their education and future careers. I also tell those parents that there’s nothing wrong with winning. If you are fair and work hard, you are entitled to win just like everybody else. So why not win?

I’ve written a book on this subject, called Coaching Yourself. In it, I talk about my journey from athlete to business leader and my career at Costco. It sums up my mantra of trying to be the best person I can be – to teach and mentor people, to lead by example. I use examples from my experience in the business world and tie it back to my time as a basketball player.

Costco’s business model has proven very successful in Taiwan and the other Asian markets where the company has a presence. What would you say is the secret behind this success?

The reason Costco has done well in Asia is the desire among Asian consumers for American products and, through the purchase of those products, to be a part of the “American culture.” Many of our customers have strong connections with the U.S. and when they walk into a Costco warehouse, they smell the fresh bread from the bakery, or buy one of the hot dogs we import from California at the food court, and it brings back good memories. It sets us apart from and gives us a competitive advantage over other hypermarkets and retailers in the region.

On a technical level, we operate at a very high standard. For example, during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 last year, we were rarely, if ever, out of stock of any item. We even air-freighted some things in during that time to ensure that we had the inventory. That is a big part of Costco’s company culture – we will do whatever it takes to ensure that our members are able to purchase their essential items and do not leave our warehouses disappointed.

In addition, we spend a lot of money on maintenance at our facilities; even those that have been operating for more than 20 years look brand new.

Lastly, we have a real dedication to our people, and you can see this in our single-digit turnover rate, which is very rare in retail. People like to work at Costco, and some have been there since the very beginning. They are not only treated as an important part of the team, they are also deeply vested in the company’s success. They have this unique sense of ownership that is not always a given in big corporations. 

What have been some of the highlights of your career with the company?

In terms of career achievements, I can give you two right off the bat. The first was opening our first warehouse in Taiwan in 1997, three years after I first arrived. That was a big milestone for me, a big accomplishment. Then, in 2019, I oversaw the opening of the first Costco in China, in Shanghai. At that point, I’d had more than 20 years’ experience in this company and had learned from the mistakes made during the first warehouse establishment. My team and I were therefore able to execute the Shanghai expansion with very few issues.

On a personal level, the most fulfilling highlight of my work with Costco has been seeing people in the organization grow and succeed. Several people who came in as entry-level employees are now directors of the company. Many have gotten married to each other, raised families, and greatly increased their quality of life over time. We have lots of these success stories, and that’s been extremely meaningful to me.

Do you have a particular management style or philosophy? What do you see as your strengths? Any weaknesses?

The way I manage my people is very similar to how a coach trains a team. Just like with players on a team, every employee’s role in the company is equally important. Even the bench players are equally if not more significant than the starters because they fill in for those star players when they’re needed most.

I also believe I can see people’s strengths and I allow people the room to use those strengths to support their colleagues who may not be so strong in those areas. That’s what being a team is all about. It takes everyone, both employees and management, to come together as a cohesive unit to compete against other brands or distribution channels. As a head of the company, I make sure that everybody is on the same page, that we’re maximizing our strengths while minimizing our weaknesses, and that we’re continuing to move forward. I think that’s really what differentiates me from other business leaders in Taiwan.

Of course, nobody’s perfect. I can be a little too straightforward, and I could be more patient at times. In the end, though, I think I’m a fair manager and I believe that people who work with me improve. That’s what a good coach does, and that’s what a good business leaders do: help their people become better.

Who would you say has had the biggest impact on you as a professional? What lessons did they teach you about doing business?

One of the most influential people in my early career was my immediate supervisor when I first started with the company in Taiwan. I was so new to the business at that time, and the learning curve was extremely steep. It was a tough, painful experience, but it got me to where I am now.

My manager now is very hands-off but has also put a lot of trust in me and treats me more like a partner than a subordinate. He respects my 28 years of experience at Costco and consults with me on projects and issues of great importance to the company, such as when we made our move into the China market. I feel like that is something that I’ve earned, but it’s also extremely important to me.

How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”

As a former athlete, I am still very disciplined in terms of exercising and being healthy. For example, my wife and I walk two and a half miles a day, and I try to get in the gym to lift weights as much as possible. I’ve also really gotten into swimming recently. If I can, I go swimming four to five days a week. Doing that makes me happy.

In the business world, we’re all going a million miles an hour, but COVID has really put things in perspective for a lot of people. Before the pandemic hit, I was traveling three weeks out of every month and then, all of a sudden, I was grounded in Taipei for 18 months. And so, I think one of the things I’ve learned during this time is to really savor the moment, because you never know what’s going to happen next.